It’s good to see that Labour have one clear environmental policy – abandoning the Badger Cull. Huw Irranca-Davies confirmed that this was Labour’s position at the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday. According the Cull-supporting Western Morning News,
“Mr Irranca-Davies said it was not the badgers who had moved the goalposts, during the first round of pilot culls, as Mr Eustice’s former boss, the sacked Defra Secretary Owen Paterson had claimed, but Defra itself.
Mr Irranca-Davies said having initially insisted the culls should take no longer than six weeks and remove at least 70% of badgers the Government had changed tack and allowed culling to continue for a total of 13 weeks in Somerset and even then had failed to hit their targets.”
Mr Irranca-Davies continues to perform well as a Labour environment speaker – where are the others?
I-D put down a parliamentary question which was not answered yesterday by the farm minister George Eustice.
Q: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what changes there have been in the number of herds under TB restrictions (a) in each area of the UK, (b) in the Gloucestershire pilot cull area and (c) in the Somerset pilot cull area in each month since January 2010.
A: Statistics below county level are not available. For Gloucestershire and Somerset as a whole, the number of herds not officially TB free due to a bovine TB incident as at the end of January in each year since 2010, plus the latest published figures for September 2014, are shown below.
As I have written about previously, it is a great pity that Bovine TB reporting at parish level has ceased, as we do not have the fine scale resolution that is needed to show exactly is happening in relation to badgers and TB. However, Defra receive herd breakdown data from farms – they do not gather data using satellites. Therefore they know exactly where each farming holding is located, and would easily be able to convert the data they hold to show changes at parish or even farm level, within reason. So it is entirely disingenuous to suggest that Defra could not provide bTB statistics at below county level ie to report on changes within each cull area boundary.
The figures themselves are also quite telling. Defra has been desperately trying to make their bTB reporting data more accurate since the monumental cock-up it experienced in 2012 following an IT upgrade, which led to their bTB figures being inflated by a third.
Now Defra have been busily amending previous year’s figures, so the latest version is in the table above. The original figure for Somerset (used to justify the cull), published just over a year ago was 327 herds “not officially TB free” in September 2013. This was then “revised” down to 264 in Jan 14, a 24% error. For Gloucestershire the over-reporting was even higher at 34%, with the number of nOTF herds coming down from 259 to 194.
The table above would suggest that there has been a reduction in bTB outbreaks in Gloucestershire and Somerset, where the culls have taken place. Except of course that the figures only apply to 3/4 of 2014. A simple scaling up would give 247 for Gloucestershire and 259 for Somerset, to year end 2014. However this may be too simplistic.
I had a look at the latest figures for bovine TB outbreaks (real or suspected). If you compare like with like, for Gloucestershire the nOTF figures (for September, presumably now corrected for data errors by Defra) are:
Two things pop out from these figures. Firstly, Defra have revised the Sept 2013 figures down again (this time with no publicity at all.) According to Defra stats, Somerset, at the time, had 327, then it was 264, now it’s 248 nOTF herds. That’s a whopping 32% overstatement (will it go up again?).
For Gloucestershire the revision was smaller, so the original figure was 259, then it was 194, now it’s 189. So the total overstatement at the time was 37%.
Just in case you think this is all ancient history, it was these erroneously overstated figures that were used to justify the badger cull.
The other thing that occurs to me is that herd breakdowns in Gloucestershire do appear to be declining, regardless of the badger cull. Back in 1998, before the bTB radiation caused by illegal cattle movements during the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak, there were 261 cattle herds under movement restrictions in Gloucs. In Somerset there appears to have been a bTB increase through 2011-2013 which is falling back again in 2014. Bearing in mind though that the Defra stats cock-up started in 2011, I would still treat these years’ stats with extreme caution. What may appear to be an increase, might still be down to stat errors.
Let’s assume for one moment that the badgers that had been responsible for moving the statistical goalposts have now been shot, and that these are the actual true figures for herd breakdowns. In Somerset there has been a small reduction in bTB breakdowns since the cull started. Defra’s own statistics show that nOTF herds in Somerset were 237 in August 2013 and 212 in August 2014 – a reduction of 10.5%. The total number of herds in Somerset in 2013 was 2694 – so 237/2694 = 8.8% of herds were under restriction. In 2014, 2618 herds were registered (to september) 212/2618= 8.1% are under restriction. This is a tiny reduction in the proportion of herds under restriction – and it is almost certainly just random noise.
For Gloucestershire since the cull started the number of nOTF herds had declined from 198 (Aug 2013) to 189 (Aug 2014) herds – a 9.5% reduction. The proportion of Gloucs herds under restriction has actually increased from 17.2% to 17.5%, because the number of cattle herds in Gloucestershire has dropped from 1148 to 1077.
Of course all this detail has passed by our friends at the NFU. Meurig Raymond, the NFU’s new boss was quoted as saying;
“We’ve been told by farmers in the Somerset cull zone that there has been a huge reduction in the number of herds under TB restriction since culling started in 2013, from 34 per cent to 11 per cent.
“We will wait for the scientific evidence to come in future years but, until that happens, for farmers in the area this is evidence that culling badgers is working and is helping them tackle this disease.”
This is absolutely amazing. To back up these statistics, the NFU must have got access to all the cattle farmers in the Somerset cull zone, contacted them and collected data on herd bTB breakdowns before and after the cull. Is it really possible that the NFU can gather bTB data at the farm level, but Defra cannot, even though Defra are collecting bTB data at the farm level. Or is it just that Defra have lost all confidence in their bTB stats, and the NFU are talking bollocks? You decide.