9 Oct 2010

Coalition badgers killing policy set to hit farmers hard

Killing badgers is once again on the agenda and the only trial site in the country is in the Stroud District. You can sign a collection of petitions here to protest.

Pics: campaign in 2006 with me dressed as the badger

However the issue is more complex than those petitions suggest. Farmers have had the most horrendous time over this issue - and indeed dairy farmers amongst the worst hit by Tb and supermarkets squeezing them for every penny. All these issues I've covered before on this blog so wont repeat.

I have also long been involved in this issue with one of the local badger campaign groups. You can see more about their views here based on the views of local scientist Martin Hancox. As I've said before they warrant further investigation - but in addition to that I copy part of the Badgers Trust report you can download in full on their website: Cooking The Books About Badgers. The way the Government are distorting the science available is very disappointing indeed and worse still it looks set to land the farmers in an even worse mess. After that I give links to the latest Defra consultation.

As Defra Ministers line up for the Conservative Party Conference the Badger Trust says Mr James Paice’s consultation document omits this vital conclusion about the control of bovine TB: “First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others’ data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone”.

Worse, the (unsigned) covering letter to Defra’s chosen “consultees”, says without qualification: “The science is clear, there is no doubt that badgers are a reservoir of the disease and transmit TB to cattle. Without addressing the disease in badgers [i.e. killing them], we won’t be able to eradicate the disease in cattle”.

Red herring about economics

It is only in the last of eight annexes, 139 pages later, that Defra seeks to justify the omission of the vital conclusion from the consultation document itself. Annex G is a Q&A about control measures. At paragraph 21 it answers a question about the omission: “The ISG’s [Independent Scientific Group’s – the body overseeing the Randomised Badger Culling Trial] conclusion was based on the effects of badger culling on cattle TB as seen during the Randomised Badger culling Trial (RBCT), together with a cost benefit analysis. Ongoing analysis since the end of the trial demonstrates that the benefits of culling in the RBCT persist far beyond the culling period, which changes the economic case. In addition, the ISG’s economic analysis was based on the particular way the RBCT was carried out and funded, with the Government carrying out the culling. The ISG’s conclusion makes the assumption that any future culling policy would be funded in this way, which is not the case”.

The Badger Trust says, firstly, an economic case cannot be affected by who pays the bill or benefits from the outcome. As it is farmers are being encouraged, against their own interests, to pay for a hazardous and complex undertaking with at best an uncertain result.
Secondly, benefits are, according to the latest calculations published by Jenkins et al progressively diminishing.

Terms of reference tinkered with

Annex B, on scientific evidence on culling, refers to Sir David King’s 2007 review of the £50 million RBCT. Sir David, at the time the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, chaired a group that conducted a short “desktop review” with terms of reference limited to scientific issues, narrower than those that had applied to the RBCT. The group was asked to “make comment on the scientific issues . . . [and its] . . . brief did not extend to economic or other practical issues”.His report did not endorse the RBCT’s foremost conclusion that removal of badgers could not meaningfully contribute to the control of cattle TB in England.

The RBCT team disputed vigorously the King report saying the RBCT remit had been not only to test the effectiveness of badger culling as a means of controlling bovine TB, but also “to present Ministers with a range of scientifically-based policy options which will be technically, environmentally, socially and economically acceptable” (Bourne et al., 1998).

The RBCT team’s response to Sir David said: “Unfortunately, the complex relationship between badger abundance and cattle TB risks, as revealed by our work, means that economic [and] practical issues – which determine how, where, when, and on what scale badger culling might be conducted – are absolutely critical in determining whether culling would reduce or increase the incidence of cattle TB. By excluding consideration of such issues from Sir David King’s remit, Ministers severely hampered his ability to inform policy development”.

The Badger Trust emphasises that the major part of the Government’s present policy is indeed concerned with the economic and practical issues and the how, where, and when of culling as well as its scale. Exclusion of these questions has indeed meant Ministers were less well-informed on policy matters by the King report.

The scientists’ verdict

The Badger Trust also notes that on November 1 2007 an editorial in the international science journal Nature said of Sir David’s review: “It would be a good idea if the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is now responsible for the matter [of bovine tuberculosis eradication] based its policy on the unfettered advice offered by [the Independent Scientific Group overseeing the RBCT]. This would be deeply appreciated not just by the badgers, but by scientists in all spheres who choose to participate in painstaking advisory processes in the earnest belief that their advice will actually make a difference to government policy”.

The Badger Trust’s verdict

The extensive set of consultation documents, with their obfuscations of essential points, has been an exercise in cherry-picking to suit a deeply-held prejudice. The agricultural industry has been hoist with its own petard by trying to play politics over badger ‘culling’. To put it bluntly, the Government saw the farmers coming and in England now seeks to:
1. Get them off its back;
2. Make them organise the killing ; and
3. Land them with the massive bill.

In short, it is encouraging them to shoot themselves in the foot at their own expense, and the irony is, that this could well make matters worse.

There is clearly a need for as many people as possible to respond to the current DEFRA consultation on Badger Control Policy, even if just a brief note saying no to a cull. The consultation site is here.

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