Caroline Spelman’s proposed badger cull to halt the rise of TB in cattle will in fact spread the disease, campaigners will tell the High Court tomorrow.
The Badger Trust charity is seeking judicial review of the decision last year by the Environment Secretary to allow a cull to go ahead, after nearly 15 years of argument about the links between the animals and bovine TB.
Opponents of the plan argue that it will not only mean widespread cruelty – badgers are difficult to shoot cleanly, especially at night – but it will be ineffective, because scientists discovered during a seven-year-long culling trial, which ended in 2007, that killing badgers on a large scale can actually make the incidence of TB infection worse.
This is because survivors of a disturbed, partly-culled group of badgers tend to wander about the countryside, spreading TB as they go, in a phenomenon known as ‘perturbation’.
The perturbation argument will be at the heart of the challenge to the decision, being put before Mr Justice Ouseley at the High Court in London this morning by Mr David Wolfe, QC, on behalf of the Badger Trust (formerly the National Federation of Badger Groups).
Mr Wolfe will argue that the culls proposed will not meet the strict legal test of “preventing the spread of disease” in the areas being licensed, as Defra's own evidence for the hearing confirms that the proposed cull would in fact cause the spread of disease in and around the cull zones.
Defra argues that the effects of perturbation eventually die away, and after some years a reduction in the incidence of the disease of between 12 and 16 per cent is made possible.
But the Trust and Mr Wolfe are seeking to show that Mrs Spelman’s decision is legally flawed on two more grounds: firstly, that the cost estimates of the cull for farmers may be very much an under-estimate, and secondly, that the Environment Secretary was wrong in law to give to the job of licensing the shooting to the Government’s wildlife watchdog, Natural England.
The hearing is expected to last for two days, with a judgement expected in several weeks.
David Williams, chairman of the Badger Trust, said at the weekend: “We see it as our duty to use all legal means of persuasion and scientific argument to overturn this decision, which risks making a bad situation even worse.”
The Trust’s solicitor, Gwendolen Morgan of Bindmans, said: “The Badger Trust has not embarked on this litigation lightly. However, against Defra’s ‘flat earth’ approach to the evidence and determination to pursue an unlawful and costly culling spree, they have been left with no option.
Mrs Spelman’s decision, which reversed the policy of the previous Labour Government, delighted farmers and vets, but dismayed animal welfare campaigners, environmentalists and also some senior scientists.
A trial of the cull is due to take place this autumn in two of the worst affected areas, Gloucestershire and Somerset, and if it is successful it will be rolled out widely in 2013. Farmers will bear the cost themselves, and will form syndicates to hire trained marksmen to shoot badgers as they emerge from their setts in the evening. Thousands of the animals could eventually be killed.
It is widely accepted that badgers form a reservoir for the disease and do pass it on to cattle herds, and Mrs Spelman’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) holds that the situation is so serious that culling is now essential.
Compensation for cattle put down because of TB infection – at present, 25,000 are being slaughtered annually – has already cost the taxpayer £500m and the Government estimates the cost will rise to £1bn over the next decade unless “further action” is taken.
“Defra’s culling plans are bad for farmers, bad for cattle, and bad for badgers. The plans cost millions, and threaten to prompt rather than prevent the spread of disease. We hope that the decision to cull will be struck down by the court.”
Today’s case is not the only legal challenge to the cull which the Government faces. The Bern Convention – the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats – is considering at its Strasbourg headquarters a complaint lodged in January by the UK branch of the Humane Society International, which believes that the cull plan is a breach of the Government’s obligations under the convention.
In March this year, the Welsh government announced it had abandoned the idea of a badger cull of its own, in favour of a badger vaccination programme instead.
Defra has rejected a vaccination-only policy as it believes it would be too slow, with the animals having to be caught and then injected.
An easily-distributable oral vaccine is thought to be several years away at least.