A night in the badger cull zone
Allow me to let you in on a secret: there is a badger cull afoot in the Gloucestershire and Somerset countryside. Of course we know the cull is happening, but what else do we know about it? Is it being carried out humanely? Are the cull operators meeting their strict targets for the numbers of badgers killed in a given space of time?
Is, as documents seen by the BBC today suggest, the cull potentially spreading TB further? And, perhaps most importantly, will culling work to deliver a reduction in bovine TB in cattle?
In short, we know very little about what’s happening on the ground. We’ve asked farmers, Defra and Natural England to tell us more. They say they will not comment on operational details around the cull. The cull is essentially a secret one. So last week we spent two very wet and windy nights in the Somerset countryside trying to see the cull for ourselves.
The only people who are following the movements of farmers and the men they have recruited to kill badgers are anti-culling activists. Many belong to the hunt saboteur movement and are veteran agitators of those who hunt or chase animals for sport.
We spent two whole nights in the cull zone and witnessed plenty of human activity around setts which are known to be targets of the cull. But we saw no evidence of shooting, trapping or movement of badgers. Spread over a large geographical area, in isolated patches of wood set in private land, the culling of badgers has gone on unwitnessed by the public.
Cull operators have adopted an almost identical approach to that of their badger quarry. Rather than allow themselves to be approached by activists, they go to ground.
It’s a sensible tactic. They avoid risking public or personal safety by confronting activists. And because the cull zone is fairly large, and badger setts well hidden on mostly private land, it’s easy to move on to another badger sett and shoot or set traps there.
The strange thing about it is how we witnessed farmers (or those working for them) retreating from their own land by people who, many would argue, have no right to interfere with their legally sanctioned activities.
The National Farmers Union and Defra, which has authorised the cull, are employing a similar strategy in dealing with the media. Both understand the killing of animals is not popular – so by avoiding any publicity they can best ensure the cull continues without too much public outcry.
Activists claim that by being ever present around the cull zones they have been able to prevent “free shooting” of badgers from working (cull teams are not permitted to shoot if there is a chance there may be people within 30 metres of their target.) However cullers can avoid this by using traps to catch badgers which can be killed later.
It doesn’t appear to have done much good. In Somerset it looks as though farmers may meet their (recently down-revised) target of killing 1,015 badgers by the end of this week. Though in Gloucestershire farmers must kill at least another 540 badgers to meet their target. They have a two month extension, but winter, and a near shut-down in badger activity, is nearly upon them.
And this is where the secrecy around the badger cull may end up working against farmers. After a number of extensions and re-revisions of numbers, there is a growing lack of trust in the scientific basis for the cull. While Defra is assembling an independent panel of experts to review the evidence gathered by Defra scientists monitoring the cullers’ activities, will there be any guarantees that evidence is valid?
Culls can only be rolled out across the country if this independent panel of experts is satisfied the pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire have worked. If they can’t be satisfied – or if the public can’t be persuaded their conclusions are sound – farmers elsewhere in Britain may be denied the opportunity to see if controlling badgers helps reduce TB in their herds.
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