Plan to step up badger cull prompts fresh row between ministers and wildlife defenders

Plan to step up badger cull prompts fresh row between ministers and wildlife defenders

A new government plan to wipe out all badgers in certain areas has prompted a fresh row between officials and wildlife activists.

Badgers are blamed for carrying bovine tuberculosis (bTB), which forces dairy farmers to have infected herds culled.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has back-tracked on earlier promises to end the badger cull, which began in 2013.

Instead, as revealed by The Independent last month, officials are proposing to allow 100 per cent of populations to be killed in “cluster” hot spots for the disease. Until now, the target was 70 per cent or above.

But animal-welfare supporters are considering renewed legal action over the policy.

They claim:

  • The cull is politically motivated to suit certain factions, especially farmers

  • There are no restrictions on the number of cull areas and the public will not know where they are

  • Slack controls will confuse enforcement bodies and the public

  • The numbers killed could double in just over a decade to half a million

  • Defra is ignoring the science that has disproven evidence officials are relying on

Under targeted culling – or “epidemiological culling” – badgers may be wiped out in areas, mostly southwest England, where bovine TB (bTB) is considered a particular threat.

The deadlier policy could begin next year. The government had previously indicated culling could be ended by 2026 before Thursday’s u-turn.

Labour has promised to end the cull if it wins power at the general election.

Tom Langton, an ecologist who has challenged culling in the courts, said 100 per cent culling was tried in 2018 in Cumbria. “They shot 1,115 badgers - all of them - but could not then attribute change in TB rates to culling as seven farms were quite clearly reinfecting themselves because of the failed testing regime,” he said.

He cited a report that found no demonstrable benefit in lower TB rates in cattle.

“The new prolonged killing spree, under what looks like a highly simplified licence system, could see the badger tally rise from around 250,000 shot to-date, towards 300,000 by 2030 and half a million by 2038,” he said.

“This would be a cull of largely healthy adult badgers and their cubs, cruelly slaughtered using crude methods opposed by the British Veterinary Association, and for no good reason.”

The High Court rejected a legal challenge by Mr Langton to culling in 2018, but he said The Badger Crowd organisation, of which he is a member, could consider joining separate legal action already underway.

Peter Hambly, executive director of the Badger Trust, said the consultation announced by Defra revealed “yet another appalling attack on a protected native species”.

He said tackling bTB could only be done by accurate herd management, more rigorous reliable testing and cattle vaccination. But “the government appears only to listen to stakeholders with vested interests and is fixated instead on a badger-focused policy that affects all of us and our right to nature.

“Government bTB policy in England continues to allow poor hygiene and biosecurity on farms yet still provides millions of pounds in compensation to farmers, and the movement of cattle across the country under knowingly unreliable testing and biosecurity regimes.”

Government sources hit back, saying the aim of the policy was not to kill all badgers.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay said: “Bovine TB has taken a terrible toll on farmers, leading to the loss of highly prized animals and, in the worst cases, valued herds.

“There are no easy answers in the battle against TB, but badger culling has proved highly effective and needs to remain a key part of our approach.

“Our strategy has led to a significant reduction in this insidious disease, which we will continue to cull in areas where the evidence confirms it is required, as well as making use of vaccinations.”