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June 5, 2012

Eminent Zoologists Issue Warning Re: Badgers

Cull risks local eradication and breach of Bern Convention

Humane Society International/UK

  • Badger slaughter plans are flawed in so many ways. Dirk Freder/istock

Eminent scientists Christl Donnelly of Imperial College London and Rosie Woodroffe of the Institute of Zoology have published a stark warning in the journal Nature that it will be impossible for farmers to achieve DEFRA’s target of killing at least 70 percent of badgers without risking the total eradication of local populations.

Donnelly and Woodroffe explain that the UK government’s plans to license badger culling for the control of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, risk placing the UK in breach of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). This is because the significant statistical and technical challenges of estimating the proportion of badgers culled within a given area mean there is a high chance that licensed farmers will eradicate local badger populations completely in their efforts to achieve DEFRA’s target of killing at least 70 percent of badgers.

Badgers are listed in Appendix III of the Bern Convention and as such the government is committed to regulate any exploitation of badgers to keep populations ‘out of danger’. Earlier this year, Humane Society International/UK filed a formal complaint with Bern against the UK’s cull plans on three main grounds: it lacks legitimate purpose, poses a significant threat to local badger populations and because alternative strategies for controlling TB in cattle and badgers have not been sufficiently explored.

“DEFRA's plans to slaughter badgers are flawed in so many ways,” comments HSI/UK director Mark Jones. “Now, eminent scientific experts are confirming that there is no way the plans will be able to guarantee the extermination of at least 70 percent of the population within license areas, while maintaining viable populations to which the government is committed under the Bern convention. The government should abandon its catastrophic plans now, stop using badgers as scapegoats, and focus on cattle measures that will bring real and lasting solutions for farmers without decimating our wildlife.”

Uncertain population estimates

Minimum and maximum cull targets will be set for each licence by Natural England. However, these will be based on uncertain badger population estimates. Donnelly and Woodruff cite surveys in Gloucestershire, one of the pilot cull areas, that indicate a mean density of 3.3 badgers per square kilometre with substantial local variation and measurement uncertainty. Such is the level of uncertainty, they say, that a licensed slaughter of the 344 badgers needed to achieve the 70 percent target, could eradicate between 51-100 percent of the local badger population. If farmers kill too few, they risk increasing cattle TB but if they kill too many they risk breaching the Bern Convention.

Christl Donnelly is from the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling, Imperial College London, and Rosie Woodroffe is from the Institute of Zoology and a former member of the Independent Scientific Group that oversaw and analysed the results of the 10 year Randomised Badger Culling Trial, which was completed in 2007.

Their article Reduce Uncertainty in UK Badger Culling was published in Nature on 30 May 2012 and comes on the back of new scientific evidence suggesting that many TB carrier cattle may be missed by current testing methods, and that these cattle could be a major source of new TB outbreaks. The weight of scientific evidence against a mass slaughter of badgers is growing steadily and yet the UK government seems determined to ignore it.

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