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Badger control – culling of badgers

Defra announced on 14 December 2011 that culling would be allowed to be carried out by groups of farmers and landowners, as part of a science-led and carefully managed policy of badger control. Licences would be issued by Natural England (under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992) to enable groups of farmers and landowners in the worst affected areas to reduce badger populations, for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease, at their own expense.

Culling operations would be paid for by the industry, delivered by trained operators and closely monitored by the Government. As a first step, there would be a pilot of the policy in two areas to confirm our assumptions about the effectiveness (in terms of badger removal), humaneness and safety of culling.

Natural England issued the first culling licence (17 September 2012) for West Gloucestershire and the second culling licence (4 October 2012) for West Somerset.

27 February 2013: Natural England has issued authorisation letters to the two pilot areas in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset, confirming the final conditions have been met for culling to go ahead there later this year. At the same time, an area in Dorset will be prepared as a contingency in the event that unforeseen circumstances prevent one of the current areas going ahead.

An independent panel of experts has been appointed to report to ministers on the badger culling pilots. If Ministers decide to proceed following the pilots, a maximum of ten licences will be granted to start each year.

More detail on the Government’s badger control policy:

What is the evidence for allowing culling of badgers in pilot areas?

The Defra badger cull policy is based on scientific evidence from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). Using the results of this trial (based on an average of 5 years’ culling plus a 4-year post-cull period); culling over an area of 150km2 could be expected to lead to an average 16% reduction in TB incidence in the local area. This figure was agreed by an independent panel of scientists at a meeting with Professor Bob Watson, then Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

The results from the proactive culls in the RBCT suggest that the benefits of culling, ie reductions in incidence of TB in cattle in the culled area, may not be seen for 3-4 years after culling begins but could continue for at least 6 years after culling stops.

When and where are we allowing culling?

Culling will be piloted in two areas initially in the first year in order to test our assumptions about the humaneness, effectiveness and safety of this control method.

Defra has agreed (23 October 2012) to the request of the National Farmers Union (NFU) to postpone the two pilot badger culls (in West Somerset and West Gloucestershire) until summer 2013, to allow farmers to continue their preparations and have the best possible chance of carrying out the cull effectively. More information (news release)

Culling will be closely monitored in these two areas. The monitoring is being overseen by a panel of independent experts, who have advised on the appropriate methods for monitoring effectiveness and humaneness. The panel will also use feedback from those undertaking field observations to confirm that culling is safe and consider whether any amendments to the training and best practice guidance are necessary.

We are also putting in place arrangements to monitor the impacts of the policy on disease incidence in cattle. These monitoring arrangements will apply in both the pilot areas and in other areas if the policy is rolled out more widely.

How long will the culling last?

Defra has taken advice from a group of independent scientists and they advised that limiting culling to a period of up to 6 weeks would be likely to reduce any adverse effects of non-simultaneous culling.

After culling in the pilot areas has finished, we will need to evaluate the results of the monitoring in order to take a decision on whether further licences can be considered.

How many badgers will be culled?

As part of Defra’s badger control policy, Natural England are required to set minimum and maximum numbers of badgers to be removed from each licensed area.  Defra has published the estimates of the badger populations in the pilot areas that have been used by Natural England for this purpose.

The number of badgers culled and the culling method used in each case will be recorded by the operators and be part of the licence returns to Natural England. We will monitor the badger population to ensure that there is no local extinction.

Badger population estimates for the pilot areas have been generated using the above methodology and Natural England have confirmed the minimum and maximum number of badgers to be removed in each area.

How will badgers be culled humanely?

Operators will be required to follow best practice guidelines, undertake training and competence testing. Best practice guidance has been published for the two permitted methods of culling: cage trapping and shooting, and controlled shooting.

Independent monitoring will be undertaken to assess the humaneness of controlled shooting during the pilots. The development of the monitoring protocols has been overseen by the panel of independent experts. The monitoring will include field observations and post mortems.

Healthy badgers vs infected badgers

Unfortunately, there is no reliable, practical way of distinguishing infected badgers from uninfected ones.

Ideally, a culling strategy would be selective, ie culling only infected badgers, or badgers in a sett where bovine TB has been detected. However, this requires a diagnostic test that is sensitive enough to detect reliably a high proportion of infected animals. Any infected badgers that were not detected, and therefore left behind, could pose an increase in disease risk through perturbation.

There is no diagnostic test yet available that is both sufficiently sensitive, and practical for use in the field, and therefore a policy of selective culling cannot currently being pursued.

Reducing cattle to cattle transmission and biosecurity

TB is a serious animal health problem and is devastating for affected farmers.

We are enhancing measures to promote biosecurity and have a robust set of measures in place to tackle cattle to cattle transmission.

Cattle measures alone are not enough to prevent the spread of disease in the worst affected areas. In order to stop it spreading further we need to address the issue of infected badgers passing the disease to cattle.

No country in the world that has a wildlife reservoir of the disease has successfully eradicated TB in cattle without addressing its presence in the wildlife population.

What are the economic costs and benefits

The cost of culling for farmers, as quoted in the impact assessment (PDF), is £2,500 per km2 per year for culling by cage-trapping and shooting and £300 per km2 per year for shooting free-ranging badgers. Defra assumed an average cost of £1000/km2 for a mixture of the two.

The cost to Defra of implementing this policy is being met from within our existing budget.  It’s an important part of the package of measures Defra has in place to tackle TB.

Without tackling TB in badgers we won’t ever deal with it in cattle – so won’t be able to start reducing the costs of the disease. The cost of the disease to the taxpayer is huge and is set to top £1 billion in England over the next ten years if we do not take more action.

The estimated potential net reduction in compensation and testing costs for Government for one badger control area of 350km2 is £2.5m over 10 years.

Cattle vaccination

Currently there is no licensed cattle vaccine available. Defra is funding the development and licensing of a vaccine for use in cattle, but we cannot say with any certainty if and when it might be available for use in the field. Vaccination of cattle against bovine TB, used in conjunction with existing TB control measures, could have benefits in reducing the prevalence, incidence and spread of TB in the cattle population and could also reduce the severity of a herd breakdown regardless of whether infection is introduced by wildlife or cattle.

Badger vaccination

An injectable badger vaccine is available but there are practical difficulties with this, which means that it is not a realistic option for dealing with the problem in the short term. Defra is continuing to invest in the development of an oral badger vaccine, which may be a more practical and cheaper option, but we cannot say with any certainty if and when it might be available for use in the field. Badger vaccination could help reduce the prevalence and severity of bovine TB in a badger population and thereby reduce the rate of transmission to cattle.

Is there any risk to the public?

Public safety will be paramount. Individuals carrying out controlled shooting or cage-trapping and shooting have been highly trained and will need to adhere to Best Practice Guidance.  Licence conditions will include measures to minimise the risk to public safety, such as not permitting controlled shooting close to villages or towns and setting certain conditions when shooting near public rights of way. Licence holders will liaise closely with the local police, including on dates, times and areas where badger control will take place.

The Bern Convention

The UK takes its responsibilities under the Bern Convention very seriously. We are confident that we can implement our policy of badger control to reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle without putting our wildlife populations at risk.

To demonstrate this, we have responded promptly and fully to the Bern Secretariat setting out the background to the policy, the evidence on which it is based and the additional measures we have taken to ensure that some badgers remain in each of the control areas.

The Bern Bureau Standing Committee met in September 2012 and decided that the complaint submitted to them, which denounced a possible breach of the Convention, was to be dismissed. They concluded that the badger control policy “is within the obligation of the UK under the Convention and should not cause a threat to the population if the monitoring is carried out properly”.

Page last modified: 3 May 2013