The government’s bovine tuberculosis (bTB) strategy has allowed the culling of tens of thousands of badgers but neglected basic infection prevention on farms which is “severely hampering” efforts to control the disease, a major report has found.
Campaigners maintain that culling is ineffective as well as being costly and cruel, however an independent review of the scheme found the badger cull has had a “modest but real benefit” in reducing the disease.
However, the authors said that preventing the disease spreading between cattleon farms and in livestock trading was a more important way to control infection.
“If I had to say more one than the other it’s definitely more on the cattle to cattle side [than badger to cattle infection],” the review’s chair Sir Charles Godfray, professor of zoology at Oxford University, said.
“We realise that wildlife does have a role in this disease, but it’s wrong to put all the blame on wildlife and to use this as an excuse to not make hard decisions in industry, which is going to cost the industry money.”
Sir Charles said there was also an “urgent need for more evidence on the efficacy of vaccinations” to inoculate badgers. This approach is being used in cross-border efforts in Ireland, and the review panel called for government to adopt its own trials to develop the evidence.
While recognising the burden that bTB places on farmers and their families, the Bovine TB Strategy Review said there is “disappointingly low” uptake of basic biosecurity measures to limit its impact.
The report blames this on the backlash around badger culling which has had the “unfortunate consequence of … deflecting focus from what can be done by the individual farmer and livestock community”.
“In particular, the poor take up of on-farm biosecurity measures and the extent of trading in often high-risk cattle is, we believe, severely hampering disease control,” it said.
Other measures include keeping neighbouring herds separated to prevent the tuberculosis bacteria passing from nose to nose contact, and preventing badgers from getting on to farms, particularly around feed bins.
Recent evidence also raises the case for using a battery of tests on herds where bTB is suspected after research found a commonly used skin test is ineffective. It also highlights the spreading of manure slurry on fields which can increase the spread of bTB, and can be addressed with different treating methods or with more modern equipment to inject the slurry under the soil.
These efforts could have a greater impact on the spread of disease than culling, which the Badger Trust charity estimates could have killed as many as 75,000 badgers at a cost of “over £50m of public money”.
The review said the best evidence on the effect of culling remains the Randomised Badger Cull Trial (RBCT) that ran between 1998 and 2005 and suggests it can lower bTB incidence by around 15 per cent.
However Sir Charles said the group was “explicitly” told not to consider evidence from current culls that have been underway since 2013, although figures from Gloucestershire and Somerset were consistent with the RBCT.
The latest culls have incurred significant costs. The review says 32 culls have been authorised since 2013, at an average cost of £600,000 per site over a four year period – more than a third of this cost on policing.
The review’s publication comes a day after leading vets accused the government of “barefaced lies” in claiming these cull areas had already reduced bTB in cattle.
A letter published in the Vet Record journal argues data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is “unclear and deliberately opaque” and that bTB rates were falling before culling began.
The letter’s lead author, veterinary surgeon Dr Iain McGill of the Prion Interest Group, told the BBC there is now evidence bTB was rising in these areas, saying: “Badger culling has not worked. They are issuing barefaced lies in this matter.”
These concerns have been echoed by other campaigners.
“To date the government have spent over £50m of public money undertaking the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory,” said Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust.
“Despite this huge slaughter the government have no reliable evidence that badger culling is lowering bovine bTB in cattle.
He added: “Although Sir Charles does not call for an end to the cruel, hugely costly and ineffective badger cull, he does recognise that badger vaccination could be a viable alternative to culling.”
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA, said: “Our concern is that the focus on blaming badgers has stalled vital research and investment to find more effective solutions that would save the lives of cattle and move away from the current futile killing of badgers.”
National Farmer’s Union vice president Stuart Roberts said: “The industry has stepped up to work with government in tackling bovine bTB.
“Farmers are already taking a range of steps to protect themselves against this disease. The Godfray review suggests more can be done but the question many cattle keepers have is which measures bring the greatest disease control benefits.”
Defra has stood by its use of the figures and said it would respond to the Godfray report after it had reviewed its recommendations.
Farming minister George Eustice said: “As a government we are committed to eradicating bTB and have always been clear that there is no single measure for tackling it.
“That’s why we have pursued a range of interventions, including cattle movement controls, vaccinations and controlled culling in certain areas.”