29 Oct 2013

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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8 reader comments

  1. Member of the public says:

    The report repeatedly referred to North Somerset. Was your reporter with the anti cull protestors in the right place.

  2. Clued-Up says:

    DEFRA’s refusing to tell the public who are the “experts” on the independent panel, what their qualifications are and whether they’re linked to – or related to – any of the “interested parties” carrying out the cull (eg the shooters, its organisers, etc). The independent panel could be stuffed with Owen Paterson’s friends and family for all we know.

    The people who SHOULD BE on that panel are:-

    – well-qualified, experienced, independent veterinary pathologists and badger experts
    – scientists with experience of managing scientific projects
    – a good statistician or two (to assist with quantitative evaluation of the evidence); and
    – someone with wide-ranging knowledge of firearms and shooting situations (eg a police firearms trainer).

    DEFRA and Natural England’s abysmal track record on the badger cull means no informed person will believe anything they say about the expertise or independence of the panel unless there’s corroborating evidence.

    1. jo deer says:

      Precisely.we can nt rely on independant panel.lk at recent events wth nat trust n evn mre scandalous,the hunt scum who infiltrated a panel to vote 4relaxation o fox huntn.the govt r bloody mindedly forgin ahead wth ths cull n short of them all droppn dead wth sum vile plague,I have no conception hw we cn stop them.its unbelievable, truly unbelievable.

  3. kate edmonds says:

    Farmers and landowners may be denied the choice to cull but they are increasingly being offered the choice to vaccinate the badgers on their land, at very low cost, by organisations like ours and wildlife trusts who are using volunteers. The science suggests that vaccination will deliver greater reduction in bTB in badgers than culling ever can; and that that benefit will be passed on in terms of lower transmission rates to cattle. Along with improved bio-security measures, better testing and better control of cattle movements, bTB can be drastically reduced without culling which carries the risk of worsening levels of infection due to perturbation.

  4. Thea Holly says:

    Defra, on instructions from the government and under pressure from the NFU representing the wealthy pheasant farmers of Exmoor whose income from their pheasant shoots averages out at 22 million pounds per year, commissioned the badger cull so how on earth can they be expected to set up an ‘independent’ panel of experts – it’s just laughable – and they surely can’t believe that the general public will fall for that one.

  5. yvonne mustapha says:

    Why is the information above not openly discussed or spoken of on News-round, and Wildlife programmes,such as, Country file, Autumnwatch which Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, and others are part of. they could just add this important information, and wouldn’t need to add their personnel views…JUST the facts, for viewers to think about, instead of the Badger cull being glossed over with the few words of it just ”being an emotive controversial subject”.
    Could it not be debated on the Andrew Marr Show, as he usually goes into the facts of a subject
    Or is it something to do with the strings that control/ edit the BBC. .

  6. A Concerned Member of the Public says:

    A Question to Channel 4’sTom Clarke: In view of what you have said about the government secrecy in which these highly controversial badger culls are being carried out in Somerset and Gloucestershire, will Channel 4’s programme-makers, who are noted for tackling ‘difficult’ subjects which other tv broadcasters have a tendency to shy away from, be televising a programme on these shrouded in secrecy badger culls in the not too distant future, as I’m sure there will be many concerned people out there in the public domain, who, like me, are very angry and upset by the government’s indifferent public opinion ignoring attitude on this subject, who’ll be wanting to watch it?

  7. yorkshire Lass says:

    I agree with ‘A Concerned Member of the Public’. Let’s have more transparency in reporting what the Gov’t wants to keep secret.

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