Cost of culling – another reason to change tack on badgers and bTB

This blog post originally appeared on The Wildlife Trusts’ blog. Paul Wilkinson breaks down the costs of the pilot badger culls.

Badger copyright Darin Smith
Badger copyright Darin Smith

The Government has at last put an official price tag on last year’s badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire. Paul Wilkinson looks at the figures.

Today, the official costs of the 2013 pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire were published in The Daily Telegraph.

It cost the tax payer almost £6.3 million to kill 1,879 badgers across 500 km2, which works out at more than £3,350 per badger (or £12,600 per km2). When you add in the additional cost of policing the culls, confirmed as just under £3.5 million by the Policing Minister Damian Green, the price is closer to £5,215 per dead badger (£19,600 per km2).

So, in addition to failing to meet targets for effectiveness and humaneness, the culls were also massively over budget (Defra’s own estimates ranged from £300 per km2 for controlled shooting, to £2,500 per km2 for culling using cage trapping) and far more costly than vaccination – an approach consistently criticised for being too expensive and impractical.

In fact, the culls were more than seven times more expensive (per badger) than the Welsh Government’s badger vaccination programme, which offers the most direct comparison. In 2013, the Welsh programme vaccinated 1,352 badgers at £685 per badger and was more than five times cheaper per km2 than culling, costing £3,592 per km2 last year.

It is more difficult to make a direct comparison to The Wildlife Trusts’ own badger vaccination programmes, since they constitute several smaller deployments rather than one large-area scheme, but based on figures from 2011-13, Wildlife Trust vaccination schemes cost £380 per dose (more than 13 times cheaper) or £998 per km2 (nearly 20 times cheaper).

The £9.8 million price tag is just for year one – the culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire have been licensed for four years, and Owen Paterson had planned to roll out culling to 40 areas across England – each of which would also run for four years. The costs of culling at such a scale would be enormous – and for what benefit? The culls failed to remove the target number of badgers last year – and look set to have failed again this year – which means there’s a very real risk that they are making the bTB problem worse due to perturbation.

Of the badgers that were removed, most were likely to be healthy. Defra has estimated that 33% of badgers within the High Risk Area, where the culls have taken place, are infected with bTB. This means that of the 1,879 culled last year, 626 were potentially infected – we do not know for certain because they weren’t tested for bTB. If you also take into account the fact that not all infected badgers are infectious (capable of infecting other badgers or cattle), with up to 80% of bTB infection in badgers being latent, then last year’s culls may have removed just 125 potentially infectious badgers – at £70,400 a pop.

The Wildlife Trusts remain firmly opposed to the badger culls. We believe a coordinated programme of badger vaccination can make a viable contribution to the Government’s bTB eradication strategy by reducing transmission of bTB between badgers and between badgers and cattle. Vaccination reduces the severity of the disease, the shedding of bacteria from infected individual badgers and therefore the disease’s prevalence in badger populations. And, as today’s figures have shown, it is a far more cost-effective and practical option for the long-term.

However vaccination represents only one element of an overarching strategy to reduce prevalence of the disease in cattle, and should therefore be delivered alongside a comprehensive package of cattle measures.
A comprehensive package of cattle measures includes:
• Better biosecurity, or disease risk management: all possible measures should be pursued to prevent disease transmission on-farm
• Stricter movement controls: to minimise the risk of spreading disease when cattle are transported
• Improved TB testing: to increase detection of the disease – currently, many infected cattle are missed
• Cattle vaccination: prioritise the development of a cattle vaccine and the necessary changes to EU regulation to permit its commercial deployment
Paul Wilkinson is Head of Living Landscape at The Wildlife Trusts.

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