Farming News - Bovine TB figures 'overstated' since 2011

Bovine TB figures 'overstated' since 2011

16 Jan 2014


Defra has admitted that official statistics on bovine TB in England may have overstated the impact of the disease.


Badger culling

According to Defra officials, the number of cattle reported as being under disease restrictions may have been artificially inflated for over two years. Figures from September 2011 were reportedly overstated due to a computer glitch at AHVLA, the environment department said. The figures have been taken down from the department's website pending an investigation.


According to Defra and AHLVA, this means that some herds may have been counted as not being officially TB free since 2011, when in fact restrictions on them had been lifted. Statistical publications on bovine TB incidence have been suspended while the investigation is ongoing.


The department acknowledged in a statistical note that, "it can be expected that this data series will be revised significantly downwards for 2012 and 2013. The AHVLA have also advised that there is a possibility this problem could have affected the incidence rate." Defra has, however, assured that "The problem identified only affects the reporting of TB statistics… All field based activities have been properly undertaken and no herds have been mistakenly placed under restrictions, nor have any cattle been slaughtered unnecessarily."


Cull opponents have said the revelation casts further doubt on the government's case for badger culling. Despite failing to reach targets during the initial six week trial periods in the summer, and the abandonment of 'free shooting'  - the methodology which cull contractors were initially employed to test - Defra's two pilot culls were both extended last year. Both still failed to kill the prescribed number of badgers, and the second of the two pilots in Gloucestershire was brought to a premature close on 30th November.


Defra and the cull companies have also come under fire for failing to accurately measure the number of badgers in the cull zones, which opponents claim could mean the cull risked wiping out local badger populations, had shooting been more effective. The official population estimates for cull zones in both Gloucestershire and Somerset changed three times in the twelve months before culling was undertaken, with estimated numbers being halved just before the shooting started. This latest revision was only made public by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson after the initial six week trials ended.    

Fall in number of cattle slaughtered under bTB measures


Dominic Dyer of Care for the Wild International said that this week's "bombshell" suggested Defra had overstated bTB figures, which in turn had "misled farmers, MPs, the media and the general public on the extent of the bovine TB problem in the UK" for over two years.


Figures for cattle slaughtered under bTB measures were still published by Defra. These figures show 27,474 animals were killed between January and October 2013, compared to 31,143 during the same period in 2012. Dominic Dyer added, "It's now time for Owen Paterson to come clean and accept that TB rates are falling significantly in UK cattle herds and that there is no scientific, economic or animal welfare justification to continue the disastrous badger cull policy."


Defra and the NFU maintain that bTB must be tackled "using every option available" and deny that the statistical error has affected the credibility of Defra's case for badger culling.  

Policing figures published


The revelations at Defra coincide with the release of estimated costs from the Police forces tasked with monitoring the two culls. Responding to freedom of information requests, senior officers from the Gloucestershire and Avon and Somerset constabularies this week put the estimated cost of policing the culls at £1.7 million in Gloucestershire and almost £740,000 in Somerset.


Official police estimates had originally put policing costs at around £500,000 per year for each of the two four-year pilots. NFU director general Andy Robertson said culling was a legal activity and sought to deflect criticism by suggesting the elevated cost of policing reflects more on activists seeking to disrupt culling than on Defra or the cull companies. However, speaking to the BBC, Gloucestershire Police Commissioner Martin Surl said protest against the cull had been "relatively peaceful".


Speaking at a later date, Mr Surl added, "Gloucestershire Constabulary planned for several scenarios, so this has come within the parameters of what could reasonably be expected. I have been assured by the police that the sum was justified. Financially, it should not affect policing in Gloucestershire at all because the Police Minister has promised that central government will pick up the bill."


Commenting on the figures' release, David Williams, Chair of the Badger Trust, said, "Once again Defra is wriggling on the hook.  The policing costs are yet more evidence of the gross waste of the lives of badgers, a protected species, as well as a sickening imposition on taxpayers. The farmers' consortiums have evidently paid only a pathetic fifth - £1.5 million – of the estimated total for all culling so far. If the culling programme is rolled out in full the public could expect to be still paying for this charade beyond the end of the decade, and it will have done next to nothing to reduce the TB burden on the cattle industry."


Defra has so far refused to release the official cost estimates for the cull, though these are expected to be higher than initial estimates due to the use of cage trapping which was adopted during the trial culls. Caged shooting is thought to be much more expensive than free-shooting badgers.  


An independent advisory board has been tasked with assessing the success or otherwise of the pilot culls. Farming minister George Eustice has revealed that the expert panel will only assess the initial six week period of the trials to judge whether the culling policy has been successful, humane and cost effective.