On 28th August 2015 the government announced that Natural England had authorised the cull to start again in Gloucestershire and Somerset, and also to begin in Dorset. This is despite widespread resistance from scientists, Wildlife Trusts and the general public.
Last updated: November 2012
Milk, badgers and consumers
In 2011 we reported that the animal rights campaign group Viva! had called for people to boycott Welsh dairy products in response to the Welsh Assembly's 2008 decision to press ahead with a five year program of culling badgers in parts of Wales in an effort to halt the spread of Bovine TB. Following years of campaigning, legal challenges and a change of government, the Welsh government abandoned these plans in March 2012. The Environment Minister John Griffiths stated that he had instead opted to vaccinate badgers after careful consideration of scientific evidence.
Backing our Badgers, photo credit: IFAW
In Ethical Consumer issue 135 (March 2012) we reported that Viva! was now calling for a boycott of English dairy products following the Government's announcement in December 2011 that it was authorising two pilot ‘culls' of badgers in England. A subsequent letters page contained a response which argued that the boycott was not properly thought through since a blanket boycott would target local, organic and sustainable producers who opposed the cull too.
Fast forward to September 2012 and the decision to carry out two pilot culls of badgers in England has been confirmed by the coalition government despite a backlash and protests from various groups. A petition on the government's website against the trial has already attracted more than 100,000 signatures but whether the government makes another U-turn remains to be seen. Whilst this article was being written, the Farming Minister David Heath was still insisting that the government was 100% committed to implementing pilot badger culls in England this Autumn.(1)
RSPCA chief calls for a boycott
On September 20th, the Independent reported that the RSPCA's chief executive Gavin Grant had called for a boycott of dairy products from parts of the West Country where badgers are to be be culled, saying that farmers and landowners should be made to feel the "commercial consequences" of allowing badgers to be shot on their land. The first trial cull licence had been granted to a consortium in Gloucestershire earlier that week. A second licence, to shoot badgers in areas of Somerset, was imminent and the first night shoots were likely to take place in a matter of weeks.
Gavin Grant told the Independent that tourists should make the areas a no-go zone. "Those who care will not want to visit areas or buy milk from farms soaked in badgers' blood," he said, and "Dairy consumers should be saying: I will not buy milk from areas where they are culling. Landowners and farmers allowing this to happen on their land have to realise there will be commercial consequences."
The Independent had contacted Tesco and Morrisons which said they would continue to stock milk from regions affected by the cull. Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op replied that they do not stock milk supplied from the area.
Mr Grant from the RSPCA said farmers and members of the rural community opposed to the cull should act as "citizens of conscience" and oppose it "by all legal means". Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said the trial cull posed an immediate threat to 6,000 badgers and warned that people could also be hurt.
In a later report in the Daily Mail, Gavin Grant suggested that "supermarkets should label milk produced from areas outside the cull zone as being ‘badger friendly', in the same way as some cans of tuna are marked out as being ‘dolphin friendly'".(2)
Identifying good companies
The idea of boycotting just those farms where licences to shoot have been requested is a strong one. It introduces ‘commercial consequences' and addresses the issue raised above that to boycott all English milk would be to punish many farmers who are either opposed to culling or not currently involved.
Although in reality the complexity of the dairy supply chain means it may be difficult at present to get a 100% cast iron guarantee on the origin of all the milk the supermarkets sell, the replies above from Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and the Co-operative are definitely a helpful starting point for consumers wanting to avoid buying milk from farms involved in badger killing. With things moving so quickly and the cull – if it does indeed go ahead – expected to expand into other areas next year, keeping track of the stances of the various supermarkets will be an important, ongoing process.
We contacted the Soil Association to see whether Organic certification could somehow be used to identify ‘badger friendly' milk. They replied: "As far as farmers licensed by the Soil Association are concerned, our standards cover all aspects of production, but not other things that happen on farms like public access, hunting, and shooting game species. So it will be up to individual farmers to decide whether they will join groups of farmers who wish to apply for licences to vaccinate and/or cull badgers on their land, as part of any government approved programme."(3)
We therefore conducted our own survey. Using the general questionnaire we send to all companies reviewed in Ethical Consumer, we added a question to milk suppliers about whether the company had "a policy on the protection of badgers within its supply chain?" Only two companies replied to this question.
Yeo Valley replied that "we do not and will not cull badgers on our own organic farm. And as far as we are aware there are no farms within the proposed pilot zones of the cull which supply milk for all our Yeo Valley organic products."
Calon Wen replied that as their area of supply was only within Wales, then the issue did not apply to them.
For the other regional organic milk brands reviewed in the Milk buyers' guide – Bowland (North-West), Grahams (Scotland), and Dale Farm (Northern Ireland) – we can also assume that no supplies from the trial area (SW England) will be used. Duchy Originals (a partnership with Waitrose) is presumbly covered by Waitrose's assurance above.
This therefore is the start of our own ‘badger-friendly' milk list and informs our Best Buys for the Milk buyers' guide. As it is likely to change quickly in the coming months, we will report on this on our website and in future issues.
Badger-friendly milk list
All these companies have either stated that they will not stock milk from badger cull areas or they are non-South West regional producers:
Yeo Valley, Calon Wen, Bowland, Grahams, Dale Farm, Duchy Originals, Waitrose, M&S, Co-op
Background to the badger cull
Mark Jones, Executive Director at Humane Society International- UK, looks behind the latest government attack on badgers.
Last December, the then-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, announced the government's policy on bovine tuberculosis and badger control in England.
In a nutshell, the government proposes to license the farmer/landowner-led slaughter of huge numbers of badgers across large swathes of England's countryside, where TB in cattle is considered endemic.
The randomised badger culling trial
Wildlife conservation and animal welfare groups, including HSI UK, many scientists and a large proportion of the public were dismayed. Ever since the first TB-infected badger was discovered in the early 1970s, various ‘badger control' methods have been used to try and eliminate these timid creatures as a source of infection. We've had gassing, cage trapping and shooting; multiple reviews, recommendations and policies, much of it without any scientific analysis to support the efficacy of killing badgers to tackle the disease in cows. And then finally, we had the 10-year long Randomised Badger Culling Trial, which cost the taxpayer £50 million and 11,000 badgers their lives.
At the end of this trial, scientific experts evaluating the plethora of data were unequivocal. In their final report, which ran to almost 300 pages, they concluded that "Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the control of TB in cattle in Britain." The government of the day accepted the report and announced it wouldn't be licensing any more culling of badgers. TB control would, quite rightly, focus on the way we farm and move cattle around the country and, in the longer term, on the development of vaccines for both cattle and badgers. So that was that. Or so we thought.
New proposals for a cull
Now the Coalition government wants to kill badgers again and, to justify the large-scale slaughter, it has interpreted the results of the randomised trial to suit its own political agenda. The government claims its policy is ‘science-led,' although how it can do so, whilst at the same time ignoring what it admits itself is the only source of respectable science on this complex issue, is puzzling, to say the least. We need to challenge the government on the science, not least because it fully admits that badger slaughter will only result in a small reduction in cattle TB.
But there is a greater ethical issue here. The wholesale slaughter of up to 130,000 badgers over a number of years, resulting in a decline in the national badger population of up to 30 percent, and up to 50 percent in the South West, will cause distress and disruption to complex badger family groups, many of them established for generations. Shooting these timid creatures at night will also cause untold suffering to many thousands of individual badgers who may be shot and maimed, left to crawl underground to die a slow and painful death.
This begs a fundamental question: Is it right to decimate one of our few remaining iconic wild mammals over large areas of countryside, in a futile attempt to control a disease problem which is of the farming industry's own making, and the solutions to which lie in that industry's hands?
The increased incidence of TB in cattle over recent decades is due to the way we farm cattle – ever more intensively, in larger and larger units, with animals increasingly moved over long distances. If we really want to control bovine TB, then at some point government and industry need to grasp the nettle and look seriously at how the industry operates. It may not be comfortable for some, but it needs to be done.
Animal protection organisations, including HSI UK, are challenging the government's policy on scientific and legal grounds. However, as is often the case, the real power base for change lies with the public. Informing people about the impacts this policy will have on the future of our environment and wildlife, is vital.