The UK is continuing its massacre of badgers for at least the next five years. The optics of the mass killing plan are terrible for a government that is attempting to position itself as a biodiversity champion. But, more importantly, what is the controversial and years-long slaughter doing to UK badger populations and the ecosystems they are part of?
This is one of the issues The Canary discussed with ecologist Tom Langton and veterinarian Iain McGill in wide-ranging conversations about the ongoing policy. Both experts have consistently opposed the slaughter on scientific, ecological, and ethical grounds.
The government began the badger killing policy – or ‘culling’ – in 2013. Over 140,000 badgers have died as a result of it so far. The government claims the massacre of the protected species is necessary because badgers transmit tuberculosis (TB) to cows. But the policy is not only deeply unpopular, many argue it’s based on cherry-picked science and flawed claims. The evidence appears to back up those arguments.
Langton has brought a legal case against the government over the killing. It will challenge how “allowing the mass destruction of a protected species to enable intensive livestock production… fits within governments wider statutory duty” to have regard to conserving biodiversity. That duty is detailed in the 2006 Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act.
A mindset unfit for our times
The idea that killing wildlife is an acceptable solution to issues isn’t new or uncommon. But with the UN warning that the destruction of nature and ecosystems poses an existential threat to human civilisation, it’s increasingly becoming an ‘answer’ that’s unfit for our times.
Indeed, McGill told The Canary that proponents of the cull are:
out of step with society, they’re out of step with a world where biodiversity is shrinking. They’re just very out of step with culture and what the right thing to do is.
The government’s rhetoric of late suggests it’s taken note of this disconnect. It’s announced policy changes that environment secretary George Eustice says will allow it to “start to phase out badger culling as soon as possible”.
McGill explained what the ‘phasing out’ means in practice:
they’re not really phasing it out, they’re expanding it massively before they phase it out.
He said the government is adding another 10 or 11 intensive culling areas this year, and a further 10 or 11 in 2022. Intensive cull licences last for four years, so they will enable the continuing mass slaughter of badgers up to 2026. The Badger Trust estimates that the government’s plan will cost a further 140,000 badgers their lives.
Langton, meanwhile, highlighted what the government’s plan is for after 2026. The ecologist says the government is proposing an “expansion of the policy” on a local level, whereby “100% of badgers” could be targeted in smaller designated cull areas. He warned:
We could end up with just as many badgers being killed, via either a general licence for the whole of England… so instead of 50 large culls, we could have say 500 farm clusters given a licence to eradicate badgers.
In its strategy, the government outlines that it will draw up a “new policy of culling” moving forward. It says that “vaccination in badgers and surveillance would first have to be carried out before reverting to culling”. The strategy says culling that took place in East Cumbria will, in part, “be the basis” for the future culling policy. There was no maximum limit on the amount of badgers East Cumbria could kill in its cull. Langton says that the plan there was to “remove them completely and that is what they did”. He called it “badger scorched earth”.
Not what it says on the tin
The ecologist concluded that the plan going forward:
doesn’t really do what it says on the tin. The policy messaging has all been about phasing out culling, but in fact it’s not. It’s just a rebranding, a rehashing, of the original policy which is to see badgers reduced in number across much of the country by 70%.
Figures from a 2017 study suggest the culling policy so far may have knocked out around a third of England’s badger population. The plan for the next five years could remove a further third.
McGill said that the scale of destruction means that it’s likely “local extinctions will happen” for badgers in parts of England, mostly where they have faced intensive culling. The government claims that:
Culling activities are strictly licenced and monitored closely to ensure badger populations remain viable in culling areas
Badgers are the UK’s largest land predator. As such, they play a key role in the ecosystems in which they live. A 2011 evaluation by the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), now called Fera Science, warned that ecosystems could face direct and indirect impacts from “badger control”. It found that direct impacts, such as the disturbance or accidental killing of other species during culling operations, could:
have significant negative impacts on either individual species, assemblages of species and/or designated sites
In terms of indirect impacts, it said “Manipulating carnivore populations” could have “significant effects on the structure of ecological communities” and “wider knock‐on consequences for the ecology of other species and communities”.
McGill explained that removing badgers:
causes something called mesopredator release, where the other predators can move into the area where badgers would have been controlling those things… stoats, weasels, foxes, can increase.
He said that this, in turn, could “have an impact” on ground-nesting birds, hedgehogs numbers and more. McGill emphasised that “you don’t know what’s going to move in and change”, but asserted:
It’s a very stupid thing to do if you’re trying to conserve biodiversity. It’s just a crass hooliganism. It’s environmental hooliganism.
The Canary contacted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for comment. A spokesperson said:
Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that the UK faces today, causing considerable trauma for farmers and costing taxpayers over £100 million every year.
The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease but no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely. That is why we are now building on this progress by accelerating other elements of our strategy, including cattle vaccination and improved testing so that we can eradicate this insidious disease and start to phase out badger culling as soon as possible.
Forging ahead regardless
Langton also stressed that there are lots of unknowns in relation to the potential ecological impacts. He told The Canary that the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) recommended further study for there to be any level of certainty on the ecological consequences of killing badgers. The RBCT was a 10-year-long assessment of the impact of culling badgers on TB levels in cows.
The Godfray review, a government-sponsored review of the cull, also called for further ecological studies into the impact of reducing badger numbers due to their ‘key role’ in ecosystems.
That essentially means that widespread badger killing has been taking place for eight years without the government knowing for sure how its actions will impact affected species and ecosystems. Indeed, in a prior legal case he mounted, Langton said the judge ruled that Natural England (NE) had breached its statutory duty by not taking “steps to look for potential [ecological] effects” of the cull.
National England’s capacity
That case prompted NE to produce guidance on “evaluating the ecological consequences of culling” on certain sites. Langton said NE also committed to undertaking impact assessments. Indeed, the body did produce a monitoring report in conjunction with the British Trust for Ornithology in 2018. However, it hasn’t made that report public.
Langton has called for a pause in the killing until NE has “designed, tested and [put] in place” a “robust system” to monitor its impact on sites and species. NE might, however, not have the capacity for such a system. In itself, that calls the government’s commitments to biodiversity protection – and adherence to legal obligations – into question.
As Langton told The Canary, Tony Juniper, the chair of NE, warned the public and government in 2020 that it lacked the ability to properly monitor protected sites due to funding cuts. A 2018 House of Lords report highlighted that NE appeared to have faced “a budget cut of over 44% in an 11-year period” by that year. The Landscape Institute, meanwhile, said that:
the status of Natural England has been incrementally diminished, so that it struggles to impose essential constraints on developments that will inevitably give rise to environmental damage.
Wildlife isn’t the problem
Although research into the ecological impacts of killing badgers is severely lacking, the RBCT did flag an inconvenient fact for the government related to biodiversity in its findings. Langton said that the trial’s studies of ground nesting birds showed that:
never mind the badgers or the foxes, it was the overstocked cattle that are destroying the nests. They were treading on them, eating them, and actually the conservation problem is the cattle. They’re far too dense, there’s far too many of them now and that’s one reason why rural birds are declining.
Many have long argued that the answer to TB control lies in changes to the farming industry. Clearly, changes to farming aren’t only key to eradicating TB in cows, though. They’re also essential for reversing the UK’s catastrophic biodiversity loss and tackling the climate crisis. Last, but certainly not least, changes are necessary to ensure better lives for farmed animals. As a Guardian article highlighted, they face “systematic cruelty”, with female dairy cows in particular trapped in a “cycle of hell”.
“We defend the animal”
McGill says that there needs to be “a total change in the way we’re farming”. He argues that Defra needs to start looking at issues “in the round”, with an “aim that isn’t just industry”. Instead, it should base policy on the health and welfare of wild and farmed animals, “the whole environment itself”, public health and public opinion, as well as the needs of industry.
McGill says that in farming:
We need to go back to looking at the animal as the starting point. The veterinary profession has a key role to play here by saying: ‘well, we defend the animal, and its health, and its welfare, and its right to exist as a creature, which is sentient’. Then it all flows from that. That’s what’s been forgotten in our headlong rush for cheap food.
In short, these experts argue that there was – and is – a path to a TB-free future for cows without the mass slaughter of badgers and any associated ecological carnage. But the Conservative government charged head first down the lethal route. McGill summed the situation up, saying:
It beggars belief really that this is the 21st Century and they’re getting away with it.
It does indeed beggar belief, not least because the government made its choice amid a biodiversity emergency and in one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
Featured image via caroline legg / Flickr