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October 18, 2013

Don’t Extend Shameful Badger Cull

Humane Society International/UK

  • Two pilot culls have taken place in England this autumn. Mike Lane/Alamy

by Mark Jones

For many wildlife experts, scientists, veterinarians and local residents, the pilot badger culls in parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire over the last six weeks proved that shooting large numbers of free-roaming badgers was unsafe, inhumane and inefficient.

Now Secretary of State for Environment Owen Paterson and other government officials want to extend the cull because marksmen failed to kill the target proportion of badgers, falling well short of their target of killing 70 percent of badgers within the cull zones. Indeed, as the end of the cull drew near, the government hastily and drastically revised the kill targets and admitted that there were significantly fewer badgers in the cull zones.

Revised population and kill figures

In West Somerset, the badger population estimate was reduced from 2,400 badgers to around 1,450 and in the Gloucestershire zone badger population figures have been revised down from 3,644 to 2,350.

The original kill target marksmen were aiming for in West Somerset was actually higher than the new badger population estimate, by about 500 animals. And most recently we have learned that just 708 badgers have been killed in Gloucestershire out of an original target of 2,900 badgers, well below the target 70 percent of the population.

According to Mr Paterson "the badgers moved the goalposts". In making such a ludicrous statement, DEFRA scored an embarrassing own-goal. Had it not been for the emergency deployment of cages to trap and kill these poor animals when it became obvious shooting wasn't working, the kill figures would have been far lower. The failure of the pilot culls to reach their targets should not be used as an excuse to extend shooters’ licenses for three additional weeks.

Last year the cull was suspended because there were too many badgers. This year the culls are to be extended because there are too few. Mr Paterson can't have it both ways. If ever there was an example of government spinning the facts to suit policy, this surely must be it.

Badger suffering and humanesness assessment

The facts that can’t be ignored are the reports of badger suffering, and there was scant monitoring of the shooting. A marksman wanting to keep his job is highly unlikely to volunteer information on whether the badgers he shot were killed cleanly, or whether any were injured and escaped.

Also, despite an order by the Information Commissioner’s Office, DEFRA continues to refuse to release any meaningful information to Humane Society International/UK and the public on humaneness assessments. The Secretary of State hasn’t even bothered to await the judgment of the Independent Expert Panel appointed to assess the humaneness of the pilots before declaring them to have been humane. In these pilot culls, any number of badgers could have been painfully wounded and fled underground to die. We will never know.

We will also never know if the badgers killed were, in fact, stricken with bovine tuberculosis. We're told that many of the badgers killed to date were riddled with disease, yet there’s no evidence. This is because DEFRA didn't include testing of badgers for bovine TB as part of the cull. Testing of badger carcases for TB would have been easy enough to do, and experts urged it.

Gassing setts under consideration

The Secretary of State is even considering gassing whole families of badgers in their setts as a possible future ‘tool’ for killing these remarkable animals. He says that gassing will only be used if it is shown to be safe, effective and humane.

According to a new YouGov opinion poll commissioned by HSI UK, 58 percent of the public would not support the government authorising badger gassing. Three years ago Prime Minister David Cameron famously called gassing "very cruel," and a DEFRA report from 2005 states that the use of fumigants "cannot be reliably expected to kill all the animals in a complex system." Gassing is also excluded as a method of killing species listed by the Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats (Bern Convention) which includes badgers.

Unmitigated disaster

Clearly it is government officials who are moving the goalposts. This farcical policy has turned into such an unmitigated disaster, it would be almost comical were it not for the fact that hundreds of badgers have paid for Mr Paterson's political point-scoring exercise with their lives.

In fact, his conduct during this episode has resulted in him becoming little more than a laughing stock, hardly what we need at a time when the British Government seeks to play a leading international role in matters concerning biodiversity protection and wildlife crime.

It's time the government got serious about protecting our wildlife and our farm animals, and left our badgers alone.

Find out more about our campaign to protect badgers.

Mark Jones is executive director of HSI/UK.

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