Westcountry farmers were last night keeping the faith in the Government's controversial badger cull despite major concerns that the trials were faltering.
Sources have told the Western Morning News that marksmen on the six-week cull on Exmoor had only managed to shoot a handful of badgers on some nights – significantly fewer than the average target of 50.
It has also been suggested that almost two weeks into the cull in West Somerset, which started on August 26 and is part of the Government strategy to halt the spread of bovine TB, the total was "well below 100".
Neither the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or the National Farmer's Union (NFU) have commented directly on the numbers. However, farmers remain positive that the culls will deliver against a disease which resulted in more than 20,000 cattle being slaughtered in the South West last year.
Bill Harper, a Devon farmer and chairman of the National Beef Association's TB group, said: "I think it is jumping the gun a little bit. At the end of the day we are waiting for two key reports – the first is from the post-mortems on whether shooting does kill badgers effectively. Secondly the observers on the ground will make their report on what activity they have seen and what percentage have been accounted for."
In West Somerset, the target is to kill between 2,081 and 2,162 badgers, which represents some 70% of the local population. Mr Harper said the trials would establish whether that population had been over-estimated.
"This should not be presented as some kind of disaster," he said. "There are lots and lots of issues that we need to find out about. We need all the information, we need to allow the people on the ground to gather it and then for it to be analysed."
Alex Stevens, NFU county adviser for Somerset, said: "Pilot trials to cull badgers will continue. We have a cycle of reinfection which we have to break. We must get rid of this disease.
"The Government strategy is talking about 25 years. We feel perhaps that this can be improved and it can be done more quickly."
Yesterday, it was claimed the culling company, already said to be "desperate" to recruit more marksmen, was rushing more traps to the area to up its success. It is feared that current progress will scupper the prospects of a rapid roll-out to other TB hotspots, including Devon and Cornwall. Opponents of the pilots, who have been carrying out nightly patrols in Somerset to try to disrupt shooting, seized on the figures to demand the scheme be halted.
Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "[Secretary of State] Owen Paterson should be courageous and admit he got it wrong.
"He should immediately review the pilots and stop them before any more badgers are slaughtered, someone gets hurt, and bovine TB is made worse by perturbation caused by frightened badgers scattering across the countryside. Any suggestion of rolling out these trials would be ludicrous."
Vet Mark Jones, executive director of the Humane Society, said: "It comes as no surprise that the badger cull is failing in its efforts to devastate badger populations in the pilot areas. This unjustified policy has been a shambles from the outset. It deeply saddens me that even one badger has to suffer and die for the sake of political expediency."
St Ives Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George has tabled a parliamentary question to Mr Paterson to publish raw data from the cull a week after it has concluded.
"Whatever happens, it shouldn't make the situation worse," Mr George said. "A partial cull in areas which already have TB in livestock runs a very high risk of making things worse."
Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw said: "Labour has consistently warned the Government that, as well as being inhumane, shooting badgers was not likely to achieve a level of mortality high enough to have any impact on TB, but rather make it worse.
"The clear evidence from the scientifically conducted culling trials under the last Government was that to have any positive overall impact on TB you'd have to kill a far higher proportion of badgers over significantly bigger areas than these flawed pilots."
Mary Creagh MP, Labour's shadow environment secretary, told the WMN: "Ministers have failed to answer my questions on how many badgers have been shot. Scientists have warned that a botched cull could spread bovine TB in cull areas, making things worse, not better. Out-of-touch ministers should stop, listen to the scientists, and drop this cull which is bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife."