Are we culling badgers needlessly?

Conservationists are concerned about how the badger cull is being implemented in Ireland – and many fear it’s a poor method of preventing bovine tuberculosis

Much research has been done on how badgers may transmit bTB to cattle, on the impacts of culling, and the effectiveness of the vaccine alternative. The outcomes are not definitive. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Much research has been done on how badgers may transmit bTB to cattle, on the impacts of culling, and the effectiveness of the vaccine alternative. The outcomes are not definitive. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

 

Few stories in the Irish environmental and agricultural worlds are as thorny and long running as the debate about culling badgers to limit the spread of bovine tuberculosis to our cattle.

It’s vital for our own health, and for our agricultural exports, that energetic efforts are made to eliminate the disease from the national herd. But some people think we should not be killing badgers at all. Others question how significant badgers really are in the transmission of bTB, as it’s known, to cattle. 

There is no doubt that bTB infection has substantially declined during the cull. Sixty per cent fewer cattle have tested positive for infection since 1999, but several factors are involved in this improvement, including a reduction in cattle-to-cattle transmission.  

There is broad consensus across the Department of Agriculture, the Irish Farmers Association and conservationists that capturing, vaccinating and releasing uninfected badgers would be preferable to the current practice of killing about 6,000 badgers a year. 

Badgers are a protected species, and as James O’Keeffe, Department of Agriculture wildlife officer and overseer of the cull since 2001, puts it: “We can get away with the current culling rate for a few more years, but it’s bound to impact on the viability of the national badger populations fairly soon. It’s simply not sustainable.”

But testing and rolling out the vaccine alternative has been painfully slow, for reasons that are not entirely clear. It was originally promised in 1991 and, according to O’Keeffe, we will have to continue waiting until at least 2018.  

Badgers were identified as hosts of bTB here in 1974. O’Keefe says that “informal” culling dates from the mid-1980s but that it became fully systematic only three years after his unit was set up, in 2001.

A great deal of research has been done on how badgers may transmit bTB to cattle, on the effects of culling, and on the effectiveness of the vaccine alternative. The issues raised are complex and technical, and the outcomes are not definitive.

A 2011 policy statement from the department, for example, offering an otherwise robust defence of the culling strategy, found “considerable” rather than compelling or conclusive evidence that badgers are responsible for the spread of bTB.

A 2015 survey of the overall strategy, by Simon J More of University College Dublin and Margaret Good of the Department of Agriculture, describes instances where a decline in cattle infection appears clearly correlated to badger culling but also to instances where culling appears to have had little or no impact.

Kill cost

Given that the overall strategy aimed at eliminating bTB has cost the taxpayer as much as €70 million a year, and now costs €40 million, and that the badger-cull element of that strategy costs €5.5 million a year, one might have hoped for a little more certainty by now.

Last summer the Irish Wildlife Trust raised another serious question about the cull. Although it is implemented by O’Keefe’s unit in the Department of Agriculture, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has responsibility for ensuring that it is carried out humanely and that all licensing conditions are complied with.

The trust and An Taisce have received extensive wildlife-service and Department of Agriculture correspondence under EU regulations. A trust statement quoted a number of emails from wildlife-service officials expressing acute concern about how the cull was being carried out in some areas.

One email reads: “I do not see any evidence in [ . . .] my dealings with DAFM” – Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine – “personnel that any attempt is made to ascertain population size and thus comply with . . . conditions.”

Another official complains that she gets no information from the department about culling in a large part of her area. A third official writes that “I am still not getting any advance notice in contravention . . . of the licence” in three midland counties.

A more senior official obviously shares these concerns, and indicates that the culling programme was licensed as “scientific research”. This suggests that the jury is still out on whether it is effective in limiting bTB as far as the wildlife service is concerned.

O’Keeffe initially told this reporter the the trust’s claims were “total rubbish”. The department “does not break any conditions of licences issued to it”, he said. He accepts that there might have been problems, but suggests that they were very limited, perhaps to one or two individuals. 

But The Irish Times has seen the entire correspondence released to the trust and An Taisce –  dozens of emails from 2012 to late 2015 – and it is clear that a number of wildlife-service officials, in diverse parts of the country, have had repeated and serious problems in their efforts to ensure compliance. It should also be said that at least one official reports a perfectly satisfactory relationship with his department counterparts.

Requests to interview senior wildlife-service officials about this correspondence were met with an unsigned statement from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the parent department of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It does not directly engage with the major concerns raised in the correspondence except to say that “this department has regular discussions with [the Department of Agriculture] relating to the licences issued by the department to capture badgers. New procedures were recently agreed that any issues identified by local NPWS staff would be brought to the attention of [the department] quickly in order to allow for immediate attention.”

Requests for a follow-up interview were met with the response that nobody was available.

In contrast O’Keefe speaks openly of his relationship with the wildlife service: “I meet Parks and Wildlife every year and report on the cull. Last spring, aware of the points being raised by the IWT, I told my NPWS colleagues that ‘if anyone has a problem, here is my phone number: I will meet anyone and discuss the issues.’ I have had no calls. If the NPWS won’t share their concerns with me, that’s not my problem.”

Brutal and barbaric

The reluctance of the wildlife service to talk publicly about sensitive issues has frequently been noted in the past. In a background document last summer the Irish Wildlife Trust said: “No criticism is intended of NPWS, who are compromised in doing their duty. This is a high-level political issue – where the Minister needs to be engaged and deliver on Ireland’s national and international obligations in respect of badgers, and lift the covers off this brutal and barbaric, ineffective and wasteful cull.”

Pádraic Fogarty, the trust’s campaigns officer, agrees that wildlife-service officials are usually exceptionally dedicated and hard working but are perhaps collectively hobbled by a culture that is often hostile to their responsibilities.

But isn’t the trust overstating the case when it describes the badger cull as “barbaric” and having “failed utterly”?  

“I stand over ‘barbaric’,”  says Fogarty, “when lactating females are culled while their cubs starve underground. And while you could argue that the trend in bTB is going in the right direction, it is still very far from its stated target, which is eradication of the disease.”

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