When I hear a Government Minister say ‘but the science is clear’, my alarm bells start to ring. Most Ministers know as much about science as I do about how my computer works. But this minister from DEFRA, David Heath, has a background in science – at least to some extent, being a qualified optician. So was there cause for concern with what he said to the BBC yesterday?
Yes. Because he is a politician and yes because he is keen to support his constituents in rural Somerset. Which has left him, despite all he knows about eyes, rather blinded to the real situation.
There have been BIG scientific surveys – and the most recent one (the Randomised Badger Control Trial) concluded that, “It is highly unlikely that reactive culling – as practised in the RBCT – could contribute other than negatively to future TB control strategies” and that “Proactive culling – as practised in the RBCT – is unlikely to contribute effectively to the future control of cattle TB.”
The trials did find that, locally, a 70% effective cull lasting for four years might lead to a 16% reduction in the incidence of bovine TB. Farmers are arguing that this is enough to warrant the expense of a cull.
But I wonder whether there is a subtext? Currently it is difficult for farmers to get rid of badgers – after all, they are an awful nuisance – making holes and possibly spreading disease. Dead badgers are difficult to dispose of – and can lead to prosecutions in rare moments. My wonderful badger-man from The Beauty in the Beast, Gareth Morgan, told me of the awful things that were being done to the badgers while under full protection. How their setts would have slurry pumped into them; how poisoned food would be left for them; how many of the road casualties he saw were rather suspicious – either due to the unsubtle presence of lead shot, or because they were in the wrong place (badgers are creatures of habits and are usually killed on roads at regular crossing points).
When killing badgers becomes acceptable again there will be an inevitable change in the how people react. No longer will it be a shock – it will be the norm. And as the slaughter of wildlife becomes normalised so the massive amount of work done over the last few decades to protect wildlife will unravel.
But back to the science. What David Heath and his masters miss is that for the cull to be effective locally, there needs to be a 70% reduction in the badger population for four years. We do not know how many badgers there are to start with. This is one of the very first lessons anyone looking at wildlife management has to learn – you cannot control a population the size of which you do not know.
And by the time a proper survey has been completed, the vaccines will be ready and we won’t need to engage in wildlife warfare.
This is a cause for which direct action seems appropriate – and there are people out there willing to ensure that badgers are saved. But they should be aware that the Gloucestershire Constabulary has already made it clear that those attempting to stop the slaughter of badgers could be arrest for … … ‘disturbing badgers’.
One thing that can be said for the Government, while they may be losing a grip on science, they have not lost their sense of humour!
As a post script I must add, I am not the world’s greatest badger fan – for those of you who have read A Prickly Affair, you will realise that they sometimes have a rather poor relationship with hedgehogs (from the perspective of the hedgehog that is) … this relationship is complicated – and the BHPS and the PTES are currently funding a PhD that might help unravel what is going on and possibly enable us to find a way of helping to re-establish more of a balance in nature.