Ministers were warned of the severe risks posed by England’s controversial badger cull three years before they began, according to documents released after a two-year legal battle.
Strong public opposition to the policy halting the cull was one of the top-ranked problems assessed by the ‘risk registers’, which are released the day after David Cameron admitted the badger cull is “probably the most unpopular policy I’m responsible for”.
Other significant risks were that the cull could cause an increase in tuberculosis in cattle, rather than decrease it, cost more than the funds available to government agencies and the police, and that “disagreement on the evidence base” would lead to “conflicting messages” to ministers.
The pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset have repeatedly missed their targets for the minimum number of badgers shot, leading experts to warn that disrupted badgers could spread TB further. Most independent scientists have condemned the cull and an independent panel ruled the first year’s culling to be neither effective or humane. The culls cost the government £6.3m in the first two years and the police £3.5m in the first year alone.
“The risk registers clearly show a policy that should never have moved beyond the starting blocks,” said Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust and policy advisor for Care for the Wild. “From day one it was clear to all involved that badger culling would be hugely expensive and would pose a significant risk of TB spread as a result of perturbation. If the public and MPs were given access to this information before the policy was implemented, we could have stopped this disastrous cull, saving millions of pounds of public money and the lives of thousands of badgers.”
The Badger Trust requested the risk registers, compiled in 2010, using freedom of information laws. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) refused and fought a series of ultimately unsuccessful appeals.
A spokesman for Defra said: “England now has the highest incidence of TB in Europe and it’s vital we pursue our comprehensive strategy to beat the disease, including tighter cattle movement controls, vaccinations and culling badgers where disease is widespread. Culling has worked in other countries and leading vets agree that it needs to be part of our strategy in England.”
He said: “There has been a great deal of transparency in Defra’s decision making process, including two public consultations held in 2010 and 2011.”
Cameron also defended the badger cull on Monday: “I profoundly believe that part of the way of trying to create some parts of the country that are TB-free is to do this. It’s very, very difficult but I believe it is the right thing to do.” Tens of thousands of cattle are slaughtered every year due to TB.
Risk registers are used to assess and address possible problems with policies being developed by government. The highest risks are those deemed very likely and having the impact of “huge financial loss or budgetary over-run; death or significant public health concerns; key deadlines missed; very serious legal concerns; major environmental impact; loss of public confidence.”
The high risk of disagreement on the evidence base for culling could lead to “conflicting messages being given the ministers”, the register found. A decade-long badger culling trial had found it could make “no meaningful contribution” to reducing bovine TB. The register advised “engaging early with those in key advisory position in Defra and its agencies.”
The prospect of the cull increasing TB in cattle was judged a 50-50 chance, but the register stated that other TB control measures and monitoring could reduce this to a low risk.
An “increase in illegal culling” leading to “an increase in TB” was also seen as a high risk, but could be reduced to a low risk with “engagement with the Home Office and Wildlife Crime Unit on procedures to follow” although no new measures were suggested.
The “security risks to staff and farmers” was judged a medium risk but could be reduced to low risk by early planning with the police and farmers. Ministers said in December that the failure of the Gloucestershire cull “reflects the challenges of extensive unlawful protest and intimidation”. Officials also admitted at that time that the cull might not reduce bovine TB.
The risk of losing a legal challenge was one given the highest rating, although ministers successfully defended cases brought by the Badger Trust.
“This Tory-led government never should have pressed ahead with these ineffective and inhumane badger culls when they knew from the start that this policy had the potential to make the problem of bovine TB worse,” said the shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle, who would end the cull if Labour is elected. “Instead of ignoring the overwhelming evidence, the government must work with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of bovine TB under control.”