Northern Ireland: men responsible for fate of badgers have vested interest in cull

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) is inching closer to culling badgers after it asked companies to submit “expressions of interests to deliver the culling element” of its bovine TB (bTB) strategy. The deadline for applications is today (21 April 2023).

The government department said that it will introduce culls in areas of “higher-than-average badger social group density and prolonged high density of bTB breakdown herds”. These “intervention areas” will be at least 100km² each. Daera’s contractors will use the same murderous methods as those used in England, i.e. by free-shooting badgers after dusk when they leave their setts to forage. The contractors will supplement this by using cages to trap and then shoot badgers, too. Free-shooting can be torturous for the badger because if he isn’t killed outright, he can suffer a slow death from his injuries.

Once companies have submitted their expression of interest, they can submit a full application to take part in the murder spree.

A biased advisory group

In Northern Ireland, Daera is advised by the TB Eradication Partnership (TBEP), which supposedly provides “independent expert advice”. There is one Chair and five members of TBEP. A cursory glance at the biographies of these men shows an obvious bias towards protecting existing farming practices.

The current members include David Rea, a dairy and beef farmer from County Down, and member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).  And then there’s Adrian Patterson, a “livestock” farmer from County Down who breeds “pedigree cattle”. He and his brother “maximise commercial beef output from grassland”. They are accompanied by Michael Meharg, who – ironically for badgers – worked in “government biodiversity protection” for 30 years, but now makes money from giving consultancy advice on “conservation”, yet has long-term involvement in “grazing with traditional breed cattle”. He is also a member of the UFU.

It should be of concern that members of this advisory group are members of the UFU, which is farming’s main lobbying group in Northern Ireland. The UFU’s “central objective is to promote [farmers’] interests both at home and abroad through professional lobbying,” working with politicians to “advance rural interests”.

The Chair of TBEP is Seán Hogan, who has a background in water companies. Hardly someone you would want to put badgers’ lives in the hands of. These four are joined by two vets – Sam Strain, who specialises in farm animal infections, and Seamus O’Kane, who has mixed veterinary experience.



Murdering badgers (and potentially deer) is the easy option

In their 2019 advice paper to Daera, the men cited a number of studies and reasons for justifying the mass murder of badgers in Northern Ireland. They said:

“Estimates for the prevalence of bTB in badgers in NI have been made based upon road traffic accident post-mortem analyses. These show that the confirmed level of bTB in badgers was approximately 15%.”

They went on to say that:

“Due to the risk of bTB spread from badgers there is consensus on the need to include controls to address the risk of cattle acquiring bTB from badgers.”

But the men admitted that:

“An alternative to proactive culling is to utilise the Test/Vaccinate/Remove (TVR) model that has been researched in NI. There remains relatively little available information to allow the TBEP to assess this. This research study was not designed to investigate the effectiveness of TVR intervention on bTB in cattle and, as such, the TBEP is unable to recommend this approach as a method for the eradication of bTB at this time.”

The Test/Vaccinate/Remove strategy would involve the capture, and then murder, of badgers who test positive for bTB, while vaccinating badgers who test negative. But the authors dismissed this, recommending the even more brutal method of indiscriminately murdering badgers, whether they test positive or not. They didn’t rule out the possibility of future deer culling in Northern Ireland, either. The men said:

“the potential of deer acting as a wildlife reservoir is real

However, given the lack of knowledge it is possible that deer might be a source of infection in certain areas within NI. Therefore, it would be prudent to undertake surveillance to assess what risk wild deer might pose to the NI cattle population to inform how any risk might be mitigated.”

Inspired by England

Daera announced its bTB Eradication Strategy for Northern Ireland back in 24 March 2022. Edwin Poots, Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said in the report:

“the introduction of a programme of badger intervention, as international experience has shown, is an essential underpinning component of any new Strategy aiming to achieve bTB eradication.”

Poots also said:

“I do not believe there is any argument about whether badgers can contract bTB and act as a reservoir of bTB within the environment. They therefore have an important role in the disease picture, which must be addressed.”

When talking about “international experience”, Daera and Poots have seemingly learnt nothing from the ineffective, decade-long cull over the water in England, where it is thought that at least 50% of the country’s badgers have now been murdered. As Protect The Wild has previously covered, there is much evidence to show that England’s cull is a criminal act. This is because:

  • Defra’s science is flawed. Defra uses an 18-year-old trial as proof that badgers spread bTB to cattle. Experts have exposed the trial as unsafe science, with a number of crucial flaws to it.
  • Culling badgers hasn’t led to a significant reduction in bTB, despite what Defra says. On top of this, Defra can’t prove that any slight reduction in the disease isn’t caused by improving farming practices.
  • There is little evidence to suggest that badgers spread bTB to cows. The Badger Trust states that more than 94% of bTB transmission in herds is cow-to-cow.
  • Barely any badgers carry infectious bTB. A 2018 study, funded by Defra itself, showed that only 1% of 312 badgers had bTB. In the north, 1 in 12 badgers had bTB, but 92% of them were only latently infected. i.e. not showing symptoms and non-infectious.

Daera’s “cattle measures”

In its 2022 report, Daera outlined “cattle measures” that will be undertaken to fight bTB in Northern Ireland, including increased diagnostic testing of cow herds, as well as developing “a protocol for the application of a range of responses to deal with persistently infected herds.”

Further down its list of measures that farmers can take, Daera mentioned biosecurity improvements. It admitted:

“Poor herd health management and lax biosecurity increases the risk of disease, impacts on farm health, productivity and costs, and ultimately adversely affects farm business profitability. It also increases the risk of disease spread to neighbouring herds.”

It also stated that:

“The importance of cleansing and disinfection generally is of paramount importance and farmers should thoroughly clean and disinfect vehicles and equipment after transportation of farm animals.”

Despite admitting this, Daera’s bTB strategy is severely lacking. It needs to target the farming industry with much stricter, more radical measures. It also needs to make a concerted effort to roll out both cow and badger vaccinations against the disease.

But with a biased advisory group and vested interests in keeping the beef and dairy industry ticking along with business as usual, it appears that Daera would rather murder badgers than make any effective headway in tackling bTB.