NFU 'committed' to badger cull despite badger number concerns
THE NFU has stressed that it remains ‘committed’ to the badger cull despite concerns raised by a Defra survey revealing far higher badger numbers in the two cull areas than initially estimated.
But NFU president Peter Kendall has acknowledged that the cull organisers now face a ‘challenge’ to get the policy up and running this autumn.
Culling was expected to begin in at least one of the two pilot areas – West Gloucestershire and West Somerset – as early as the end of this week or early next week.
However, the publication by Defra of its survey of badger numbers in the cull areas has thrown a spanner in the works and prompted intense discussions over the past few days about whether it is feasible to start this autumn.
Responding to a Parliamentary Question from Shadow Defra Secretary Mary Creagh, Farming Minister David Heath revealed on Wednesday that the ‘best estimate’ for the number of badgers within each pilot area was 3,600 in West Gloucestershire and 4,300 in West Somerset.
This is double the number originally estimated in the West Gloucestershire area and about 60 per cent above the original West Somerset estimate.
The badger survey is central to the policy as it will determine how many badgers need to be culled to ensure the target of removing 70 per cent of badgers from the 300sq.km pilot cull areas is met.
A key question now is - given the substantial increase in the numbers of badgers that will have to be removed - whether the companies feel confident they can meet their targets with the resources they currently have at their disposal, which were based on much lower estimates of badger numbers.
Mr Kendall said on Friday: “We are working bloody hard to make sure this is deliverable. The latest numbers are making this more challenging but, before this starts, we have got to be very confident that we are going to deliver.”
The pilot culls are scheduled to last for six weeks and the timetable for an autumn cull was always going to be tight given the difficulties of culling once winter sets in.
Another potential complication is that the closed period for culling using cage traps starts on December 1, meaning the cull would have to start this weekend if cages are to be used alongside controlled shooting throughout the six-week period.
A Defra spokesman insisted there was ‘no change in badger cull policy’. “We are still absolutely committed to the pilot culls and we hope they will go ahead as soon as possible.”
He stressed that the pilot culls were examining the safety, efficiency and humaneness of controlled shooting, not caged trapping.
A Natural England spokeswoman confirmed on Friday that the agency was ‘still not in a position to issue the final licences’ as not all of the licence conditions had been met.
There had been feverish speculation in the media on Thursday over whether the cull will be shelved until next year, sparked initially when senior Defra Ministers and officials cancelled a series of interviews with journalists about the cull, then reinforced by the concerns over the Defra badger survey figures.
Commenting on Thursday, NFU director of policy Martin Haworth said: “The survey figures of badger numbers released this week shows how serious the badger problem is in the South West and they emphasise the need to tackle the problem of bovine TB as soon as possible.
“The NFU and the government have both made it clear they are committed to carrying out badger control culls as part of its TB eradication package.”
He refuted the suggestion that NFU president Peter Kendall had said the cull was now ‘too expensive’ as a result of the extra workload.
Mrs Creagh said the ‘last minute wobble’ over the policy ‘has all the signs of another Government shambles’. “Labour has always said the badger cull was bad for taxpayers, bad for farmers and bad for wildlife. This incompetent Government should listen to the scientists and stop the cull,” she said.
- This story was updated on Friday afternoon.