Critics condemn cull as a shambles amid 'moving goalpost' row
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has blamed badgers for "moving the goalposts" amid bruising criticism for the Somerset cull failing to meet a significant target.
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.
Mr Paterson confirmed the just-completed six-week action in west Somerset has killed 850 badgers.
Based on new estimates, it represents 59% of the local badger population – which has fallen in the last year because of the harsh weather and food shortages. The original target was for 70% of badgers to be removed.
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During a round of television and radio interviews, Mr Paterson was asked if he had "moved the goalposts" by claiming the cull was progressing well 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. The Natural England quango will decide on the request in the next few days.
Across both cull areas, around 5,000 badgers were to be killed based on population estimates for last year. Marksmen will now have to kill just over 2,600 badgers – making the task far easier – following a fresh analysis.
But Mr Paterson is adamant the Somerset "pilot" has met key objectives – and the chief veterinary officer has advised that the 59% reduction will make a significant contribution to tackling bovine TB, he said.
"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.
But critics warned the shortfall would make the disease worse through scared badgers scattering to new areas – a point that was dismissed by Environment Minister Lord De Mauley, who was yesterday forced to answer an emergency question in the House of Lords.
Maria Eagle, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "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."
Anti-cull campaigners labelled the Government's handling of the cull a "complete shambles".
The Badger Trust accused ministers of "gerrymandering" key conditions.
"This pantomime is the creation of politics, and ministers should never have even begun on such a grotesque perversion of science," said chairman David Williams.
Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said the animal welfare charity was "astounded at the incompetence of the Government".
He added: "The Government is opening itself up to accusations of 'fixing' the cull results for their own political ends."
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".
Queen guitarist Brian May, a leading opponent of the cull, urged ministers to abandon the "ridiculous" cull.
"They have no idea how many badgers there are and they keep adjusting the figures to make it look like this is a success," he said.
But the National Farmers' Union, which backs the cull and played a key role in advising the Government, said the pilots will be "invaluable" to the prospects of expanding to up to 40 culls.
A roll-out could mean culling in neighbouring Devon and even into Cornwall – both considered bovine TB hotspots.
NFU president Peter Kendall said: "These badger cull pilots are a very important first step in what is a 25-year strategy to eradicate this terrible and infectious disease."
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.