When the Government announced it was abandoning the extended badger cull, hunt saboteurs were quick to claim the credit. Philip Bowern asks whether they really made the difference.
Even those who support the cull of badgers have found it difficult to find much satisfaction from the pilots held in Somerset and Gloucestershire, through the autumn.
Initially both culls got off to what farmers' representatives and the Government saw as promising starts, with precise targets set for the numbers to be killed within the six-week time-frames. But it was not long before the Western Morning News was able to reveal – from impeccable sources – that the targets were proving much harder than expected to achieve.
Since then, with ever more desperate measures, those behind the culls have sought to claw back some ground. In Somerset, after a three-week extension, some 65% of badgers were killed, still short of the 70% initially said to be required to bring about a reduction in bovine TB in cattle but a reasonable result in the circumstances.
In Gloucestershire the extension was due to last for eight weeks – two weeks longer than the original cull. In the event it was abandoned last week having accounted for just 30% of badgers, with three weeks of the extension still to go.
In the Commons yesterday Defra insisted valuable lessons had been learned and that culling would still form a part of the battle against bovine TB. Ministers have set out a 25-year plan to eradicate the disease.
Yet there is no doubt that the hunt saboteurs believe they have made the vital difference, disrupting the cull teams, and keeping what has been an unpopular policy with the general public well up the news agenda. They are almost certainly right.
Privately some involved in the cull believe the police in Gloucestershire failed to do enough to support the teams going about their lawful business, implementing Government policy.
It is a charge the police reject; but there is no doubt that in both Somerset and Gloucestershire officers have been scrupulous to avoid allegations that they were offering particular help to the cull teams, inevitably leading to allegations about favouring the protesters.
The Hunt Saboteurs Association posted on its website: "This can never feel like a victory as far too many innocent animals have been murdered but it is a great testament to the wide variety of groups who have worked together that we have, for now, beaten the Government and the NFU."
The saboteurs insist they have not benefited from any 'soft' policing. "Whatever they have thrown at us – cage trapping, oppressive policing and illegal extensions we have taken in our stride and defeated. The Hunt Saboteurs Association has more than doubled its membership since the culls began and we have had a huge upsurge of interest in those wishing to join our local groups," they write.
Those backing the cull vehemently deny suggestions it has been a shambles and suggest valuable lessons have been learned. There seems little doubt that culling, of one sort of another – perhaps with a greater use of cage traps to make the task easier – will continue. The use of poison gas in badger setts has not been ruled out, providing criteria around humaneness can be met.
On Sunday, recently installed Farming Minister George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth, issued a staunch defence of the cull – insisting it had been "worthwhile", and praising marksmen who "worked so hard... in the face of provocation".
"The extension to the cull has been worthwhile and has removed a significant number of badgers, which will make a difference to disease-control in the area," he said.
"Now that the cull company is seeing fewer badgers on the ground I agree with the decision to stop the pilot cull for this year, and I pay tribute to all those who in the face of provocation have worked so hard.
"Let's not forget that more than 305,000 cattle have been slaughtered in Great Britain in the past decade due to this terrible disease, which is why we are doing everything we can to get it under control."
To that end Mr Eustice's boss, Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, issued new guidelines on Thursday last week to tighten up still further on cattle testing and movement restrictions. They include the possibility that farmers who miss test deadlines, even by as little as a day, could find they lose part of their subsidy. Increasing the frequency of TB tests could also make it uneconomic to graze cattle on the Westcountry moors, as the WMN reported on Saturday.
There is little doubt that one reason for these measures is to be seen to 'level up' the pressure put on farmers to that which the public believe has already been imposed on wildlife. Several of the proposals – which are being consulted upon – have already angered farming groups.
Further badger culls are going to happen although when and where remains to be decided. What's not in doubt, however, is the deep divisions that this policy has thrown up are not going to go away.