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The Politics of Britain’s Badger "Cull"

by LESLEY DOCKSEY

Digging ever deeper into the facts about the badger culls, the more I come across evidence showing they are being carried out on the basis of false figures, manipulated evidence and a lot of, to quote Hillary Clinton, “mistelling of the truth”. The more I discover, the more senseless and cruel the whole exercise appears and the more heartsick I become.

The Humane Society International had been trying for many months prior to the culls to get information from Defra, the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as to how they were going to judge the ‘humaneness’ of the killing. Finally, at the end of May this year, they received a heavily redacted document that, even when full of blacked-out sentences, made it clear that badgers would suffer.

Defra admitted that some animals are likely to be wounded but not immediately killed, with injured animals expected to experience massive bleeding, hyperventilation and shock, and some eventually dying of secondary infection or starvation because of lack of mobility after being wounded.

Although ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office to do so, Defra still refuses to disclose what their criteria are for judging ‘humaneness’; even so, they were quite happy to claim during the Somerset cull that “All badgers killed as part of the pilot culls have been shot cleanly and killed instantly.” Note the ‘killed instantly’.

And Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, as Mark Jones of HSI writes, “hasn’t even bothered to await the judgment of the Independent Expert Panel appointed to assess the humaneness of the pilots before declaring them to have been humane. In these pilot culls, any number of badgers could have been painfully wounded and fled underground to die. We will never know.”

When the Gloucestershire badger cull officially ended we were told that the results were even less impressive than the Somerset results. A mere 30% of the target number of badgers had been killed. Of course, following the Environment Secretary’s ludicrous excuse that the badgers “had moved the goalposts”, Defra swiftly re-jigged the figures.

But even that didn’t make the cull look any more of a success. So the cull operators, as with those in Somerset, asked for a time extension.  No mere 3 weeks that Somerset had been granted for Gloucestershire!  They asked for 8 weeks more, a time greater than the original cull. And, as chaotic as the cull had been combined with the bad press it had received, the tide started to turn, just slightly, in favour of the badgers.

badger at den.sp2011.PatJ.FWS.512x289

Badger den. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

First came the news that the Badger Trust had formally warned the authorities to abandon the shooting or face a high court challenge on the grounds that a plan to more than double the killing period is illegal. Should the killing go on, they would seek an injunction. Jeff Hayden of the Badger Trust quite rightly remarked, “This government has a feudal attitude towards wildlife.” Natural England, feudal bastion that it is, is still considering whether to grant the marksmen extra time.

But then Natural England’s lead scientist and wildlife biologist David Macdonald pops up, saying the cull should be stopped immediately. He was followed by Huw Irranca-Davies, a shadow environment minister, who wrote to Poul Christensen, chair of Natural England, saying that granting the Gloucester cull an extension would destroy the credibility of the wildlife watchdog.

He wrote: “The hard-won reputation of Natural England for sound impartial and evidence-based advice which can support but also challenge policy makers is on the line.” This is the same Natural England that, much to the anger of the RSPB and other wildlife conservation groups who had thought they were being consulted, secretly granted licenses to pheasant shoots allowing them to destroy buzzard nests.

Meanwhile 11 concerned Tory MPs had written to Owen Paterson about the culls and the lack of information (or should I say lack of truth). The letter said:

“There is a need to keep Parliament informed of the results once the trial period has finished and before any decision is made on future culls. Now that the pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire are nearing the end of their allocated time frame, we remain concerned that the government will not release any further information on how the humaneness of the cull is being assessed or what threshold will be used to assess if the cull has reached its humaneness target.

“Whilst we appreciate that the Government will release data on the cull, this will only be after you have reached a decision on whether the pilots have met their targets and can be rolled out to wider areas. We therefore urge you to commit to publishing the independently assessed evidence from the pilot culls, as well as taking advice from a range of experts on humaneness, after culling in the pilot areas has finished and before any decision has been made.”

But Mr Paterson had already publicly stated that he would roll out the culls across the country. So much for the “independently assessed evidence”. He was, apparently, “not available for comment.” Keeping his head down perhaps, in a recently-vacated badger sett. Another MP, Martin Horwood, writing in the Gloucestershire Echo, was fairly scathing about Paterson’s pilot culls – “how not to run them” was his opinion.

And now even farmers have little time for Defra’s take on bovine TB and badgers.  As the Gloucester cull ended with the request for a further 8 weeks of freedom to shoot badgers, brave farmers have appeared to say they don’t agree with the cull. Goodness knows they found it difficult to voice their views earlier, so loud and so vicious were the responses from the pro-cull lobby.

It reminded me of the time, years ago, when anti-bloodsports campaigners started to be heard about banning hunting with hounds.  Chatting to a farmer over whose land the local Hunt happily careered every winter, he told me how tired he was of their antics. This surprised me because I’d had the impression that all the farmers in the area were pro-hunt. But no. They galloped across all his winter wheat instead of keeping to the headlands, left gates open and stirred up all the beef cattle. “Why don’t you ban them from hunting over your farm?” I asked. “My life wouldn’t be worth living,” he replied. “You don’t know just how nasty they can be.”

So full marks to Cheltenham farmers Dave and Gill Purser. Having doubts about Defra’s justification for the cull, they did their own research. “The case for the badger cull as put forward by the NFU/Defra ministers seems to rely heavily on the basis that bovine TB is ‘out of  control’, ‘increasing year on year’ and is ‘spreading rapidly’,” said Mr Purser. “So the least you would expect to find is that Defra’s own national bovine TB statistics support these claims. But, try as we might, we cannot make the stats reflect the alarming picture painted by Government officials.”

They have written to both the EFRA Select Committee and the Defra Permanent Secretary, Bronwyn Hill, asking them to review the evidence. Gloucestershire County Councillor Paul Hodgkinson shares their views, saying, “I’ve read through the evidence and it seems to undermine the official line being given by the Government.” So is it all a con trick engineered by Paterson, Defra and the NFU?

And now, as I write, the news comes through that Natural England has done the unthinkable and granted the Gloucester guns another 8 weeks of killing. And David Attenborough is accusing the Government of ignoring science by extending the cull. Surely, Sir David, you must have realised by now that politicians will always ignore the science if it doesn’t agree with what they’ve decided to do. Time for a donation to the Badger Trust, to help finance their court action.

If Defra has been discredited, then so has the National Farmers Union, which appears to represent large land owners rather than small farmers.  Put another way, the muddy boots and old jackets people rather than the green wellies and Barbour brigade. Barbour jackets can cost a week’s wages or more for your average rural worker, and good green wellies’ also come expensive.

So, just to cheer you and me up after the awful shambles of the badger cull, here is a rural joke:

Years ago I was sitting in the cab of a cattle lorry with a tired race horse in the back, waiting to leave a point-to-point course in the Mendips, where the horse had run. Our driver couldn’t get to the exit because the way was blocked by a Range Rover standing in the middle of the track with its doors wide open, surrounded by a mass of green wellies busily exchanging bon mots. The driver waited – and waited – and said sourly, “If they don’t move soon I’ll force my way through and take off their doors while I’m at it!”

Finally someone noticed our lorry edging ever closer, and they all hurriedly piled into the waiting vehicle and moved down the track.

As we followed the Range Rover, now stuffed full of green welly brigade passengers, to the exit, my companion turned to me and asked:

“What’s the difference between a Range Rover and a hedgehog?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“A hedgehog has all the pricks on the outside!”

I can only believe that the Range Rover is now carrying Defra, the NFU and Owen Paterson.

Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer and contributes articles to websites with international reach on issues of war, peace, politics and the environment.

This essay originally appeared in The Ecologist.
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