Badgers have "moved the goalposts" says minister defending cull
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has blamed badgers for "moving the goalposts" after marksmen failed to meet a target for culling animals in Somerset.
The minister defended the success of two "pilot" culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire despite almost halving the number of animals that have to be shot dead for the policy to work.
As reported in the Western Morning News today, Mr Paterson confirmed the just completed six-week action in west Somerset has killed 850 badgers.
Based on new estimates, it represents 60% of the local badger population – which has fallen in the last year because of harsh weather and food shortages.
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The original target was for 70% of the badger population to be removed.
During a round of television and radio interviews, Mr Paterson was asked by BBC Spotlight if he had "moved the goalposts" by claiming the cull was a success but based on the new calculations.
He replied: "The badgers moved the goalposts. We're dealing with a wild animal, subject to the vagaries of the weather and disease and breeding patterns."
Mr Paterson also confirmed both culls could be extended to maximise the impact on the spread of bovine tuberculosis, which is rife in the South West.
Across both cull areas, around 5,000 badgers were to be killed based on population estimates for last year. A fresh analysis means marksmen will now have to kill just over 2,600 badgers – making the task far easier.
But Mr Paterson is adamant the Somerset "pilot" has met key objectives. "Current indications suggest that the pilot has been safe, humane and effective in delivering a reduction in the badger population of just under 60%," he said in a written ministerial statement.
"We set ourselves a challenging target of aiming to ensure that 70% of the badger population was removed during the pilot. The chief veterinary officer has advised that the 60% reduction this year will deliver clear disease benefits as part of a four-year cull."
Natural England are considering an application from both the Somerset and Gloucestershire culling companies for an extension of the culling period of up to three weeks, which is within the terms of the licence.
Mr Paterson indicated that in future the period for culls may have to be longer than six weeks to ensure "high levels of safety and humaneness".
Striking a defiant tone, he added: "This Government is committed to tackling the disease in all reservoirs and by all available means. Our cattle industry and the countryside deserve no less."
Labour demanded Mr Paterson explain to Parliament "what has gone wrong with his badger cull".
Maria Eagle, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "The extension of these badger cull trials demonstrates that the Government's approach is not working, which is hardly surprising when it was not based on any scientific evidence.
"There is now a real danger that even longer trials could exacerbate spread of TB as more badgers flee, risking infecting cattle in other areas.
"Eradicating TB from cattle is vital for farmers, the wider rural economy, taxpayers and wildlife which is why we need a science-based approach focussed on vaccination of cattle and badgers and proper restrictions on the movement of livestock."
Anti-cull campaigners branded the Government announcement as either "suspiciously convenient or dangerously incompetent".
Wendy Higgins, communications director for Humane Society International UK, said: "It is suspiciously convenient that, as Defra ministers were staring down the barrel of an unmitigated disaster, the badger kill targets have been halved and the Government will declare the cull a success when everyone knows it's been an utter shambles."
But the National Farmers' Union welcomed Mr Paterson's written statement.
President Peter Kendall said: "The knowledge learned from these two badger cull pilot areas will be invaluable in helping to deliver future roll-out of badger control operations in areas where the incidence of TB is rife.
"Our absolute focus, and that of everyone involved, is disease control. More than 38,000 cattle were slaughtered in Great Britain in 2012 because of bovine TB.
"These badger cull pilots are a very important first step in what is a 25-year strategy to eradicate this terrible and infectious disease."
An expansion of up to 40 four-year culls depends on the success of the "pilots", which are testing the methodology of shooting free-running badgers – a cheaper option than caging the animals first.
A roll-out could mean culling in neighbouring Devon and even into Cornwall – both considered bovine TB hotspots.
The disease led to the slaughter of 28,000 cattle last year – more than 20,000 in the South West – at a cost of £100 million to the taxpayer.