On Monday the government issued the first ever licence for the mass culling of badgers. It is intended to be the first of many licences, which are expected to result in the killing of 100,000 badgers, as a way of controlling bovine TB.
Badgers are known to carry bovine TB and the government hopes that culling them will reduce the incidence of the disease in cattle herds. However, as BBC News points out, Lord Krebs, the scientist whose work the government is relying on, has characterised the scheme as "crazy". He said:
I would go down the vaccination and biosecurity route rather than this crazy scheme that may deliver very small advantage, may deliver none. And it's very hard to see how Defra are going to collect the crucial data to assess whether it's worth going ahead with free shooting at all.
Lord Krebs is not the only critic of the government's scheme. Many animal welfare and wildlife campaigners are equally critical of the proposed culling of badgers. As the Guardian reports, the Humane Society International has lodged a complaint with the Council of Europe against the government under the Bern Convention, a treaty to protect wildlife. Mark Jones, its executive director, said:
In pursuing this nonsensical policy, the government appears to have scant regard for scientific evidence, animal welfare or wildlife protection, and is betraying farmers with a bloody and pointless slaughter that will not solve their problem.
The cull is also likely to face more direct action from animal rights activists, who have threatened to disrupt any attempts to kill badgers. They intend to prevent culling simply by being in the area and making noise.
All the critics of the culling emphasize that there is no scientific evidence that killing badgers will work. As Geoffrey Lean at the Daily Telegraph points out:
A nine year official study, which tried out killing badgers, concluded that it could not “meaningfully contribute” to the disease's “future control”. Indeed the study suggested that it might actually make things worse; it found that badgers, fleeing from the killing fields, spread TB more widely.
David Heath, the Minister responsible, defended the policy. He said:
Our priority has always been to ensure that any culling of badgers is carried out in a safe, humane and effective way.
The licence for Gloucestershire issued by Natural England today meets all the strict criteria we imposed, and the pilot in this area will help us assess the effectiveness of controlled shooting before we look at a wider roll out to control the spread of bovine TB in cattle.
No one wants to kill badgers but the science is clear that we will not get on top of this disease without tackling it in both wildlife and cattle.