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October 14, 2012

Badger Cull: Cruelty in the Killing Fields

Humane Society International/UK

  • Vets are concerned about the welfare of badgers. Stuart Matthews

by Mark Jones

A group of veterinarians, including myself, has written an open letter Owen Paterson, Secretary of State at the UK’s Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), to express concern that the slaughter of badgers will result in widespread animal suffering.

Badgers are due to be shot in two pilot cull areas, Gloucestershire and Somerset, using a combination of live cage trapping and night-time shooting of free-ranging badgers as they emerge from their setts. The letter warns that many badgers are likely to be mortally wounded and left to bleed to death underground, that pregnant females could be targeted, and that newborn cubs are likely to starve to death in their setts if nursing mothers are killed.

The letter goes on to explain that achieving a clean kill of a low-slung animal like badgers during the hours of darkness, is extremely problematic. The ‘heart and lung’ target area identified in DEFRA’s Best Practice Guidelines, is well protected by the upper forelimb and associated musculature. This means there is a high chance that significant numbers of badgers will be injured, resulting in unnecessary – and in some cases extreme – suffering. These mortally wounded badgers are likely to crawl back underground into their setts where they will die a slow, agonising death.

Concerns have also been raised that if free shooting continues into December or the new year, it will be almost inevitable that pregnant or nursing females will be killed, and dependent cubs left to perish. Badgers usually give birth in January and February but the first cubs can be born as early as mid December, increasing the chances that some cubs will already have been born during the cull period.

I am concerned that newborn badger cubs could be the unseen victims of this horrific slaughter. There is every chance that nursing mothers could be shot and if that happens, their dependent cubs will be left to starve to death underground. By allowing this to happen, DEFRA is showing a heartless disregard for animal welfare.

We may never know the true extent of the animal suffering endured by badgers, because the methodology that will be used to assess the so-called ‘humaneness’ of the killing methods, is far from certain. Assessments will be made by collecting and examining badger carcasses, but licensees will only be able to retrieve badgers who have been shot cleanly. As a significant proportion may escape underground to die from their wounds, their bodies will never be analysed and therefore those animals who are likely to have suffered the most will be absent from the study.

The government’s badger cull policy is already scientifically discredited but as a vet and an animal welfare professional, I am really concerned about the animal suffering that is likely to result. In a civilised society, no animal deserves to die like this and the government and the veterinary authorities should be ashamed for championing such cruelty in our English countryside.

Mark Jones is executive director of Humane Society International/UK.

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