Major revision of badger numbers in West Somerset cull area
THE estimated numbers of badgers in the pilot culls areas, particularly West Somerset, has fallen again, following a third attempt to gauge populations.
The figures have emerged in the authorisation letters confirming Natural England’s decision to grant full badger control licences to the companies running the culls in the two pilot areas.
The letters show the minimum number of badgers to be ‘taken and killed’ within the West Somerset licence area during the permitted six-week culling period is 2,081, with a maximum of 2,162. In West Gloucestershire, the minimum is 2,856 and the maximum 2,932.
With the licences requiring that at least 70 per cent of the badgers are culled, these figures confirm a significant downward revision of the estimated populations in West Somerset, while the West Gloucestershire figures are slightly lower.
The pilot culls were postponed in the autumn when last-minute estimates of badger numbers were released by Defra days before the culls were due to start.
That survey, compiled by Natural England and Defra’s Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), suggested there were 4,300 badgers in the West Somerset area and 3,600 in the West Gloucestershire area. Those figures were double the numbers originally estimated in the West Gloucestershire area and about 60 per cent above the original West Somerset estimate and forced a rethink of the policy.
The NFU called off the cull and NFU president Peter Kendall argued the higher badger numbers raised the risk that the cull would fail to meet its targets, thereby jeopardising the wider roll out to a further 10 areas per year.
But following a further revision of badger numbers, Defra, Natural England, the NFU and the two farmer-run companies running the cull appear to be satisfied that the targets can be met.
A Defra spokesman said the new estimates were based on a wider range of evidence which means they are ‘the most robust estimates we have had’.
“In addition to the sett survey data carried out last year, we have now been able to add genetic data from hair trapping to create a more accurate estimate of the true badger populations in each area,” he said.
“Previous estimates were based on the best evidence available at the time and developed using a robust method subject to independent scrutiny. It is entirely right that these estimates were revised when more information became available as we want the culls to be done in the right way so that they help disease control without endangering wildlife.”
An NFU spokesman said: “We’re confident that the revised numbers represent the best available estimate of local badger populations in the two areas and that we and the companies can proceed with putting in place plans to deliver control operations in 2013 that meet the licence conditions.”
The specifics of this year’s cull were announced this week, with Dorset chosen as the reserve area.
Defra Secretary Owen Paterson told the NFU conference the authorisation letters were ‘an important step towards taking the action we need to tackle the spread of this disease in wildlife’.
“I am determined that there are no further delays this year. That is why we have taken the sensible step with the farming industry to elect a reserve area that can be called upon should anything happen to prevent culling in Somerset or Gloucestershire,” he said.