No badgers will be culled in the Westcountry this year as part of a national campaign to combat the spread of bovine tuberculosis.
The decision was taken to call off two highly-controversial pilot culls at short notice after farmer groups licensed to carry out the shooting of badgers told the Government they could not do the job on time.
The news was greeted with dismay by cattle farmers throughout the South West – though campaigners against the cull were delighted.
But a cull will still go ahead next summer, as soon as the badger breeding season is over, the Government has pledged.
The announcement about the postponement was made in the House of Commons by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who said a survey showing increased numbers of badgers in the two pilot cull areas, in West Somerset and around the Tewkesbury area of Gloucestershire, made it impossible for the culling teams to complete the work by the end of the year.
He said: "Despite a greatly increased effort over the last few days and weeks, the farmers delivering this policy have concluded they cannot be confident that it will be possible to remove enough badgers based on these higher numbers, and considering the lateness of the season. It would be wrong to go ahead if those on the ground cannot be confident of removing at least 70% of the populations.
"Today I have received a letter from the President of the National Farmers' Union, on behalf of the companies coordinating the culls, explaining why they do not feel they can go ahead this year and requesting that they be postponed until next summer. In these circumstances, it is the right thing to do and, as they are the people who have to deliver this policy on the ground and work within the science."
Mr Paterson stressed the Government was determined to tackle bovine TB by all the means available.
He added: "Now, in the next few months, we shall ensure that the pilot culls can be implemented effectively, in the best possible conditions, with the right resources. Having looked at all the evidence over many years, I am utterly convinced that badger control is the right thing to do, and indeed the higher-than-expected badger numbers only serve to underline the need for urgent action. I remain fully committed to working with the farming industry to ensure that the pilot culls can be delivered effectively, safely and humanely next summer."
The new survey results revealed that the estimated badger populations of 4,300 in West Somerset and 3,600 in West Gloucestershire were far higher than previous data suggested. The criteria for the two pilots included the need to remove 70% of the local population, which the scientific evidence has shown is required in order to have a positive effect in reducing TB.
Campaigners against the cull were delighted by the announcement, though frustrated a cull is scheduled for next year.
Jack Reedy, of the Badger Trust, said: "Farmers and landowners have been sadly deluded into believing in – and paying for – the proposed unholy mess, based on a 40-year-old prejudice impervious to science."
Farmers, though, are bitterly disappointed that the pilot culls have had to be called off, because of the lateness of the year, and are concerned that a solution to the TB scourge is further away than ever.
The decision was exceptionally difficult – but on balance was responsible and right, said the National Farmers' Union (NFU).
NFU president Peter Kendall said he understood that the news would come as devastating blow to farmers who are desperate for a solution to the cycle of reinfection of TB in their beef and dairy herds.
He said: "The NFU and its members take their responsibilities on this issue extremely seriously and I know there will be many who are devastated by today's news. We have all worked tirelessly to prepare for the delivery of this Government policy to see us finally get on top of this terrible disease.
"But there have been a series of obstacles, not least the appalling weather, delays because of the Olympics and Paralympics, and the legal challenges from those against the policy.
"And let's be clear, the numbers from the badger population survey last week, which demonstrated just how large the badger numbers are, have left us with a huge challenge to ensure we achieve the targets needed for disease control.
"We have always said that this has to be a science-led policy to reduce disease and we have to be confident of achieving the numbers needed for disease reduction.
"As we rapidly approach winter the odds of achieving that number decrease. This is why, reluctantly, we have taken the decision, with the companies involved, to delay until late spring next year.
"For those that have suggested that this cull is irresponsible, I think today's decision shows that this is simply not the case. Postponement is the most responsible thing to do. We have said all along that this has never been about killing badgers. This has always been about eradicating disease. It has been about the battle to get on top of the TB on our farms that strikes at the very heart of our beef and dairy herds.
"In preparing to deliver on this Government's TB eradication policy we have met with challenges. But I am proud of the way that farmers have worked together and shown great resilience in the face of not inconsiderable opposition – and for that I want to thank them.
"I would also like to thank Environment Secretary of State Owen Paterson and Farming Minister David Heath for their continued commitment to this TB eradication policy."
Specialist farm vets were also disappointed, but pleased there had been no Government U-turn on the culls.
British Veterinary Association President, Peter Jones, said: "Although we are frustrated by the delay in implementing the pilot badger culls, we are relieved that there has been no change in Government policy. The science has not changed. Scientists agree that culling badgers does reduce the levels of infection in cattle herds, and we know that no country has dealt with bovine TB without tackling the disease in wildlife."
Farmer: ‘The only real winner here is the disease’
Dairy farmer Paul Griffith was celebrating his herd being passed as TB-free when he heard the news.
“This was upsetting and very disappointing,” said Mr Griffith, who milks 140 British Friesian and Montbeliarde cows at his farm, near Okehampton.
“The only real winner here is the disease and the longer we delay with these pilot culls, the longer it will take other areas to come to grips and solve the dreadful problems we face with TB.”
Mr Griffith, who is the Devon representative on the main NFU Council, said any extra delay not only increased the pressure on farmers already facing hardship because of the disease, it did little to encourage new entrants to agriculture, who were vital.
“We want to get this strategy right for the next generation of farmers,” he stressed. “Thank goodness we have an Environment Secretary in Owen Paterson who wants to press on and get the pilot culls working next year.”
He was angry with the pro-badger lobby.
“The Badger Trust, the RSPCA, Brian May and the rest of them are not interested in the plight of farmers, or have any ideas how to help,” he added.
“They blithely talk about vaccines for cattle and badgers, but we know the BSG vaccine only works for 70% of the time. What about the other 30% of our cattle? What we are looking for is a vaccine that is 100% certain to work.”
Andrew Butler, acting regional director of the NFU in the South West, said there was “huge frustration” among cattle farmers right across the region at news of the culls’ postponement.
“But they well understand, because it has been explained in a straightforward way, why we could not have delivery of the pilot culls within the timeframe available,” he said.
“It’s far better that we do the job properly next year, when we have more time.”
But, he added, the delay in tackling TB was going to make life “very unpleasant” for very many beef and dairy farmers constantly threatened by the disease.
He added: “The key issue here and now is that this is a postponement and not cancellation, whatever anyone may like to claim.
“It was partly caused by the delays brought about by the legal challenges.
“The fact remains, it is not going to be good news for huge numbers of farm businesses already struggling with the problems connected with TB.”
Andrew Praill, of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, said he was disappointed, but insisted it was important to remember that the pilots were based on the available science and were designed to ensure the policy could be delivered effectively, humanely and safely, and eventually lead to the eradication of TB.
Anti-cull campaigners welcome ‘the right result’
Campaigners who battled plans for a badger cull have welcomed the reprieve granted yesterday, but signalled they will ratchet up the pressure for a permanent ban.
Animal welfare groups said the British public simply did not support mass shooting of badgers and the Government should focus their actions to counter bovine TB on vaccination instead.
Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said the postponement was “the right result for the wrong reasons”.
He added: “While we welcome the reprieve for badgers through the Government’s decision not to go ahead with the cull this year, it is imperative that this is not simply a delay, but a definite end to the planned cull.
“At the moment, badgers are on death row for nine months. “We need the Government to change their policy.”
The organisation played a central role in the campaign against the cull as a member of the Team Badger coalition.
Mr Duckworth said as well as an array of eminent scientists, public opinion was on their side with 160,000 people signing an e-petition forcing a debate in the House of Commons tomorrow.
A recent poll commissioned by the league also found 53% of people surveyed would be less likely to vote for their MP if they had supported the cull.
Jack Reedy, of the Badger Trust, hit out at the Government over the fiasco, saying: “Farmers and landowners have been sadly deluded into believing in, and paying for, the proposed unholy mess based on a 40-year-old prejudice impervious to science.”
He accused environment secretary Owen Paterson of a “shameful” series of evasions and errors in “seeking to justify the killing of badgers.”
There was no proof that the badger population had increased in many years since the last estimate in 1997, said Mr Reedy.
He added: “Bovine TB is not currently spreading.
“In fact, the number of cattle lost, and compensated for, has been falling since 2008.”
The RSPCA welcomed the news of a delay, saying it was “good news for badgers, cows, dairy farmers and animal lovers alike”.
Chief executive Gavin Grant said: “Hopefully it marks the beginning of the end for these unscientific, foolish and cruel plans to cull badgers.”
Humane Society International also signalled its relief, with executive director Mark Jones saying: “This decision finally reflects the overwhelming scientific, conservation and public opposition to what would have been a disastrous policy for badgers and farmers alike.”
“We have a vital time window to turn this temporary reprieve into a permanent policy, but for now at least the badgers are safe.”