Today, after six weeks of night-time shooting, the marksmen's guns have fallen silent and the Somerset badger cull has officially ended.
For 42 nights, shooters in camouflage and shape-breaking gear led a game of cat and mouse with saboteurs and protesters across the open countryside.
The ceremonial arrival of Team Badger spokesman Brian May this week signalled the end of the bitterly opposed trial scheme.
The men with the rifles have been hounded, chased, tracked and greeted with torches and whistles as they sought to kill 70% of the badger population.
Many people around the cull zone will doubtless breathe a heavy sigh of relief that they can go back to their normal lives, without running into high-speed pursuits each time they venture out onto the roads at night. As the pilot scheme draws to a close the protesters claim the failed methodology has seen far fewer badgers killed than was planned, as exclusively reported in the Western Morning News.
In response, a senior Tory voice in the region with the ear of the Prime Minister insists the numbers are irrelevant, and that provided the creatures were killed humanely – which he claims is the case – then ten more culls will roll out next year, albeit with some modifications.
Nobody can pre-judge the result with confidence and the official report is not expected out for at least six weeks.
However, the predictions of serious unrest, mass arrests and ugly confrontations between the operators and the anti-cull protesters were way off the mark. Avon and Somerset police yesterday said only three people have been arrested in connection with the cull and so far none charged. A man in his 50s, was held for a public order offence.
Two people were arrested and cautioned for assault – a man in his 40s and a woman in her 60s – and one person was cautioned for harassment.
But one things is certain: even after the second cull in Gloucestershire ends in another week, the polarised debate about how to control bovine TB and whether culling is the answer will rage on, and on.
Camp Badger eco-warriors claim campaign success
These are the Brian May foot soldiers – the eco-warriors at the front line in the battle to sabotage the badger cull – and they believe they have waged a successful campaign over the past six weeks, writes Phil Goodwin.
Patrolling the lanes, fields and bridal paths of West Somerset armed with state-of-the-art night-vision equipment, torches and whistles, the band of animal rights activists has been a constant thorn in the side of the marksmen tasked with killing 2,200 badgers.
There have been claims that the 70% kill target may have fallen to as low as 20%, making it hard for the Government to continue the practice of free shooting.
Visitors to Camp Badger – a muddy field at Ash Priors, near Bishops Lydeard, north of Taunton, provided by a sympathetic farmer – are met at a crossroads half-a-mile away then accompanied there on foot.
However, this is not out of excessive secrecy – the headquarters is clearly visible from the road – it is simply because there is precious little space to park among the camper vans and 4X4 vehicles.
On the day that anti-cull movement’s spiritual leader Brian May makes an appearance, morale is high at the vegan camp.
But if the Queen guitarist is Team Badger’s commander-in-chief, the field marshal of the night-time operation in the Somerset cull zone is Jay Tiernan, of Stop the Cull.
Mr Tiernan who was arrested as film crews watched at the start of the cull, has been trying to stop the free shooting for six weeks and is unrepentant about interfering in the Government-sponsored pilot. “I think it’s absolutely outrageous and I haven’t got any problems whatsoever in interfering with something that is wrong,” he says. “Slavery was wrong – that was lawful activity – was anybody that interfered with that wrong? It’s like hunting with hounds. That is illegal now because we have decided as a society it was morally repugnant. So history now says for all those years the hunt saboteurs were right. Society now says hunting is wrong and I think that will be the case with the badger cull.”
Clearly, these views will find little favour within much of the farming, hunting and shooting community, where tales of extreme action by animal rights groups linger long in the memory.
But Jay is adamant that the mass slaughter is unjustified and other ways must be found.
And despite the bitter exchanges and fears of widespread intimidation beforehand, the cull has largely passed off without incident, something in which he takes pride.
“I think naming and shaming is definitely justifiable. I think the whole thing right from the start was supposed to be shrouded in secrecy and that was our number one goal to make sure it was very clear what was going on,” he adds.
“People ask us why we are masked up and being anonymous, well the other side is.
“We know where lots of people have been shooting badgers but we haven’t been round their houses throwing bricks through their windows. Have people been waking them up through the night? Yeah, maybe, a bit, but there isn’t this big file load of terrible incidents that have happened to people. Intimidation is notes through the letter box, people waking you up banging on the door and that isn’t happening. I’m very pleased about that. We have been very effective without threats and intimidation. It may have happened to a degree but I don’t think it’s very much.” One of the dozen or so saboteurs at the camp, Sally, from Cornwall says trying to find nocturnal hunters in camouflage has been tough hard, tiring work.
She says the six weeks has passed “peacefully” and says the “generosity and good feeling” shown by the public to them has “moved her to tears”.
This reaction, Mr Tiernan insists, shows a public misconception: “Animal rights is a weird thing because you have got the people who are the most sensitive to cruelty to animals being exposed to it. I’m not saying they are somehow special but they are motivated enough to not sleep properly for weeks on end. What motivates somebody to do something like that? It’s not done out of a blind hatred for farmers it’s done out of a compassion for and love of wildlife.”
And despite claiming the cull has failed, he doesn’t believe the protest is the reason, rather that free shooting of so many badgers could not work.
“We never expected it to be able to get there on effectiveness so for us it was all about damage limitation,” he concludes.
“They are going to try to kill 2,200. They might kill 1,000. What we need to do is bring that number down as low as we can. I feel we have done a really good job of that, directly and indirectly.”
Farmers’ suffering ‘combat fatigue’ in the war to wipe out bovine TB
The farming community has been watching the badger cull with a degree of nervousness and anticipation.
Many in the livestock business would admit to severe combat fatigue in the war to wipe out bovine TB.
For those who see the cull as the beginning of the fight to eradicate the awful disease, there was concern the cull might be marred by angry protests and ugly confrontation with protesters, which might deter farmers from signing up for more schemes next year. Would the whole thing prove a total failure, leaving the industry at square one?
Catherine Broomfield, secretary of the Devon Cattle Breeders’ Association, thinks the debate on bovine TB has proved “a lot less stressful than we had anticipated.”
“Since the start of the pilot badger culls, I’ve been following events in the media, initially with some trepidation,” she says. “How violent would the protests against culling become? How polarised the debate?
“Yet my reaction over the past few weeks has actually been one of relief that the issue is being openly debated in the mainstream media, and that farming’s voice in that debate has been consistently measured, balanced and informed, seeking to push the debate towards facts and evidence rather than emotion and politics. Farming may have done itself a lot of good over the past few weeks. Pity we don’t see farming leaders on BBC Question Time more often.”
Catherine feels one of the reasons why we are now seeing practical action is because the top man at the Department for Environment, Food and Rual Affairs (Defra), Owen Paterson, is there by choice.
Her suggestion that predecessors would have been suited to “leading the Vegetarian Society” reveals a commonly voiced discontent with Labour’s Secretary of State Hilary Benn.
But she admits that her enthusiasm after a cull which at least did not descend into all-out war in the countryside, is tempered by a “nagging feeling” that the livestock industry in the South West may be “looking the wrong way”. Specifically, she refers to Defra’s 113-page Draft Strategy on Achieving Officially bTB status for England, which opened for public consultation about the same time as the pilot badger culls got under way.
She explains: “I do wonder if Defra hasn’t played the card favoured by all Governments since time began – relying on the fact that people can’t be bothered (or don’t have time) to read yet another dry, government babble-logue. And, lo, before you can say ‘future of farming’, it’s become policy.”
She fears the strategy’s policies for the High Risk Area (HRA) from the South West up to Cheshire, in which bTB is rife. Farmers outside of the HRA will, in Defra’s words “be penalised for risky practice” – in other words buying cattle from within the HRA.
“I try to stay balanced about these things, but it looks very much like Defra is coming to paint a big cross on the door of Westcountry farming before throwing away the key,” she warns. “But don’t worry, Whitehall says it’s sending someone down in 2025 to open up again, so freshly washed and cleansed, we can resume trading with the outside world. Who exactly do they think will be left standing by then?
“The epidemiological case for stopping the spread of the disease by minimising cattle movements is well rehearsed and understood.
“The real devil lies in the detail of Defra’s anodyne words – their new ‘risk-based approach” to trade and compensation, and the assertion that Defra’s hard-pressed budget will necessarily require them to ensure farmers make a “significant contribution to the cost of controlling bTB’.
“If you’re a farmer who has been decimated by TB and been unable to trade freely for the past decade, you may already feel you’ve contributed more than enough.
“The strategy states its intention to ‘support the commercial viability of herds within the HRA’, yet also sets out to ‘deploy market measures, regulation, incentives and deterrents to reduce the risk of disease spread due to cattle movements’ from the HRA to the rest of the country. Defra is basically going to do in an organised way what TB has been doing haphazardly for the past decade – remove free-trading conditions between TB-endemic areas and the rest of the country. By Defra’s own admission, farmers in the HRA will have to bear this regime for at least ten years before anything like a normal market is reinstated. It beggars the question of just how farmers in the HRA are supposed to survive abnormally restricted markets, and reduced values for the cattle, unless supported by a comprehensive package of financial support from Government? I don’t remember reading anything in the strategy that told me what Defra was going to do to support farmers – except to make sure farmers contributed more themselves. I realise that farming is suffering TB-fatigue. Many farmers have spent their working lives under the shadow of endemic TB and are due to finish their working lives with Defra’s TB strategy still a work in progress. Perhaps we are all falling into something akin to Stockholm Syndrome – showing undue gratitude to our captors for whatever small mercies they afford us. Small steps forward are important, but small steps are all they are. Let’s not, through fatigue, allow ourselves to sleepwalk into all that Defra has planned for us over the next 12 years.”
WMN opinion: End of pilot badger culls is just start of a long process
David Cameron could not have been clearer; Owen Paterson has been adamant from the start; even Lib Dem Farming Minister David Heath was resolute – a controlled cull of badgers must be part of the effort to bring bovine TB under control. So it seems highly unlikely, despite the efforts of the anti-cull protesters, that the end of the pilot cull in Somerset today will mark any kind of conclusion to the cull programme overall. What we have seen over the past six weeks, is just the start.
It is generally easy to discern when politicians are preparing to drop a policy like a hot potato or perform a U-turn that would be the envy of a boy racer. No such signs have been forthcoming from the coalition Government, so far as the badger cull is concerned. Of course the cull in Somerset, which has just hours to run, and the one in Gloucestershire which still has a week to go, are pilots, designed to test whether it is possible to shoot badgers with rifles – at night and in the wild – humanely. But like courtroom lawyers who are trained to ask only questions to which they already know the answers, no politician embarks on a high profile ‘pilot’ such as the badger cull without having a pretty good idea of the results. The Western Morning News had very well sourced information early on in the cull that the marksmen were failing to kill the number of badgers originally estimated. We ought to learn, in the next few days, the true number culled. But suggestions this week from Devon farmer Richard Haddock, chairman of the Conservative Rural Advisory Group, that the numbers are now ‘irrelevant’ tells its own story. This is not a policy that is likely to be de-railed because circumstances, perhaps including the work of the anti-cull saboteurs, made it difficult to kill as many badgers as had been predicted.
Few farmers, indeed few countrymen and women in any profession, take any pleasure from the badger cull. Most in bTB hotspot areas across the Westcountry will be bracing themselves now it seems likely that at least ten more culls will be rolled out. But they will also be grateful for the fact that this Government, unlike its predecessor, has been prepared to take difficult decisions for what everyone hopes will be a long term gain and the eventual eradication of bovine TB. There will be lessons from the pilot culls but it is almost inconceivable that they are over.