Government admits looking at gassing badgers to control bovine TB
Ministers are exploring the possibility of gassing badgers to halt the spread of tuberculosis in cattle in the South West, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has confirmed.
His comments to MPs came a day after the minister revealed a cull in west Somerset, where free-running badgers are shot by marksmen, has missed its target and a three-week extension has been requested.
The RSPCA and the Labour Party condemned the prospect of gassing the animals as “unacceptable” and “not humane”.
The Government commissioned research into gassing badgers infected with TB in their setts as part of the 25-year strategy published in July.
At Rural Affairs Questions in the Commons today, Mr Paterson said: “Until we can establish vaccines, we have to use the tools employed by other sensible countries which is to remove wildlife. We made it quite clear in our TB strategy that we would look at other methods of removing wildlife.
“And yes we are looking at gassing, but we will not use it unless it is proven to be safe, humane and effective.”
His remarks followed reports that some of the animals had already been gassed illegally in Somerset.
A Defra source made clear no decision had been made and the research may never get beyond a desk-based analysis.
The minister on Wednesday blamed the badgers for “moving the goalposts” after marksmen culled fewer than half the 2,000 animals targeted in the Somerset culling area.
Mr Paterson defended his remarks amid ridicule from critics, arguing he was “stating the screamingly obvious”.
“These are wild animals, who live in an environment where their numbers will be impacted by weather and disease,” he told MPs.
His officials this week announced a new, lower estimate of the badger population, making it easier to hit the 70% target for culling. Nonetheless, the 59% rate achieved – or 850 badgers removed – was still short of the goal.
Underlining the scale of the spread of TB, Mr Paterson said over 300,000 “otherwise healthy cattle” had been slaughtered because of bovine TB over the past 10 years costing the taxpayer £500 million.
Natural England is considering a request from the Somerset cull and a second yet-to-be-complete “pilot” in Gloucestershire for a cull extension.
The RSPCA said it is “opposed to the use of gas” on welfare grounds and “believes it is not humane as it may cause badgers to suffer prolonged deaths underground”.
A statement added: “The possible gassing of badgers adds a further outrageous twist to this misguided policy.”
Maria Eagle, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said: “Gassing badgers has been proven to be inhumane and it is unacceptable for Owen Paterson to be considering it.”
The two “pilots” are testing the methodology of shooting free-running badgers, with some animals closer to homes being caged first.
A cattle vaccine is at least ten years away and a badger vaccine is currently impractical, officials say.
Culls could be rolled-out in 40 areas – including neighbouring Devon and even into Cornwall –if the “pilots” are deemed successful. An independent panel is still to examine the results.
'Unhelpful' situation on costs
Concerns have been raised at the impact on policing of extending the pilot badger cull.
The cost of policing the pilots in West Somerset and Gloucestershire were estimated at some £4 million – which forces will be able to recover from the Government.
A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police said it was “too early” to assess how much the cull had cost but said the costs would not be borne by local taxpayers.
Opponents of the trials have said the costs involved, and the failure to shoot a sufficient number of badgers, showed the trials were a “waste of money”.
Martin Surl, police and crime commissioner for Gloucestershire, warned extending the cull could create an “unhelpful situation”.
He said: “I know we have to wait for an announcement from Defra about any plans for Gloucestershire but I have made my concerns and unease at any possible extension known to the Home Office.”