UK Government policy on badgers: Not so black and white

By Paul Barnes and Chris Pollard.

Badgers are an iconic part of the British countryside and culture. They are protected by their own act of parliament and have civil society groups dedicated to their conservation and welfare. Yet, in 2012 the high court ruled that culling badgers in the UK is legal with the most recent wave of culling action completed in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset with more to come in 2016.

Confused?

If not, you are either an environmental lawyer or you have devoted considerable time to understanding the current legislation and policy decisions around badger protection and culling. If on the other hand, you are neither of these, then chances are you may be slightly bewildered about current policy. Let’s be honest here; on the face of it, for the majority of people, UK government policy on badgers is far from black and white.

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Badger Graffiti – Shoreditch, London. By Martin Ron.

Badgers have been vulnerable to a number of threats in the past such as: habitat loss, persecution, and legal and illegal culling action to control perceived and/or actual disease. To counter such threats and under strong lobbying pressure from animal rights groups, a dedicated act of parliament was passed in 1973 to protect badgers, now subsumed under The Protection of Badgers Act 1992. Despite this protection and again under strong lobbying pressure, this time from the farming community, the high court ruled that culling badgers in the UK is legal. Since this time, badgers have been legally killed in south west England under license.

Unlike recent opinion posts on this topic, this one is not about the plight of badgers, farmers and cattle. Nor is it about union lobbying, environmental groups or indeed badger champion Brian May. It doesn’t follow the current situation in the debate or clarify the complex science that explains the relationship between bovine TB transmission and badger ecology. This post is about contradictory, poorly explained and hastily developed government policy that confuses, undermines and disenfranchises any non-specialists from engaging in conservation and environmental policy.

Our mild frustration comes from working with and speaking to farmers, land owners, development contractors and anyone else for that matter, trying to explain this seemingly contradictory set of policies. Policies that appear founded on lobbying pressure from both sides as opposed to careful consideration of evidence based science in order to implement the most effective policy.

So why implement seemingly contradictory policies?

Well, not unlike the epidemiology of the badger-cattle-TB interactions there are likely to be many factors at play, but maybe if we walk a paragraph or two in the shoes of the ministerial decision makers we can get some idea.

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Badger protest – Credit: IFAW

As a minister you will of course, be walking a policy tightrope between the stated aims of your government and the collective views of both your core vote and of undecided voters in marginal constituencies. Additionally, you should be keeping your party funders happy, live within your means as the Treasury allows, and judge how the media will spin your decisions. This, with lobbyists from a great many sources trying to pull you in one direction or another. Oh yes, maybe you actually have views or ideas of your own as well, but best not get too excited about those, eh?

Importantly issues do not exist in isolation. Relationships with all the people and organisations involved have a past and (potentially) a future as well. In the present, you will be working with them on other issues. So, do you go with the badger scientists (who you do trust to have the correct technical answer) and cause yourself untold hassle, or have a free-for-all on the badgers knowing it will almost definitely cause greater problems down the line?

The answer is neither. Praise the science but dispute its certainty then commission more culling trials. People may chastise you for kicking the issue into the long grass, but frankly when most of northern England is under water, your budget has been cut by 30% and the spectre of an EU exit looms: badgers are low priority, they can wait.