Thousands more badgers could be killed under proposal to raise target numbers in cull

Exclusive: Government likely to unveil plan next week to move to 100% culling in ‘exceptional circumstances’

Jane Dalton
Saturday 17 February 2024 09:33 GMT
Vaccinating badgers, rather than culling them, 'brings landowners and animals together'

Thousands more badgers than planned could be killed if the government gives the go-ahead next week to raising the target number of animals in certain areas, experts say.

Until now, official policy has been that culls aimed to reduce badger numbers by 70 per cent within in each cull area and across most of southwest England.

But The Independent understands that ministers are preparing to allow that target to be raised to 100 per cent in “exceptional” circumstances, subject to a consultation.

The announcement could be made as early as next week – during the National Farmers’ Union annual conference.

The permission would be similar to that granted to sugar-beet farmers to use bee-killing pesticides – which has been given four years running.

The change to the 100 per cent target would begin after January 2026, if it is approved after a consultation.

More than 260,000 badgers in England – over half the population - are thought to have been killed since culling began in 2013, as the government has sought to eradicate tuberculosis in cattle, which is costly for farmers.

The cull has repeatedly been expanded, including as late as last year.

The spread of the disease is blamed on badgers but wildlife defenders dispute this, saying cattle are 800 times more likely to spread the disease than badgers are.

One expert said “exceptional circumstances” was poorly defined so feared the policy could become standard practice.

Tom Langton, an ecologist who has challenged culling in the courts, said the toll of extra badgers killed would depend on how many areas got the go-ahead, but if it was the entire “edge area” – that is medium-risk - up to 20,000 or more a year could be killed.

He said: “If the exception is just a badger with bovine TB is found or trapped within say 1km of a farm, it could just become the new normal to cull every year over wide areas. So this risks being the cull anywhere, for ever moment.”

The government had promised the culls would end next year and be replaced by increasing vaccinations, but last year landowners and farmers were given the go-ahead to kill tens of thousands more badgers.

Mr Langton said 100 per cent culling was tried in 2018 around Penrith in Cumbria in cattle imported from Northern Ireland.

“They went in and 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.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Our approach to disease control continues to be informed by science and deploys all tools at our disposal.

“We are moving to the next phase of our strategy which will focus on wider scale badger vaccination – but as we clearly set out in the 2020 Godfray Review response and subsequent consultation and response in 2021, culling remains an option where epidemiological assessment indicates that it is needed, alongside other measures in our bovine TB eradication strategy.”

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