Anti-cull activists say a pilot badger shoot has descended into “farce”. But farmers tell Channel 4 News the policy is the only way to stop the slaughter of TB-infected cattle.
The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said a six-week pilot cull in West Somerset had ended with only 850 badgers being destroyed, against an initial target of nearly 2,000 animals.
The contractors have asked for a three-week extension to their licence to reach the target.
A second cull in Gloucestershire is still in progress and information from an independent panel of experts will be published when it has finished.
The number of badgers killed in Somerset represents 60 per cent of the local population – falling short of the 70 per cent target set out by the government after a study suggested that was the minimum needed to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis from badgers to farm animals.
And ministers can only claim a 60 per cent reduction because they have substantially reduced the estimate of the number of badgers living in the cull areas.
The badgers have moved the goalposts. Owen Paterson
But asked if he had moved the goalposts to make the cull look more effective, Mr Paterson said: “The badgers have moved the goalposts.”
He added: “You are dealing with wild animals. It is a wild animal subject to the vagaries of the weather, disease and breeding patterns.”
There was fierce criticism of the way Mr Paterson’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) handled the change in estimates of the badger population.
Defra issued kill targets to the gunmen hired to carry out the cull based on population data collected in October 2012.
It then commissioned another population estimate – based on DNA taken from badger hair collected in sample areas – in August this year.
The pilot culls were allowed to go ahead in September based on the 2012 data, despite the fact that officials knew that more up-to-date information on badger numbers was in the pipeline.
In Somerset the new population estimate turned out to be 1,450 compared to about 2,400 last year, and in Gloucestershire 2,350 compared to around 3,400.
Defra told Channel 4 News the much lower estimates were only given to the shooters five weeks into the six-week cull.
It is truly shocking that the kill targets for shooters were set higher than the actual number of badgers in the cull zone. Wendy Higgins
Wendy Higgins, communications director for Humane Society International UK, said: “It is truly shocking that the kill targets for shooters were set higher than the actual number of badgers in the cull zone, and it is only the shooters’ inability to meet those targets that prevented local badger populations from being wiped out altogether.”
A Defra spokesman admitted the fall in the estimate of the numbers of badgers had surprised officials, but denied that the initial overestimate meant there was a risk of the entire badger population being killed.
He said: “That was never going to happen. There are areas within the cull zones that you just can’t get to.”
Speaking in the House of Lords on Wednesday, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser Lord May was scathing:
“We have learned that those responsible for this so-called experiment are so incompetent that they couldn’t even make a reliable estimate of the number of badgers.”
Wildlife volunteers at a sanctury in Somerset believe the cull is being used as a pretext for the illegal killing of badgers. Channel 4 News Science Editor Tom Clarke filmed as the bodies of four partly-decomposed badgers were examined. All were found dumped in a nearby river – outside the cull zone.
Pauline Kidner, founder of Secret World Wildlife Rescue, told Channel 4 News:
“The shooting of badgers is totally illegal, but what this is proving is that the cull going on in Somerset and Gloucestershire has basically meant that it’s open to everyone, and this is what we know is going on in other parts of the country”.
Ms Kidner is now passing X-rays and photos to the police, who are investigating.
Campaigners are also concerned that the cull may not be going as smoothly as the government claims.
Accusations that culling methods are inhumane have largely centred on the fate of one animal, known by the identity tag Badger 102, which activists say was shot with a high-velocity bullet but died a lingering death some time later.
The animal’s body, now being kept at the Secret World wildlife centre in Somerset, was taken by protestors while the marksman was retrieving it.
The department said in a statement: “We cannot say whether the badger taken illegally on 14 September and the carcass that then turned up at the Secret World sanctuary are the same animal without a post mortem being carried out.
“We have offered to carry out a post mortem on the carcass to establish how it died.”
In a statement to the Commons, Mr Paterson defended the results of the pilot, saying: “Current indications suggest that the pilot has been safe, humane and effective in delivering a reduction in the badger population of just under 60 per cent.
“We set ourselves a challenging target of aiming to ensure that 70 per cent of the badger population was removed during the pilot.
“The Chief Veterinary Officer has advised that the 60 per cent reduction this year will deliver clear disease benefits as part of a four-year cull.”
He added: “One of the lessons we have learned already from this pilot is that in order to ensure high levels of safety and humaneness, the cull period may need to be longer than six weeks in future.”
Badger expert Dr Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London told the BBC there is a danger that culls can actually increase the number of infected badgers if they drag on too long or fail to kill 70 per cent of animals.
She said: “If this was my decision, I would be stopping now, having a look at what the independent panel says and deciding what, if anything, to do next year.”
But many farmers are passionately in favour of continuing with badger culls, saying controlling TB-infected wildlife is the only way to stop the slaughter of tens of thousands of cattle a year.
David Barton, who farms near Cirencester, Gloucestershire, said: “I absolutely understand why people are upset about badgers being culled, but you have to bear in mind that I have been culling cattle since 2001 for disease control.
“Over that period I have culled over 100 cattle, and we run about 150 head of cattle. In the last two years we have had to cull over 50.
“The majority were breeding animals that I would keep for 10 or 15 years. I have bred them myself and got attached to them.
“You end up with calves calling for their mothers. It is a horrible business.”
I can’t understand why people are getting so excited about animals they don’t know, when the animals I have killed are ones that I have known and looked after. David Barton
He added: “I can’t understand why people are getting so excited about animals they don’t know, when the animals I have killed are ones that I have known and looked after.
“These people seem to think that they are crusading for animal welfare, but they don’t understand the first thing about it. I want to see clean, healthy badgers and healthy cattle.”