By Dominic Dyer, Care for the Wild International
In between taking calls from senior editors of national newspapers asking me if I could confirm reports that Environment Minister Owen Paterson was on a skiing holiday in France, leaving David Cameron to face the anger of flood victims, I spend some of my Christmas break getting to grips with the outcome of the badger cull pilots.
Using a number of key sources including freedom of information requests, answers to parliamentary questions and leaked documents from Defra and Natural England, I put together a picture of a badger cull that went wrong from day one and has proved a complete disaster.
To start with the free shooting of badgers at night by National Farmer Union-employed pest controllers has proved a complete and utter failure.
Despite claims by the Environment Minister that this method would deliver a quick and efficient way of killing badgers, within 10 days of the culls commencing only 90 badgers had been killed in both cull zones by free shooting.
This resulted in panic in Defra and a major deployment of Government-employed traps teams with heat seeking equipment to increase the kill rates.
At the end of the initial six weeks for each of the pilot culls, no more than 25% of the badgers killed were as a result of free shooting.
It also quickly became apparent that four monitors in two cull zones the size of the Isle of Wight was completely inadequate to gauge the humanness of the shooting operations.
As the culls progressed, wounded badgers were picked up outside of the cull zones, badgers were left overnight in cages in freezing muddy damp conditions, cages were not cleaned down between kills and the shooters found they had the wrong type of ammunition, to kill badgers at point blank range in a caged environment.
The aim of the pilot culls was to kill 70% of the badger population in each of the zones, however at the end of the six weeks trial, only 19% of this target had been achieved in Gloucestershire and 20% in Somerset.
Rather than accepting defeat, Mr Paterson played for time and faced public ridicule with the claim “the badgers had moved the goal posts”.
He then announced a shock 66% drop in the estimated badger population, which he blamed on bad weather and disease, although most experts in the field believe the sabotage of hair traps by anti-cull activists and the illegal killing of badgers by farmers and landowners was a more likely factor for the huge decline.
Despite serious concerns from Natural England’s chief scientific advisor and a number of its board members, the decision was taken extend both cull pilots.
However, the NFU contractors and government trap teams could still only reach 65% of their kill targets in Somerset after nine weeks and 39% in Gloucestershire after 11 weeks.
Also by going beyond the six week trial period, it is widely accepting by leading scientists and badger behaviourists that the trials have significantly increased the disruption to badger colonies and the risk of perturbation and TB spread.
Then we come to the staggering costs of the badgers culls which Mr Paterson has done all he can to hide from MPs and the public.
If we take account of policing costs, Government trap teams and equipment, Whitehall staff costs in Defra, Natural England and Food and Environment Research Agency and badger sett monitoring and data collection, it is estimated that the total costs of both cull pilots is around £7.3 million.
If we divide this figure by the total number of badgers killed (1,771) we are looking at a cost per badger of £4,121.
If the culls are to be extended as Mr Paterson plans for a further 3 years we can add a further £12 million to the costs giving a total figure of £19.3 million for four years of badger culling in West Somerset and West Gloucestershire.
This figure is all the more worrying, when you consider based on DEFRA estimates that even if the cull pilots were 100% successful and reduced the increase in the spread of bovine TB by 16% over nine years, this would only deliver a knock on benefit of £2.5 million to the tax payer.
So based on current projections the costs of the badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire outweigh the benefits by over seven times.
Taking this into account, it comes as no surprise to see Owen Paterson become as elusive as Lord Lucan since the end of the badger cull pilots, leaving his inexperienced junior Farming Minister George Eustice to take the heat in the media and Parliament, for what is increasingly seen as a disastrous policy.
Defra officials are now playing down any talk of roll out to 10 more zones in 2014 and the director general of the NFU has recently stated that even a limited extension of the culls into Devon and Cornwall in 2014, would be a bad move.
Pressure is now building for a full debate in Westminster and a further vote on any extension of the badger cull pilots.
Talks of secret reports and efforts to influence the Independent Humanness Panel behind closed doors, has also further weakened Owen Paterson’s position and credibility.
Many Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs are now becoming increasingly concerned about the growing public anger the cull has generated as thousands of protesters take to the streets of cities and towns across the UK from Manchester to Leeds and Brighton and Bristol in what is now called the “Badger Army”, which is one of the fastest growing wildlife protection campaigns in Europe.
At a time when families are seeing the biggest squeeze on incomes in over 40 years with many having to make decisions about heating or eating, this Government has delivered one of the most disastrous and expensive wildlife culls on record.
In 2014 David Cameron should listen to scientific and public opinion and stop the disastrous badger cull policy for good.
The Government must now focus on bringing farmers, landowners and wildlife protection groups together to find a long term solution to reducing bovine TB.
This new approach should be good for both farmers and wildlife and be based on tighter cattle movement controls, improved TB testing and TB vaccination for both badgers and cattle.
– Dominic Dyer is policy advisor with Care for the Wild International
North West Hunt Saboteurs Association
Direct Action Against All Forms of bloodsports