Controversial badger cull to resume in days
The Somerset badger cull is poised to re-start as the Government today announces it is to scale back the number of animals to be killed in the South West.
Ministers are to admit marksmen have killed just 850 animals during a six-week cull, less than half an initial target of 2,000 required, or around 70% of the local badger population.
But Parliament will today learn a fresh estimate shows fewer animals are actually inhabiting the area than thought – meaning not as many need to be shot dead.
Under the new benchmark, 59% of badgers have been killed, leading to officials to argue the cull has been “successful”.
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And to hit the 70% goal – or shoot a further 165 badgers – the Natural England quango is considering an application from the culling company to extend the cull on the edge of Exmoor for possibly three weeks. The initial cull finished on Sunday.
Badgers are blamed for spreading tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, and culling them is part of plans to halt the disease destroying farming in the South West.
Significantly, the Government has now reduced by half the total number of badgers that have to be dispatched in Somerset and a second “pilot” in Gloucestershire, which is ongoing and ends this week.
Some 5,000 badgers were to be killed in the two areas. The re-calibrated target is for only 2,670 to be shot dead.
A Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) source said tonight the Somerset cull was making “very good progress ... but an extension could make more progress towards that target”.
He dismissed suggestions the cull had been a failure, arguing shooting free-running badgers – which is a key aspect of what the “pilots” are testing – “works pretty well”.
The source said: “The Somerset ‘pilot’ finished on Sunday and appears to be successful. No concerns of safety, which was always paramount, not on humaneness.
“On effectiveness, we set a high target of 70% of the estimated badger population. The cull has succeeded in reducing to just shy of 60% of the estimated population.
“The chief vet has advised this outcome should deliver clear disease benefits as part of a four-year cull. But Natural England are considering an application for a short extension to improve these benefits even further in year one of the four-year ‘pilot’ cull.”
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 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.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson insists the cull is part of a package of measures – including cattle restrictions – but has said a cattle vaccine is at least 10 years away and a badger vaccine is currently impractical.
Failure of the “pilots”, thereby halting the roll-out, would be deeply embarrassing for the coalition after the Labour government refused to sanction the policy.
The estimates of the badger population were based on tests carried out last year, and were the numbers used when both “pilots” began. But a more recent estimate, time sensitive given the badger breeding season, revealed significantly different figures.
In the Somerset area, the badger population is now 1,450, compared to 2,400 in 2012. The badger population in the Gloucestershire area is 2,350 this year, a fall from 3,400 a year earlier.
And in a move likely to raise eyebrows, Defra has altered how it benchmarks a 70% cull-rate. At first, it used an “upper” estimate of the badger population. The Whitehall department is now following a lower “central” estimate – hence fewer animals need shooting dead.
Allied to the falling population, the change means just 1,020 badgers are required to be killed in Somerset compared to the earlier 2,000 target. The Gloucestershire goal drops from around to 1,650 from 3,000.
Anything significantly less than 70% would risk spreading bovine TB further. But the source said an extension would “not be a significant change” in terms of making the problem worse.
Factors influencing the drop in population could include flooding in the South West, and food availability. “Estimating badger populations is very difficult,” the source said. “As soon as we got new data we updated that.”
The Defra source concluded: “What this has shown is that free-shooting does work. It is one part of a suite of methodologies we have specified within the strategy document about how we might be able to control badger populations. As far as we know at the moment it is safe and humane. The judgement on that will be made by the independent expert panel. But basically, it works pretty well.”
This morning Queen guitarist Brian May, who has been leading a campaign against the cull, said figures showing the number of badgers killed were "widely disparate", and urged ministers to abandon the "ridiculous" cull.
He told BBC Breakfast: “To be honest it’s getting more and more ridiculous. This is the third lot of figures we’ve seen, they’re widely disparate.
“They have no idea how many badgers there are and they keep adjusting the figures to make it look like this is a success.
“This was supposed to be a two-week shoot. It’s already been extended to six weeks from two – now they want another three weeks.
“This has demonstrated already that free shooting doesn’t work. The only way they got to 800 badgers was by cage-trapping and shooting.
“If you are cage-trapping and shooting, you can cage-trap and vaccinate.
“There is no way on earth that culling badgers can lead to the eradication of TB.
“We have to abandon this ridiculous cull.
“This is cull is a waste of time and a waste of our money.”