A lecture to the Tinbergen Society, Merton College Oxford, on 31 October 2023
Professor Rosie Woodroffe was a key member of the Oxford University research group which claimed that badgers were responsible for 50% of the Bovine TB breakdowns when the epidemic surged around 20 years ago. She is now a member of the governments BTB partnership which advises the government on disease control policy. The panel is mostly farmers and farm vets including several who carry out culling. The government has used the results from their Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) to justify the intensive culling of badgers across England from 2013. Now ten years on, about 230,000 badgers are dead because of it, with many having died slowly and painfully. It seemed appropriate that she returned to Merton College - the birthplace of the RBCT - at Halloween, to talk about the gruesome politics behind the badger cull.
OWN YOUR BLOODY SCIENCE
Prior to the meeting, SAD badgers stood outside Merton in silent protest against Oxford's part in facilitating the slaughter. They call on Rosie and her fellow Oxford Scientists to 'OWN THEIR BLOODY SCIENCE" and take responsibility for the deaths of nearly a quarter million badgers.
That evening, around 150 students, academics and concerned public gathered in Merton College’s lecture theatre. Sat together in the audience were key people from her old team - Professor John Krebs, Professor David MacDonald, and Professor Christl Donnelly, who between them masterminded the original research that underpins the subsequent decade long badger tragedy. (Christl Donnelly claims that a cattle herd infected by a badger is more likely to spread bTB to other cow herds – without explaining the mechanism by which that could be true) .
From Merton College to Brighton Pier - 130 miles of dead badgers
She said the focus should be on cattle, then proceeded to focus on badgers. Rosie still claims they give significant amounts
of BTB to cows. Rosie outlined her theory on why badger culling
during the Randomised Trial had not worked. She claimed that large scale culling causes problems outside the cull area while small local culls increase herd breakdowns. The RBCT concluded that
culling would not be helpful. The problem is that farmers and policy makers don’t hear the caveats – that cattle controls are the key to reducing bTB. Some conclude that for culling all the
badgers would be effective (even if it would not solve bTB in the herd.
The thrust of her talk was that civil servants and successive government Ministers “cherry pick science” and selectively interpret the RBCT findings to support their own agenda. One by one the politicians who had been fuelled by the failed Oxford RBCT research were criticised for promoting badger culling and ‘twisting science’. While this is fair comment, it seemed very hollow coming from someone who played a pivotal role in setting the apocalyptic scenario and who continues to perpetuate the badger blame game.
She illustrated the almost unimaginable scale of the ecological and ethical catastrophe very graphically, showing a line of all the badgers killed to far stretching over 130 miles - from Merton College's door to the end of Brighton Pier. The start at Merton College seemed totally appropriate.
Her conclusion? vaccination
She thinks that her life’s work – badger vaccination – is the best solution. She has shown that it can be deployed on an industrial scale. It just needs farmers to buy in, which is why she is working with the bTB partnership.
Rosies' final comments where chilling. She fears that if culling is stopped, some farmers would continue illegal, localised culling. She argued that it would be better to allow them to keep on killing them under license - no mention of financial penalities, cracking down on wildlife crime or better police enforcement !!!
Asked directly for her views on 100% culling of badgers Rosie was equivocal ‘it would depend … perhaps it could be justified in very rare circumstances’. She went on to indicate that a consultation on a new round of more intensive badger culling will begin soon. Since 2020, the government has suggested the new policy might be to aim for localised extinction. Government Ministers are expected to threaten to double down and in 2024, increase the badger killing rate from 70 to 100 % in cluster areas such as in Oxfordshire. We have been dreading this, and hope Labour will put a stop to it after next year’s election.
Power - and science - need to speak truth to farmers
It was all deeply depressing. No mention of the new evidence coming from over 10 years of futile culling. The scientists behind the RBCT are senior and respected figures at Oxford University and in Merton College. Until and unless they speak up we will hold them to account for perpetuating the madness and the waste. The War on Badgers continues.