Since becoming Chair of Natural England in April I have been repeatedly asked about our role in the culling of badgers to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB).
It has been put to me that because we are the government agency leading on the conservation of the natural environment we should not issue licences that permit large numbers of badgers to be killed. Some people say that because I had previously expressed reservations about the cull I should now oppose the policy in my new role.
Given my stated views, I was questioned on the badger cull by the Parliamentary Select Committees charged with scrutinising my suitability for the role of Natural England Chair before I was confirmed in post. I told the MPs that, should I become Chair, I would go into Natural England and look at our bTB-related work with an open mind. I said I would be led by the science and that my advice to Government would be based upon that.
Since then, I have gained a deeper understanding of Natural England’s work and the extent to which it sits within a wider Government policy decided upon by Ministers, rather than by our Board or Chief Executive. The approach adopted by Ministers seeks to control a disease that has caused massive economic damage and widespread social impacts among farming communities. It embraces culling, but also includes badger vaccination and improved biosecurity to minimise cattle-to-cattle infections.
Natural England has two roles in relation to the bTB policy: one is that of conservation adviser and the other is wildlife licensing authority for England.
Protected species such as badgers can be controlled in certain circumstances, including to prevent the spread of disease, so long as a relevant licence is obtained. This licensing work is certainly not undertaken lightly and those involved in the cull, including farmers and Natural England staff, take the welfare of badgers very seriously.
In its licensing role Natural England independently considers licence applications to cull or vaccinate badgers, whilst taking into account policy guidance from the Defra Secretary of State, ensuring that the licensed activity is justified in terms of delivering disease control benefits. We also carry out monitoring visits during the culls to check that contractors are complying with licence conditions and best practice guides on shooting and cage trapping. Since badger control began in 2013, licensed culling operations have been carried out in a total of 32 areas of England and more than 67,000 badgers have been killed. Culling has begun in a further 11 areas this year.
In Natural England’s other role of conservation adviser we helped to shape the bTB strategy as it was formulated. We advised government that measures should be taken to ensure that licensed culling would not be detrimental to the survival of the badger population. We also recommended that safeguards should be included to avoid badger control harming other protected species or habitats. Both steps were incorporated into the policy.
Although many people may not be aware of this, conservation is also a big part of our licensing work on the badger cull. Natural England carries out detailed assessments of possible impacts that licensed activity may have on protected wildlife sites, imposing conditions on the licences to ensure that no harm is caused. We have also commissioned the British Trust for Ornithology to investigate any evidence suggesting that culling operations may be indirectly affecting vulnerable ground-nesting birds.
Our licensing of badger control has been challenged several times in the High Court and Court of Appeal. To date, none of the challenges has been successful in revoking Natural England’s licences, underlining the rigorous, professional approach our staff take to authorising action and I would like to thank our licensing team for the great job they have done under considerable pressure.
With regard to Government’s bTB policy more broadly, the extent to which we can advise on its overall effectiveness is, however, more limited, both in terms of the expertise we have in our organisation, which is geared more toward conservation than animal disease issues, and in terms of our statutory remit as an adviser, which focuses on conservation of the natural environment.
In relation to the controversial and polarised question of the badger cull, Natural England must continue to discharge its statutory functions to the best of its abilities. I will ensure that it does so in a scientifically rigorous way, providing important scrutiny at all times. I will also ask that Natural England is involved with more intensive efforts to understand the potential for a future policy based on vaccination, rather than one so heavily focused on lethal control.