The badger culling trial – a ray of hope for Westcountry farmers in the fight against the ravages of bovine tuberculosis – is already at risk of failing.
The Western Morning News has learned only a handful of badgers are being shot daily in the Exmoor culling area.
After almost two weeks of shooting, the total toll was said to be “well below 100” – a tiny proportion of the 2,000 badgers which need to be culled if the six-week trials are to be successful.
The culling company is also said to be “desperate” to recruit more marksmen to prevent the pilot, a vital part of the Government’s strategy to combat the disease, from crumbling.
One well-placed source told the Western Morning News: “They are having major problems. Only three or four badgers are being shot every day. It is just a case now of who gets the blame for the whole thing failing.”
In West Somerset, the target is to kill between 2,081 and 2,162 badgers, an average of about 50 badgers a day, which represents some 70% of the local population.
The controversial cull started in Somerset on August 26 and is also being held in Gloucestershire.
At current rates, the pilots could fail the “effectiveness” test set by the Government – jeopardising the rapid roll-out of culling to other TB hotspot areas which farming leaders say is vital.
The trials will also determine whether shooting is a safe and humane way of killing badgers.
Derek Mead, an entrepreneur dairy farmer from Weston-super-Mare, said in the WMN: “I understand the West Somerset badger cull may be failing to meet its own target, despite [Secretary of State] Owen Paterson’s assurances that the operation is proceeding according to plan.
“The information I have been given suggests that as at the middle of last week the number of badgers accounted for was still well below 100.
“We have to remember, of course, that this exercise is merely to test the effectiveness of culling, not one aimed at clearing up TB.”
The culls were licensed as part of the Government’s long-term plan to tackle bovine TB, which resulted in more than 20,000 cattle being slaughtered in the South West last year.
Latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show 1,353 cattle in Cornwall and 2,683 in Devon were slaughtered because of bovine TB in the first six months of this year.
The figures are down from 1,573 and 3,215 respectively from the same period in 2012.
Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers’ Union in the South West, said talk of a crisis was “premature”.
“It is a pilot cull therefore we can’t fully assess the effectiveness of it until it is completed,” he said. “It still has some way to go. I would say making such comments could be somewhat premature. We shall have to wait and see.”
There was no indication from Defra yesterday that its position has changed.
In a written statement to the Commons last week, Mr Paterson said: “I understand the pilot cull is proceeding to plan and those involved are pleased with progress to date.”
Both farmers and ministers insist culling of badgers, which can spread TB to cattle through urine and faeces, is needed to stop the disease spreading. Compensation payments and control measures have cost the taxpayer in England £500 million in the last decade.
Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s chief scientific adviser, this week warned the disease could not be ignored. “It is increasing at 9% per annum, despite the fact that we are putting in as much effort into controlling it in cattle as we can reasonably do so,” he said.
“It will continue to increase like that, it will continue to spread over a wider area, it may well get into other livestock, not just cattle, and we have already seen that to some extent.”
Opponents say culling the animals will have only a small effect on infection rates and will lead to badgers suffering. The emphasis, they argue, should be on vaccines and tighter cattle movement measures.
More than 300,000 people have signed an online petition against the culls while protesters are trying to disrupt culling efforts.
Paul Caruana, corrwho worked on the Randomised Badger Culling Trials which ran between 1998 and 2007 and is now an independent badger consultant, said the pilots were beset by practical problems.
He explained: “When badgers are out foraging, we often used to see 12 to 15 badgers in a field at the same time. If you hit one the others are going to disappear. Then you have a problem.”
Cornwall-based Mr Caruana, who is opposed to mass culling, said a shift from shooting free-running badgers to trapping was also problematic.
“The easiest time to trap animals is when they are hungry, when there is little food about,” he said. “But from June onwards, more and more natural food becomes available.”
He added that the biggest problem was “antis” damaging the traps.
He said of the current cull: “I think it was set up to fail, certainly. There are too many issues. I want to see it work but the way it was set up I can’t see it working.”
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