England’s Killing Fields (Part 3)

Badgers by Numbers

“Come on, old Badger!” shouted the Rat.  The Badger trotted forward a pace or two: then grunted, “H’m! Company,” and turned his back and disappeared from view.

— Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows

It became clear during October just how badly planned Defra’s badger culls were.  Any reports of things going wrong were so quickly and inaccurately denied as to appear both defensive and silly.  The case of the badger found by a wounded badger patrol comes to mind.  Having claimed the cull was to test whether free-running badgers could be killed humanely – which means instantly with a single shot – Defra denied the badger was part of their cull, because “All badgers killed as part of the pilot culls have been shot cleanly and killed instantly.”

If one studies the figures, the process was not so much badly planned, as planned to over-ride both science and figures, so keen are some people to blame bovine TB solely on the badgers.  Once reports of the low numbers surfaced, excuses, justifications and illogical statements filled the media.  But Defra’s numbers had been dodgy from the start; not just the various “estimates” given for badger populations but how those figures were manipulated.  So – let’s play Defra’s number game.

Last year the proposed culls got delayed because there were more badgers than had previously been thought. In fact a census showed that there could be twice the number. As farmers were paying for this exercise, they said they could not afford to fund the increased work. The figures that were then given for the 2013 Somerset and Gloucestershire culls are as follows:

        W.Somerset         W.Gloucestershire

  Est. min badger population             1972                  2657

  Est. max badger population            2973                  4079

  No. of badgers to be culled (min)    2081                  2856

  No. of badgers to be culled (max)   2162                  2932

And here, if you do your sums, you find Defra’s first con trick.(Note: figures are rounded up or down; and while I’ll only use the Somerset figures, the same sums apply to Gloucestershire.)

In both cull areas the minimum number of badgers to be culled is based on the estimated maximum population. Somerset’s estimated average population is 2472 (Defra uses the figure of 2400).  If you based the cull target of 70% on the estimated average W. Somerset population, that target would decrease from 2081 to 1730.  But Defra kept the target at 2081.  The only conclusion to draw is that they were already planning to kill more than 70% of the badgers.  But even that lower figure was beyond the guns.

Two weeks into the cull they were struggling.  Fewer than 100 badgers had apparently been killed in the first ten days when they should have killed 500.  While Defra said that the cull was to test whether shooting free-running badgers could be done “humanely”, cull operators were still asked to kill 70% of the badgers within the cull area, in order to “reduce TB in cattle”.  This figure was based on the 10-year study overseen by Lord Kreb, which found: 1) unless you kill 70% of the badger population, fleeing badgers could cause outbreaks elsewhere; and 2) killing that amount could cause a 25% drop in the incidence of TB in the centre of the area, down to 16% on the edge.  Except that, as Somerset County Councillor Mike Rigby pointed out, the 16% drop is not a drop in real terms (overall incidence of disease) but a 16% reduction in the trend increase (the amount by which the disease is increasing).

But who cares for such pettifogging details?  Certainly not Defra, which is intent on citing any useful if inaccurate figure to support its cull.  Where the guns are concerned, “kill 70%” is a nice simple instruction, and one they were only too happy to fulfil.  And they failed.  With the official ending of the 6-week cull on October 8, we were told that only 850 badgers had been killed – 40% of the required 2081 for the pilot cull to be judged a success (Defra having already decided, with no independent monitoring or inspection, that all the badgers had been killed ‘humanely’). Two things happened.  The cull operators asked for extra time (now granted) to kill more badgers.  And Defra, with Owen Paterson’s foot-in-mouth at its head, scrambled to fiddle the figures.

It was announced that there has been an “overestimate of badger numbers” and the latest estimated population study which produced this lower figure, and which few people knew was going on, had only just finished.  Why, some asked, carry out the cull before getting the latest figures?  In Gloucester some form of count had taken place before the cull, based on “hair trapping”.

Defra ignored or forgot last year’s ‘underestimate’; others gleefully reminded them.  Defra revised the estimate down to 1450, a mere 60% of the original figure of 2400.  Official statements boiled down to: “So you see, we really haven’t done as badly as all that, because really the guns managed to kill nearly 60% of the revised target, so we can let them have a little extra time to finish the job” etc.

Badger setts commonly hold 8-10 badgers, often more.  Certainly, when observing the sett closest to my home, just half an hour’s watching would reward me with the sight of 8 or 9.  The minimum for a sett appears to be 5.  Pilot cull areas must be at least 150 square kilometres in area and license-holders must have access to at least 70% of the total licensed area for culling.  The West Somerset area covers 250 square kilometres.  Defra’s revised figures would mean a badger population of under 6 badgers or just one under-populated sett per square kilometre.

The total cull area of say, 25 kilometres by 10, would necessarily include some villages or even a town.  So why has Defra stipulated “70% of the licensed cull area”?  Surely that means that if you only cull in 70% of the area but kill all of the badgers there, you can then claim to have killed 70% of the badgers, regardless of whether the remaining 30% of land has an average badger population or indeed, any badgers at all.  Another little sleight of hand by Defra?

The drop in figures makes no sense.  The South West is very much ‘badger country’.  They like our woods, banks and fields.  I can think of three active badger setts within a short walk from my house.  Had the guns overestimated their ability to shoot free-running badgers in the dark?  Had they truly overestimated the figures?  Or had people been doing some illegal culling prior to the official cull?  Apparently so; news appeared that there was indeed some evidence of illegal gassing.  Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, always one to speak ill-advisably, said there are a number of reasons behind the decline in numbers, including “the impact of last winter’s bad weather, disease and lack of food”.

What “bad weather”?  The Met Office summary of last winter’s weather showed that, country-wide, the temperature was a mere 0.4 C below the long term average, with spells of both cold and mild weather; it was marginally wetter than average, with some flooding in December; and there was widespread snow in January followed by a rapid thaw and more rain, causing more localised flooding,  As these are the months when badgers spend much of their time underground, I really don’t think they would have been that affected by what was a pretty average winter.

What “disease”?  I’ve seen no reports on diseased badgers for last winter, and certainly the badgers who visit my very rural garden show no signs of ill-health.  The largest recent testing of badgers for TB undertaken during the Randomised Badger Cull trials, confirmed that only around 1% had extensive signs of the disease.  And none of the badgers killed in the current culls will be tested for TB.  One would have thought Defra would be keen to prove their point that diseased badgers in West Somerset were responsible for creating a bovine TB hot spot.  Perhaps they are afraid it would prove the opposite.  Where other diseases are concerned, according to Wildlife Web badgers are also “susceptible to lungworm infestations. However, badgers are generally robust animals and most likely will die from old age” (or from being run over).

What “lack of food”?  Badgers are the least likely of our wild animals to suffer from that.  They are omnivores, and while they prefer to dig up earthworms (as my poor excuse for a lawn testifies), they will also eat small rodents and birds, beetles, grubs, eggs, cereals, fruit and fungi.  For badgers there are always alternatives, and if they were ever suffering from lack of food then, believe me, much else of our wildlife would be starving.  And with such a choice, particularly in the autumn months, they can feed very well before retiring underground for the worst of the winter weather.

The average estimated UK badger population is 254,000.  If, due to “disease, last winter’s bad weather and lack of food” we had to cut that estimate by 40%, the total population would currently be around 152,400.  As I pointed out in Part 2, between 40-50,000 die annually from traffic accidents (accounting for more than half of all badger deaths according to the RSPCA) and around 10,000 from forms of badger baiting, plus all the other unnatural deaths they suffer, as well as dying from disease and simple old age.

One has to ask – with all the damage they suffer from man’s activities why aren’t badgers, which have lived very successfully in this country for at least 250,000 years, now totally extinct?  And how could such a small and threatened population cause so much bovine TB among 9.7 million cattle?

Most people don’t believe Defra’s revised figures, with the result that Paterson and Defra both were accused of moving the goalposts.  To everyone’s delight Paterson, foot firmly in mouth again, insisted it was the badgers which had moved the goalposts because “You are dealing with a wild animal, subject to the vagaries of weather, disease and breeding patterns.”  A 40% drop in population is some vagary.  He repeated this justification in Parliament on October 10 when, challenged about his “goalpost” remark he also said, “I can report to the House that some of the animals we have shot have been desperately sick – in the final stages of diseasewhich is why we are completely determined to see the pilot culls through…”)

How did he know the animals were diseased?  Had they been autopsied by an independent and fully qualified vet?  Had he simply taken the cull operators’ word for it?  What did he mean by “in the final stages of disease”?  What disease, TB – or lungworm infestation?  As only about 5% of the total killed were being examined for “cleanness of kill” by the people who had shot them, no vets would be involved.  So who was producing this evidence of disease for Paterson?

Or was he just making it up?  For, as I wrote in Part 1, Mike Rigby had been firmly told by Defra that none of the killed badgers would be tested for bovine TB, not one.  Had they changed their policy?  I asked Defra to confirm what Paterson’s Special Advisor Guy Robinson had told Mr Rigby: that none of the culled badgers would be tested for TB.  Absolutely correct, I was told, Defra will not test any of the badgers for TB.

Even a quick glance at the figures produced by Defra, the NFU and badger-killing enthusiasts like Owen Paterson does not convince me of the ‘scientific’ reasons for culling badgers.  A more thorough study not only tells me that many of the ‘estimates’ have been pulled out of the air, but that people like Paterson know very little indeed about our wonderful British wildlife.  In fact, I wonder how much experience of the natural environment and its ecology those working for Defra (and Natural England – responsible for granting the culling licenses) have.  Very little I fear.  Badgers and other inhabitants of our countryside are just numbers to be manipulated.  Or shot, of course.

The only reason I can see for dropping the target figures and calling this appalling exercise a ‘success’ is that Paterson has publicly declared that, if the pilot culls are a success, he will roll them out across the country, 10 new ones per year.  And given one of Paterson’s other enthusiasms that he wants rolled out across the country, we can look forward to thousands of protesters, marksmen and security guards stumbling around between badger setts and shale gas fracking sites.

Paterson and his ilk don’t want to get rid of TB – there are better and proven ways of doing that.  They simply like killing.

• First published by The Ecologist.

Lesley is a lover of animals, campaigns and writes on war/peace, climate change and the environment. She is the former editor of Abolish War. Read other articles by Lesley.