Test culls will begin in Somerset and Gloucestershire, two of the most heavily infected regions in the country. The cull areas will be larger than those in the original trial, and will use physical boundaries, such as rivers and roads, to prevent infected badgers from roaming in or out of the cull zone. For many scientists, however, the new cull seems too distant from the RBCT to deserve the title of ‘science-led’ policy. The 70% reduction is a particular sticking point, as it is virtually impossible to determine badger populations in advance of actually killing them. On 14 October, 31 academics warned in a letter to The Observer newspaper that if the targets are missed, then levels of bovine TB could actually increase, because infected badgers will begin to roam more widely. “They say that their policy will be science-based but that’s simply not true,” says Krebs, who signed the letter. “They feel they have to do something, and the easiest something to do is to shoot badgers.”
Other parts of the British Isles have already taken action. The Irish have used targeted snare-trapping to all but eliminate badgers from selected areas. That system would be more affordable but it is considered unethical in England. In Wales, officials have begun an expensive campaign to immunize badgers against TB. Both techniques depend on the peculiarities of local geography and badger populations, but they reflect the range of approaches that can be supported by the scientific evidence.
Policy-makers, meanwhile, are frustrated. “Politicians feel that the scientists have let them down,” says Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat and member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. “They’ve not come with clarity, not just in terms of the science but in terms of the solution.” Willis says that based on his understanding of the data, the government policy is unlikely to work.
As both farmers and protesters gird themselves, Donnelly acknowledges that science has given few straight answers. But, she says, it has helped to shift the debate: farmers now admit that tougher biosecurity standards will be instrumental in controlling bovine TB, and conservationists concede that badgers are a major reservoir for the disease. “They may not be singing from the same hymn sheet,” she says, “but at least they’re looking at the same data table.”