The government has issued badger cull licences despite its scientific adviser asserting there is “no justification” for the practice.

Leaked documents obtained by the Guardian reveal that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued 17 new licences this month to continue badger culling, despite opposition from Dr. Peter Brotherton, the director of science at Natural England.

Badgers are culled to curb the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to cattle, which can devastate entire herds. Since the cull began in 2013, over 210,000 badgers have been killed, according to figures released by Defra last year.

However, scientific reports indicate that culling badgers is not the most effective method to control the disease.

Brotherton told Defra that while in previous years a cull could be justified, “based on the evidence, I can find no justification for authorising further supplementary badger culls in 2024 for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease and recommend against doing so”.

Defra officials justified continuing the cull, arguing that abruptly ending it would undermine farmers’ confidence in the government, especially those most affected by bTB.

Sally Randall, Defra’s director general for biosecurity, food and trade, said in a letter to Natural England: “Those most affected by the disease must have confidence in both the process and the trajectory. Changes need to be carefully timed and communicated, whilst balancing a range of potentially opposing views. Any abrupt changes to policy would seriously undermine our ability to engage constructively with the industry on future disease control interventions.”

Brotherton suggested that the badger population would likely remain low for at least seven years, during which vaccinations could be used to prevent the spread of the disease.

He told Defra: “The balance of evidence has shifted. In my opinion it is now clear that badger vaccination can provide an effective alternative to [culls].”

He also recommended effective cattle-based measures, such as enhanced testing regimes, more sensitive tests, movement controls, and cattle vaccination as alternatives to badger culling.

Tom Langton, an ecologist and badger expert who has long collected data to support the end of the cull, said: “All badger culling should stop immediately until the chaos of wasted public funds and cruel badger killing methods are properly investigated.”

He added that the leaked documents “underline a need for a reset and fresh review of bovine TB cattle testing and movement control in the coming months with fresh eyes on the issues”.

Peter Hambly, the executive director of the Badger Trust, added: “Defra must follow the scientific advice and call an immediate stop to the badger cull. Every day it delays means the slaughter of more badgers and their cubs.

“Badger Trust can see only one reason for this decision [issuing the cull licences] – that it would upset the farming industry if they did not cull badgers. This seems to point to a politically based decision rather than a scientific one, contradicting the principles of evidence-based decision-making.”

The Labour party has previously said it would end the badger cull if it wins power. Daniel Zeichner, the shadow farming minister, said last year: “The 2018 Godfray review, the last piece of work done by the government, found that badger culling is not the answer. We’re going to make England bovine TB free by 2038, but with a range of measures that do not include culling.”

Despite a promise by former Defra secretary George Eustice to phase out the cull by 2025, the government reversed this decision last year, deeming it an “artificial deadline” and committing to continue the culling.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges the livestock sector in England faces today, causing considerable trauma for farmers and costing taxpayers over £100 million every year.

“We have followed a holistic approach with badger vaccination, improved cattle testing, helping farmers improve biosecurity, and working towards deployment of a cattle vaccine, alongside the current badger control policy.”



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