'We heard four shots, a high-pitched scream, then grunting, then silence...': On patrol with badger cull protesters

In the dead of the Exmoor night, Claire Colley joins the saboteurs on a nocturnal mission to save badgers from the cull

They gather on Exmoor after dark, their maps illuminated by moonlight. Dozens of ordinary people – teachers, office workers, labourers – with one common aim: stopping the badger cull.

Some are first time protesters, some experience hunt saboteurs, but all have signed up to spend their nights on the cull front line, protecting badgers and disrupting the marksmen.

“Chaos has broken out in the countryside” says Amanda Barrett, a former BBC wildlife filmmaker and one of the activists. “It’s a divisive policy and this cull is splintering communities”.

The Government has introduced the pilot cull of 5,500 badgers in West Somerset and Gloucestershire in an attempt to eradicate bovine TB, which can be passed from badgers to cattle. This trial isn’t to test how much bovine TB is reduced by culling badgers, but is instead designed to test whether badgers can be shot “effectively, humanely and safely”.

Just 240 will be collected for post mortem. None of the badgers killed in this pilot cull will be tested for TB.

Like most of the people who volunteer for the badger patrols, normal life has been put on hold for Amanda and her husband Owen, as they come out to the Somerset cull zone every  night. “We live near Bristol and it takes two hours to get to the zone but  we just can’t sit by and let this  slaughter happen”.

Walking the lanes and public footpaths, they scan badger setts and baiting areas with infra-red cameras, keeping an ear and eye out for the marksmen.

A member of the Somerset Badger Patrol checks areas inside the cull zone in Williton A member of the Somerset Badger Patrol checks areas inside the cull zone in Williton  

And then they wait, for minutes, hours. “Suddenly the peace is disrupted by the sharp crack of the rifle, and then you hear a hiss, and we know that’s another life gone, another badger wounded. It’s bloodcurdling, and what’s the reason? There is no scientific justification at all” she says.

The science behind the cull is controversial. Defra states that culling over four years could lead to an average 16 per cent reduction in bovine TB. This position was taken after a report by the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, led by Professor John Krebs, Britain’s leading expert on bovine TB. The National Farmers Union strongly  supports the cull, although just 18 per cent of UK farmers are NFU members.

Not everyone is convinced by the evidence. Thirty independent scientists, including Professor Krebs, have challenged the Government’s policy, stating that the complexities of TB transmission mean that culling risks increasing cattle TB. Some critics say that the large numbers of badgers displaced by the cull risks spreading TB to wider areas, and it is claimed that the free shooting of badgers at night will cause significant animal suffering.

“We heard 3 or 4 shots, a high pitched scream, which lasted 3-5 seconds, then grunting, then silence. It was definitely a badger,” says Withial, a local man on the badger patrol joined by The Independent this week. “I know what death sounds like.”

A cabinet maker by trade, Withial is doing everything he can to stop the cull: “We also see distressed badgers after shootings. We saw a small cub on its own tonight. Why? Had its mother been killed?”

“This slaughter makes me so, terribly sad,” Withial adds. “But it only confirms that all this talk about killing the badgers humanely is rubbish.” Withial has never demonstrated against anything in his life before, but says: “I’ve been out every night since this started and I intend to carry on until the end.”

Indeed, what began as a largely disparate group of anti-cull activists has now evolved into a networked and responsive unit.

Michelle Gunn, 31, a vet nurse, co-ordinates the Somerset Badger Patrol: “When I got involved, I researched a lot. There was no sentimentality, ‘oh poor badger’. I’m a nurse, I’ve seen it all. But the more I learnt about this cull, the more I knew it’s fundamentally wrong. Culling is more expensive, perturbation occurs, bio security on farms is lax spreading disease, intensive farming results in animals prone to disease, badgers are not responsible for bovine TB in cows, I felt compelled to help.”

The Somerset Badger Patrol meets nightly in Williton, a small town in West Somerset. They stay strictly within the law, walking public byways. They are tightly organised. “Every evening I speak to a contact about which areas are ‘hot’, so tonight we had 3 patrols out, on Saturday we had 6, and we’ve heard 4 shots tonight,” Michelle says.

On patrol, if they see or hear shots, they move towards them, blowing whistles, shining torches and by law, the shooters must stop: “There’s no doubt we’re having  a massive impact on the cull”  she adds.

However, tensions in the area are running high and West Somerset feels changed: police roadblocks are set up in once peaceful lanes, infra-red beamed Land Rovers are parked up near fields, torchlight flickers on paths at four in the morning. Reports of harassment of badger activists are common.

Maria, one member of the patrol, claims shots were fired in the air around her in a field. Withial also claims he was surrounded by four men shouting: “We shoot fucking badgers and you’re next.” Tez says he was stopped 11 times in one day by the police, and Anne adds she was full beam tailgated as she patrolled alone at night: “It won’t stop me going out though”, she says with vehemence.

Many self-confessed saboteurs are also in the  zone – people willing to employ more furtive, guerrilla methods to stop the cull.

 Sean is a labourer from Sheffield, and has “sabbed” for 4 nights this week before returning to work, and Lee, a soft-spoken web consultant from London felt compelled to come to Somerset: “I’d tried everything, written to my MP, signed the petition, organised a march in London, nothing had worked. Nobody wants to be here, but what can you do, they’re murdering our badgers” his exhaustion evident. “We’ve been set monitoring since midday, guarding against shooters and have done this for two weeks.” It’s 5am, rainy, misty and cold, and  Lee and his group are off to Williton  to watch over a vulnerable sett  until dawn.

The anti-cull activists don’t know how many lives they’re saving, although some estimate they’re stopping between two and six shoots a night. And the shooters’ tactics seem to be altering as a result. There appears to be less free shooting now, with the activists seeing more indications  of cage trapping and shooting at  close range. 

Defra have refused to comment on how many badgers have been killed, but a local landowner has claimed that fewer than 100 badgers were culled in the first 10 days of the six-week cull in Somerset

Defra have refused to comment on how many badgers have been killed Defra have refused to comment on how many badgers have been killed  

But Amanda, the former BBC filmmaker, is pessimistic about the future, even if the cull companies don’t meet the target of killing at least 70 per cent of badgers in the zones.

“If the Government wants to roll this policy out nationwide as Owen Paterson often states, I think they will make a move to gassing as the only way of removing large numbers of badgers in the TB hotspots,” she says.

“The Government may well have unleashed a monster that will not be put back in its cage and have given it legitimacy in order to satisfy political expediency”.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
News
i100
Life and Style
tech

Apple agrees deal with Visa on contactless payments

Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Technical Sales Manager

£45000 - £53000 Per Annum plus bonus plus package: The Green Recruitment Compa...

Humanities Teacher

£110 - £135 per day + Competitive Rates: Randstad Education Maidstone: Outstan...

SQL DBA/Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer SQL, C#, VBA, Data Warehousi...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor