Researchers behind a paper suggesting the controversial badger cull is having no impact in the fight against bTB have demanded a public apology from Defra.
Ecologist Tom Langton, along with vets Mark Jones and Iain McGill, have written to environment secretary George Eustice calling for an apology and a retraction following Government criticism of a research paper that claimed the cull has no demonstrable effect in reducing the incidence of bTB in cattle .
More than 27,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2021 after being tested for the disease, which is estimated to cost taxpayers more than £ 100 million a year in surveillance and compensation payments to farmers.
As part of its strategy to eradicate bTB, in 2013, the Government began licensing the culling of badgers across large areas of England, with some estimates suggesting as many as 175,000 badgers have been killed since the cull began.
To assess the effectiveness of the cull, Mr Langton, Dr Jones and Dr McGill analyzed publicly available Government data that showed the incidence of bTB in areas where there was culling and areas where there was no culling.
In the biggest study of its kind to date, the researchers found no link between the culling of badgers and any decline in the level of bTB in cattle.
The results of their work were subsequently published in a peer-reviewed journal, with Defra responding to the study by publishing a non-peer-reviewed letter and press release, in which the UK’s CVO and Defra’s chief scientific advisor (CSA) accused Mr Langton , Dr Jones and Dr McGill of having a “clear campaign agenda” and “manipulating” the data.
However, after pressing Defra to justify its criticism, lead researcher Mr Langton has since received a letter of apology from UK CVO Christine Middlemiss and Defra’s CSA Gideon Henderson, in which they admit to using “incorrect calculations” in their rebuttal.
According to the authors of the paper, Dr Middlemiss and Prof Henderson had miscalculated levels of bTB in unculled areas by as much as 40%, giving the impression culled areas were performing better.
Now Mr Langton, Dr Jones and Dr McGill are demanding a public apology, retraction of the original letter and an immediate review of the evidence on the efficacy of the badger cull before the issue or renewal of any further badger cull licenses – which is due to start in June of this year.
Mr Langton, the first author of the study, said: “Defra is behaving in a disgraceful way, and a public explanation and apology is warranted. It accused us of manipulating data, which of course we haven’t, for our study is robust and had four independent expert peer reviewers approve it prior to its publication.
“Defra’s rebuttal, on the other hand, is unverified, not peer-reviewed and we now know is based on false data.”
Mr Langton continued: We’ve looked at all the available data – 10 times as much as Defra – whereas it appears that Defra has carefully selected only some of the data it thought would serve its purposes.
“We asked four times for it, but it has just stonewalled us for five weeks, before eventually admitting it was Defra itself which had manipulated the data used for its calculations.
“Once the correct figures were used, Defra’s claims simply did not stack up. It would have got away with it if we hadn’t studied the data so closely. “
Dr Jones, head of policy at the Born Free Foundation, added: “Defra has gone out of its way to try to discredit our study, but its own corrected calculations now appear to corroborate our findings.
Defra should hold up her hands and apologize. More importantly, no further badgers should have to lose their lives for the sake of this ineffective, inhumane, unscientific and unnecessary policy. ”
Despite the discrepancy in its response to the research paper, Defra continues to stand by the arguments put forward in the original letter sent by the CVO and CSA.
A spokesperson said: “This paper was produced to fit a clear campaign. We discovered a minor discrepancy in our calculations, which has now been corrected.
“This does not change our position that data was manipulated in a way that makes it impossible to see the actual effects of badger culling on reducing TB rates.”