Last autumn, more than 1,800 badgers lost their lives in Somerset and Gloucestershire in the name of bovine tuberculosis control. From the very beginning, Humane Society International/UK and our Team Badger colleagues warned that badgers would suffer and that the cull would be ineffective. Now the government-commissioned report by independent experts, who have studied the evidence, has shown our grave concerns to be justified.
The independent report, leaked to the BBC at the end of February, shows that a significant proportion of free-shot badgers took more than five minutes to die.
Additional analysis of compliance monitoring reports from Natural England (the statutory body responsible for issuing the licenses for badger culling) shows that, while the number of shootings they observed during the pilots was very low, nevertheless a third of those badgers were shot in the wrong part of the body such as the head or neck, some wounded animals needing to be shot a second time, in some cases after being pursued for five to ten minutes. These reports suggest that hundreds of badgers will have suffered considerably during the pilot culls.
The damning conclusions of the independent report are extremely important. The pilot culls were ostensibly set up to test whether the shooting of free-roaming badgers at night with shotguns and rifles would prove to be a humane, effective and safe way of reducing badger populations.
From the start Defra ministers have ignored animal welfare concerns, public opposition and overwhelming scientific evidence that culling badgers wouldn't help to prevent the spread of TB among cattle. While the cull was underway, Defra revised the badger population estimates downwards and extended the culling period well beyond the initial six weeks stipulated in the licenses.
The culls proved highly controversial and divisive, with members of the public turning out in force at rallies and at night in the cull zones to walk the footpaths, check the setts and provide assistance for any wounded badgers. More than 300,000 people signed Brian May's Stop the Badger Cull e-petition. Costs spiralled, with the total bill for each badger killed estimated to be in excess of £4,000.
Despite being given more time to kill more badgers, in the end the shooters failed to even get close to their kill target of 70%. In Gloucestershire they barely reached 40%, after shooting for more than 11 weeks.
Far from helping, most scientists agree that killing a smaller proportion of badgers over a longer period of time is likely to make things worse. This is because the remaining disturbed badgers roam more widely and the prevalence of TB in the badger population increases.
Let's not forget that culling badgers is also entirely unnecessary.
In Wales, annual testing of cattle, among other measures, was reintroduced in 2008. Since then, the number of 'reactor' cattle slaughtered each year has reduced by almost a half, without a single badger being killed. In England, similar measures are slowly being introduced, and while we are a few years behind Wales, we are already seeing rates of TB in cattle reducing.
In the 1960s, TB in cattle was brought under control using strict cattle testing regimes, movement restrictions and biosecurity measures. Over the intervening years these measures were slowly relaxed and abandoned altogether during cattle restocking after the BSE and Foot & Mouth Disease outbreaks of the 1990s and 2001 respectively. Reintroducing these stricter standards may be unpopular among some farmers who resist reform, but it is surely an appropriate way to bring cattle TB back under control while we await the introduction of effective cattle vaccines.
The obsession among some farmers and veterinarians with badger culling must end. Badger culling is inhumane, ineffective and unnecessary. The government, the British Veterinary Association, and farmers unions must recognise that the answer to the problem of bovine TB is within the industry's own hands. They must now abandon all notions of badger culling and focus on introducing and ensuring compliance with stricter cattle measures, and promoting vaccination of both badgers and cattle.
Only then will we have an effective policy we can all support.
Take action to help protect badgers -- Send a message to the Prime Minister: Kill the Cull, not the Badgers
Follow Mark Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hsiglobal
Executive Director for animal protection organisation Humane Society International/UK
First published at The Huffington Post