Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Badger cull plans for England being unveiled

15 September 2010

The government has set out plans to license farmers in England to shoot badgers on their land, with tens of thousands of animals potentially targeted.

The government believes the badger cull is necessary to curb tuberculosis in cattle.

Cattle TB cost the UK more than £100m last year.

But campaigners who successfully mounted a legal challenge against plans for a cull in Wales say the scientific evidence for culling does not stack up.

The European badger (Meles meles) is a protected species under European and British law, but ministers can sanction killing in certain circumstances, including to tackle diseases.

It is believed the government will change the instructions it gives to Natural England, the statutory agency that issues licences, in order that farmers can gain permission to kill badgers on the basis that they carry the bovine TB bacterium.

The previous Labour government concluded culling did not make scientific or economic sense, and instructed the agency not to issue licences for TB control.

Ministers in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, however, believe the latest scientific evidence changes the picture.

Agriculture Minister Jim Paice said before the election that the Conservatives favoured culling. Since coming into office he has several times pledged to make it happen, although his boss, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, has been more nuanced, promising only a strategy based on science.

Split vision

Whether science does back a cull or not is a hotly-disputed question.

Some of the scientists who performed the biggest ever investigation into culling - the UK's Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), also known as the "Krebs Trial" - maintain that it does not.

The Krebs Trial found that the incidence of TB fell in cattle herds inside the culling zone, but rose outside, probably because killing badgers disrupted the animals' social structures, making them range further and along less ordered trails in search of food and territory, bringing them into contact with more cattle.

The team concluded at that time that culling could not be an ingredient of an effective bovine TB control programme; and some of them, at least, say that is still the case.

However, other observers point out that in the four years since the Krebs trial concluded, the "perturbation effect" has fallen away while some benefit appears to persist inside the culled zone.

Two months ago, the Court of Appeal upheld an appeal by the Badger Trust against the Welsh Assembly Government's plans for a trial cull in Pembrokeshire.

One of the reasons for the judgement was that proponents expected the measure to produce only a 9% decline in TB in cattle, which the court ruled was not a "substantial reduction", as required by the Animal Health Act.

Defra is using different legislation, the Protection of Badgers Act. Even so, campaigners are expected to explore legal options if they do not think the law is being properly applied.

"The Badger Trust is monitoring things very closely and we hope [Defra] will take a considered view of the science that is overwhelmingly against culling," said Gwendolen Morgan of Bindmans solicitors, the organisation's legal advisor.

The government's consultation is expected to last for three months.
(Submitted by Dawn Holloway)

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