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No One Is Winning the British Badger War

Britain is trying and failing to exterminate 70 percent of its badger population.
Sign for the Welsh badger cull, which was abandoned in favor of vaccinations, via Flickr

In an effort to fight the spread of tuberculosis in cattle, the British government planned to “cull” the population of badgers by up to 70 percent. So if you’re going to do something that feels wrong for (at least) sentimental reasons, at least make sure you’re doing it right for the dispassionate, practical reasons. But the first two “pilot culls” in Gloucestershire and Somerset, which were unpopular before they even started, have been disasters.

Even if you think that a controlled, if dramatic, hunt to lower the badger population is a good idea—a disputed point—the execution has left much to be desired. If you want to cut down a percentage of the population of an area, knowing the total badger population there is obviously paramount.

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But the badger population estimates in the Somerset cull zone have been a moving target. The government has slashed the estimated population by 40 percent. Natural England, the cull licensing body, set the minimum number of badgers to be killed in Somerset at 2,100—70 percent of the then-total. But Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sources said only 1,450 badgers were now believed to exist in the area.

"The whole situation is a farce," Gavin Grant, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’s chief executive said in the Guardian. "They keep moving the goalposts on how many badgers exist and how many need to be killed but, whatever the figures, it is clear the system has failed."

When confronted with allegations about “moving the goalposts,” Owen Paterson, the environment secretary who has found himself the face of hunting and killing one of Britain’s most beloved animals, produced the cull’s most indelible quote. He counterclaimed that “the badgers [were] the ones moving the goal posts,” through natural population fluctuations endemic in wild species.

listen to ‘Owen Paterson "badgers moving goalposts" on BBC Somerset’ on Audioboo

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British badger experts aren’t having it, saying that there would be nothing natural about a population drop that severe. Either the badgers had been miscounted, or there was illegal badger killing happening at the same time, because the cull wasn’t bringing in the desired results.

Even with the lowered goal, shooters weren’t able to reach the desired 70 percent mark; with 850 animals, they got as high 58 percent. And a partial cull is thought to be worse than no cull, as the surviving badgers take their diseases and flee elsewhere.

Gloucestershire didn’t make its goal either, so Natural England extended the culls—eight extra weeks in Gloucestershire, three extra weeks for Somerset.

The extensions raised another round of objections. Even the famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough spoke out against the cull, telling The Guardian that the decision to extend the cull was the result of ignoring the science they had spent time and money gathering. “"They decided to have a six-week [cull] and when they don't get the result they want, they want to extend by eight weeks. It is simply not believing in the science,” said Attenborough.

"These pilot culls seem to be delivering a resounding message that the many concerns we warned of beforehand are being borne out," the UK's leading badger expert, Rosie Woodroffe told The Guardian. Woodroffe has also stated that a vaccination, the method favored by those who don't want to see badgers killed, would be cheaper and more effective.

Wales, which prepared for a badger cull in 2012, abandoned the plan in favor of vaccinations "after carefully considering the scientific evidence," according to the BBC. Critics of the culls are hoping that Paterson follows suit, denouncing the pilot programs as failures, and looking into other options.

After all, what were the pilot programs even for but testing whether a cull could actually be effective? If critics are right and the great British badger war leads to a quagmire, what's the harm in admitting so, and moving on?