A thousand fewer badgers in Gloucestershire cull zone

badger Working out the badger population numbers is proving difficult

It's impossible to actually count the number of badgers living in the Gloucestershire cull zone so we have to rely on estimates.

They've oscillated wildly over the past twelve months as various different methods of counting are used. The badger population itself may naturally vary too.

The first estimates, of up to 1,800 badgers, came from those involved in the cull and were widely seen as far too low.

English Nature then carried out its own research and came up with numbers, 4,079 badgers, that were so high they led to the cull being postponed for a year as those responsible doubted they could cull so many.

That English Nature estimate has slowly been revised down and now we suddenly find ourselves in a position where the latest population predictions are much lower, 2,350 badgers, although not as low as when we first started all this a year ago.

How many?

So if you can't count all the badgers how do you work out the population?

Well, you can rely on historical data but now we increasingly rely on DNA evidence.

Researchers put out hair traps, pieces of barbed wired, across badger runs near the setts. As the badgers squeeze past they leave a few hairs behind. These hairs can be used to DNA profile individual badgers and using some nifty statistical analysis that allows researchers to come up with an estimate of the badger population.

But what we are presented with now is two estimates of badger populations using the same science that appear to show a massive fluctuation over a twelve month period. There are apparently 1,050 fewer badgers in the West Gloucestershire cull zone than this time last year.

Large variation

The government says bad weather, poor food supply and disease can account for this difference.

I found a study from 1997 that does say "modelling work has suggested that small increases in adult mortality rates will lead to an equally rapid population decline" in the badger population. But scientists I have spoken to today do feel this could be a large variation.

Opponents of the cull are crying foul and say this new lower estimate is very convenient as it means fewer badgers will have to be killed for the pilot cull to be declared a success. Indeed the company behind the Gloucestershire cull has asked for more time because they haven't culled enough badgers so far.

So is this science or a cynical shifting of the goalposts?

David Gregory-Kumar Article written by David Gregory-Kumar David Gregory-Kumar Science & Environment correspondent, BBC News

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  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Estimates like this should be expressed as a range with an indication of how confident you can be that the true value lies within it. Whatever the science, it is sloppy reporting to treat these values in this way. Is there any way I can comment on the misinfornation the same journalist has put out about otter surveys?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The whole thing seems to be an unscientific ill conceived fiasco. Does this government minister and the NFU really know what it is doing. This is not helped by pseudo-scientific musings from Gregory-Kumar who poses as a science correspondent but seems to wave with the breeze.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The rapid decline in badger numbers may well be due to the illegal gassing that farmers have now admitted too. It was always on the cards that the message given out by Paterson would signal "open season" on badgers. I do hope all those who have acted illegally will face prosecution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Damage limitation if ever I saw it.

    If this is true, how have so few badgers been allegedly spreading infection across such a large area ?

    If they have been dying from TB en masse then surely that would have resulted in a significant drop in cattle reactors, but I don't recall hearing this ?

    Or maybe as opponents said all along that it isn't badgers spreading it ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    David the study you cited suggested a 70% increase in badger numbers over a ten year period.
    Or 7% a year.
    It was a even less in the South-West of England.
    Your suggestion that a nearly 50% decline due to natural factors in one year simply isn't credible.


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