Name: UK government. Animal ecology test score: 0

© Andrew Byrne

© Andrew Byrne

Every now and again animal ecology findings make it into the news. Press coverage often focuses on cases where a species is on the edge of extinction, has erupted to plague proportions, or exhibits some quirky behaviour. One of the positive things about such coverage is that the public appreciates that animal ecology is a mature field of study that uses high-tech methods of data collection, cutting-edge statistical methods and mathematically elegant models. But all too often animal ecology stories are little more than a curiosity, chosen to fill the ‘And finally…’ slot. Occasionally animal ecology research influences government policy – something that has happened with the control of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. However, this particular case is not a good news story – sound animal ecology advice is being ignored by the current UK government. The reason? A cynic might speculate that it is because following best animal ecology practice might lead to conclusions at odds with what the government seems unjustifiably determined to do.

I believe that policy should always be guided by the best possible evidence available. If I am offered policy based on science, or policy based on conjecture, anecdote and innuendo, I will go with the science-based view as long as it is ethical and humane. I suspect that such a position is considered rather extremist by the current, and recent, British administrations, but I consider it defensible.

Everyone I have spoken to on the issue of TB in cattle wants it eradicated. I have not spoken to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about it. This is perhaps a little surprising. I was a member of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) appointed to assess the efficacy, humaneness and safety of the badger cull by the Secretary of State’s department – Defra. In retrospect, I think the IEP should have had access to the Secretary of State so we could present our findings and discuss them directly with him. He might have found it useful. I won’t agree to serve on such a government committee again without agreed access to the appropriate minister.

So what were the culls about? Previous research in England had convinced the government that a reduction in badger numbers of at least 70% would be sufficient to eradicate TB in cattle. But how best to achieve this? Gassing, trapping or shooting at night? Gassing was not an option since it was banned for being inhumane decades ago. So that left shooting and trapping. If badger numbers could be humanely reduced by 70% by controlled shooting then a workable solution to TB in England would have been found. So two areas were identified – one in Gloucestershire and one in Somerset – and planning for the multi-year pilot culls commenced.

The first job of the IEP was to devise methods to assess efficacy and humaneness. The methods needed to be robust to fraud by anti-cull protesters making the cull look less effective than it was, and by contractors returning badger carcasses shot elsewhere to make the cull look more effective. The IEP came up with the following method to assess effectiveness: hair traps were used to sample the badger population in the pilot areas, with individuals uniquely identified through genotyping. Hair samples were also taken from culled animals and individually identified with the same genotyping methods. The proportion of the original sample among culled animals gives an estimate of the effectiveness of the cull. Robust estimates of population size can also be obtained using our approach. The method does make assumptions, and we devised a suite of statistical analyses to check for biases and to estimate uncertainties. Once the cull was over, and all analyses were conducted, we were able to say with 95% confidence that the culls failed to deliver anywhere near the 70% target. The probability of either cull having achieved the requisite 70% or more reduction in badger numbers are similar to me – a middle-aged, overweight, unfit Brit – being selected to captain the Brazilian football team in the World Cup. Zero. The culls were not effective, and we can say that with strong statistical support based on the analysis of high quality data.

The assessment of humaneness is a little less certain, but was based on survival analysis with censoring of animals that were shot at. There is greater uncertainty around our conclusions of this analysis. However, we were able to conclude that it was highly improbable that the culls met Defra’s humaneness target of no more than 5% of badgers taking more than 5 minutes to die.

The IEP also made several recommendations on improvements to the way the cull is delivered that the government accepted. For example, we made recommendations on the way that contractors are trained.

So that was year 1 of the pilot culls. Year 2 is approaching. Given the success of the animal ecology methods used, presumably the government would continue to use these tried and tested methods? Methods that are hard to cheat. Methods based on mark-recapture analysis, which is arguably the most innovative statistical development in animal ecology in the last 25 years. Surprisingly, not, despite the IEP recommending it. The government has not announced exactly what they are going to do, but they will not use methods that allow the effectiveness of the continuing pilots to be assessed in year 2 in the same way they were assessed in year 1. Any results they do achieve will be incomparable. If one of my undergraduate students made such an elementary mistake in an exam essay they would be heavily marked down. A change of protocol half way through an experiment reveals such a limited understanding of the scientific method that I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane. They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.

In addition to changing the protocols, there is to be no more independent oversight of the ongoing culls. So who will oversee the analysis of data and the interpretation of results? The same folk that have decided to change the protocols half way through the experiment? I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Bayesian, but this is a case where I think I might be justified in working with a well-informed prior that the conclusions will be unlikely to stand up to scrutiny.

Government agencies are stuffed full of very competent scientists. Presumably the concerns that they must have raised are being wilfully ignored by government. I wonder why? I wonder if the government no longer wants to know the answer to whether their ongoing pilot culls will deliver the required outcome. I wonder if conducting the pilot culls is the easiest way for the government to look as if it is tackling the awful issue of bovine TB, even though a large body of animal ecology has concluded it is unlikely to be the solution in England? I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over. But such a statement would be hollow.

Not all government policy can be based on science. Often ministers need to work out how to carve up funds. There may be no right or wrong answer on how to do this, and the decision may be based on who shouts loudest, or what seems ‘right’ given the minister’s philosophy. But when animal ecology – and more generally science – can inform a policy debate, scientific approaches must be used and scientific conclusions should not be ignored. The government’s decision to ignore best scientific practice has not been justified by the Secretary of State. I’d be surprised if he changes his mind. U-turns are seen as a sign of weakness. But what is incredibly sad about the whole sorry affair is we are missing an opportunity to assess whether the pilot culls that the government implemented can solve the dreadful scourge of bovine TB. The existing evidence strongly suggests that culling is not the solution in England, and that the ongoing culls were on course to add more evidence in support of this view. The government’s recent actions rob us of this evidence. And this means we will be delayed in solving the TB problem, that farmers will continue to carry the cost of this dreadful disease for years to come and that badgers will be culled without justification. The issue is not the badgers moving the goalposts as the Secretary of State famously claimed. It is the government. But why they have moved them to make it so easy to score an own goal in the fight against TB is beyond me.

You can download the IEP report here. If you want animal ecology to be relevant to policy, and not just a curiosity used by the media for a bit of light relief, speak up for it! Writing to your MP about it and being vocal on social media is an easy way to make an impact. If enough ecologists speak up for their field, future governments perform better in the use of animal ecology evidence.

Tim Coulson
Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology
(twitter: @tncoulson)

11 thoughts on “Name: UK government. Animal ecology test score: 0

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