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Why the UK government’s badger cull infringes the #BernConvention

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Bovine TB is a major problem for the UK dairy and beef livestock industries. Since 2010, approximately 300,000 test-positive cattle and their direct contacts have been removed in England under the statutory test-and-slaughter scheme introduced in 1950. The cost to the taxpayer was estimated at £44 million for 2017-18, and the financial and emotional impacts on affected farmers are very significant, write the Badger Trust, Bornfree Foundation and Eurogroup for Animals. 

In December 2011, the UK government published its controversial policy on Bovine TB and Badger Control in England.  The policy laid out conditions under which farmer-led culling of badgers would take place under licence, as part of the UK government’s strategy for controlling bovine TB in cattle. Culling began in the first two zones to be licenced in September 2013. ​By the end of 2019, more than 100,000 badgers were reported to have been killed across 43 licenced zones in England​. According to ​leaked information​ believed to have emerged from the licencing authority Natural England, the government intends to grant four-year licences for an additional 11 new culling zones in 2020, bringing the total to 54 zones across 15 counties, covering an area in the order of 8,000 square kilometres​. This could see in excess of 60,000 additional badgers being targeted by the end of 2020.

Badgers are a protected species under UK law, and are listed on Appendix III of the Bern Convention ​(a binding international legal instrument in the field of nature conservation). ​Under Article 7, Parties to the Convention are therefore committed to taking appropriate and necessary legislative and administrative measures to ensure their protection, and to regulate any exploitation in order to keep badger populations out of danger. Article 9 permits contracting parties to make exceptions to the requirements in Article 7 to, ​inter alia ​ , “prevent serious damage to livestock”, albeit only when there is no other satisfactory solution and where the action will not be detrimental to the survival of the population.

The UK government has thus far relied on this exception in Article 9 to justify its policy of badger culling.

The grounds for complaint

In August 2019, Born Free Foundation, The Badger Trust, and Eurogroup for Animals jointly submitted a complaint to the Bern Convention against the UK government, on the following grounds:

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Breach of Article 7:

● There is clear evidence to show that the measures undertaken by the UK government for the exploitation of badgers jeopardizes the population concerned.
● There is clear evidence to show that the exploitation is not adequately monitored by the UK government.
● The exploitation of badgers has a negative impact on other species that are protected by the Convention.

Breach of Article 8:

● The exploitation of badgers is indiscriminate, and capable of causing local disappearance of the population.

Breach of Article 9:

● The UK government has failed to choose the most appropriate alternative, among possible alternatives, and has failed to be objective and verifiable in its reasoning for this decision.
● The UK government has failed to base the policy on current data on the state of the population, including its size, distribution, state of habitat and future prospects.
● The UK government has failed to demonstrate that the measures undertaken involving the exploitation of badgers is in place to prevent serious damage to livestock.
● The UK government has failed to submit biennial reports to the Secretariat in connection with the exceptions The complaint documents can be found on the Council of Europe ​website​.

Additional evidence

Born Free Foundation, The Badger Trust, and Eurogroup for Animals provided additional evidence in support of the complaint in March 2020, and again in July 2020.

This included:

Evidence refuting the UK government’s consistent claim that badger culling is resulting in significant disease control benefits.
Evidence demonstrating the likely scale of undetected infection among cattle, resulting from the poor sensitivity of the current testing regime and the impact of increased cattle testing intensity on reported bovine TB incidence and prevalence in cattle, which is currently being blamed on wildlife.
Evidence for concerns over badger population viability resulting from the continued use of ‘controlled shooting’ as the primary method of culling.
● Strong evidence that the current system of risk pathway identification and reporting, which identifies badgers as the default likely source of infection for cattle herd breakdowns in the absence of other evidence, is deeply flawed and biased towards justifying the current policy.
Evidence of serious biosecurity breaches on cattle farms and Approved Finishing Units, which could be exacerbating the spread of bovine TB among cattle, and could place some farms in breach of badger cull licencing criteria.
The failure of government to promote badger vaccination as a viable, non-lethal, and effective alternative to badger culling, in spite of its promises to phase out badger culling in favour of vaccination in its response to the Godfray Review published in March 2020. ​

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