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Badger culls 'farce' condemned

Controversial badger culls have been condemned as a "farce" after ministers admitted that not enough animals are being killed.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said trial culls in west Somerset and Gloucestershire could be extended by three weeks to hit the target of eradicating 70%.

He was also mocked for blaming the shortfall on the animals themselves, insisting during an interview: "The badgers have moved the goalposts."

Mr Paterson said the six-week action in west Somerset, intended to limit the spread of bovine tuberculosis, had killed 850 badgers - 60% of the local population.

"Current indications suggest that the pilot has been safe, humane and effective in delivering a reduction in the badger population of just under 60%," he told MPs in a written statement.

"We set ourselves a challenging target of aiming to ensure that 70% of the badger population was removed during the pilot. The chief veterinary officer (CVO) has advised that the 60% reduction this year will deliver clear disease benefits as part of a four-year cull.

"However, Natural England are considering an application from Somerset for a short extension of the culling period, as provided for under the agreement with the company.

"The advice of the CVO is that further increasing the number of badgers culled would improve those benefits even further and enable them to accrue earlier."

He added : "The cull in Gloucestershire is still ongoing and I will make a further statement when the six weeks is completed. I understand that this morning Gloucestershire is also submitting an application for an extension to Natural England."

Mr Paterson indicated that in future the period for culls may have to be longer than six weeks to ensure "high levels of safety and humaneness".

"This Government is committed to tackling the disease in all reservoirs and by all available means. Our cattle industry and the countryside deserve no less," he added.

Asked on the BBC's Spotlight programme in the West Country whether he was "moving the goalposts" by extending the period, Mr Paterson said: "That's not right, the badgers have moved the goalposts.

"You are dealing with wild animals. It is a wild animal subject to the vagaries of the weather, disease and breeding patterns."

But Queen guitarist Brian May, a leading opponent of the cull, branded the approach an "utter failure" and described the application for an extension as a "farce".

"It's a failure because they said they had to cull 70% and they failed to do that. They are now applying for an extension," he said.

"This is becoming a farce. They are now being told that probably the prevalence (of TB) has increased in badgers already.

"They were warned this would happen and they did not listen to the scientists. Pretending this is a science-based cull is a farce.

"Nobody knows how many badgers there are out there. There was all this talk of an explosion in badger population. If this latest figure is to be believed, there is absolutely no explosion whatsoever.

"How can they keep adjusting these figures? What's the basis for what they are saying?

"The fact they only got 200 badgers after the first couple of weeks is very significant because it shows free shooting does not work as a system.

"The only reason they got 800 badgers is because they went over to trapping badgers and killing them.

"If you can trap a badger and shoot it in the head, you can trap a badger and vaccinate it for the same amount of money.

"The whole argument for this cull has been 'We have to do something now and it has to be affordable'.

"Vaccination is very affordable. I heard a figure the other day of £85,000 per badger killed. This is ludicrous and is our money being spent and it will not solve the problem."

May said the application to extend the pilot should be refused and the cull should not be rolled out across the country.

"Instead of wasting our energy with this war that is going on, we should be getting together as we are in Wales to vaccinate the population of badgers and in a few years take them out of the equation," he said.

S hadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "The extension of these badger cull trials demonstrates that the Government's approach is not working, which is hardly surprising when it was not based on any scientific evidence. There is now a real danger that even longer trials could exacerbate spread of TB as more badgers flee, risking infecting cattle in other areas.

"Eradicating TB from cattle is vital for farmers, the wider rural economy, taxpayers and wildlife which is why we need a science-based approach focused on vaccination of cattle and badgers and proper restrictions on the movement of livestock.

"Instead of going to ground, Owen Paterson should have immediately come before Parliament to explain what has gone wrong with his badger cull."

However, the NFU welcomed Mr Paterson's statement.

President Peter Kendall said: " I understand that the company carrying out the cull in Somerset has applied to Natural England to extend the culling period to enhance its disease control.

"They made this application towards the end of the six-week pilot cull and I understand that a decision will be taken this week whether to extend the licence.

"The knowledge learned from these two badger cull pilot areas will be invaluable in helping to deliver future roll-out of badger control operations in areas where the incidence of TB is rife.

"Our absolute focus, and that of everyone involved, is disease control. More than 38,000 cattle were slaughtered in Great Britain in 2012 because of bovine TB.

"These badger cull pilots are a very important first step in what is a 25-year strategy to eradicate this terrible and infectious disease."

Mr Paterson told Channel 4 News that badgers' breeding habits or the prevalence of TB in the population could be reasons for the shortfall in the numbers shot.

He said: "The numbers were accurate last year. We have extremely professional officials on the ground using a number of techniques to establish the numbers.

"We don't know why there's about 1,000 fewer in each area, it could have been the very tough winter, it could have been the breeding habits, the mating habits but also sadly some of the ones we've shot have been really sick, in a really disgusting state in the last stages of disease."

But he acknowledged that carcasses were not tested for TB "because we know that there is a significant reservoir of disease in wildlife".

Martin Surl, police and crime commissioner for Gloucestershire, said that if the badger cull was extended in the county it may create an "unhelpful situation".

"The constabulary has put a tremendous amount of effort into its policing operation in response to the cull to ensure it has been - and continues to be - even-handed, impartial and operationally independent," he said.

"Responding to the many and diverse needs of people, whatever their involvement and views about the cull, has been a severe challenge and one I believe they have risen to in the best traditions of the service.

"Expecting them to continue beyond the initial six week period is asking a great deal, even though I am sure they will respond accordingly.

"My concern is that the cull operators are feeling the pressure and may become more desperate in their attempts to shoot their quota of badgers while the people opposed to the cull are getting equally frustrated, all of which adds up to an unhelpful situation.

"I know we have to wait for an announcement from Defra about any plans for Gloucestershire but I have made my concerns and unease at any possible extension known to the Home Office today.

"I have to consider and ensure safe and sustainable communities in Gloucestershire.

"I am committed to less crime, more peace and good order and any extension to what has been such a divisive issue in the county is certainly not going to help us achieve that."

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