Low kill rate halts badger cull
The Government's badger cull policy has been dealt a further blow by the failure of another trial to kill sufficient animals.
Shooting is being halted in Gloucestershire three weeks before schedule after it became clear even a reduced target would not be met.
The pilot scheme was extended by eight weeks after marksmen exterminated only around 30% of the local badger population - well short of a 70% target.
Natural England said it had pulled the plug as the cull was set to miss a revised level of 58%.
Designed to reduce the spread of tuberculosis in cattle, the policy is backed by farmers and vets' groups but strongly opposed by animal rights campaigners.
One leading activist - rock legend Brian May - had launched a High Court challenge to the Gloucestershire cull.
An extension to a trial in Somerset also failed to meet its target. Another 90 were killed there in the extra time, taking the total to 940 - an overall reduction of only 65%.
The shortfalls come despite the estimates of the pre-cull badger numbers being twice revised significantly downwards.
Announcing the extension earlier this month, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson insisted sufficient animals had been "removed" to suggest a wider four-year scheme would have "clear benefits" in tackling bovine TB (bTB).
He has previously suggested the results were poor because "the badgers moved the goalposts".
Natural England said the licence for the cull had been ended "based on the decreasing number of badgers seen by contractors over recent weeks which makes achieving a further significant reduction in the coming weeks unlikely".
"Following discussions with the NFU, the cull company and Natural England, the licence for the extension of this year's pilot cull will stop with effect from noon on Saturday," it said in a short statement.
It said Defra ministers would explain the decision to Parliament on Monday.
Queen guitarist May's environmental group, Save Me, issued the legal challenge over claims the extension went against the recommendation of Government adviser professor David MacDonald.
According to minutes of their consideration, he argued that the cull's aim to stop the spread of TB was "not easily reconciled with the evidence".
A similar tactic was used successfully in Wales by the Badger Trust, another anti-cull group, in conjunction with Save Me.
Appeal court judges in Cardiff halted a cull around north Pembrokeshire because Welsh authorities had not been specific enough in outlining the scope of the proposed extermination.
Badger Trust spokesman Jack Reedy said it was a " humiliating and inevitable setback" for Mr Paterson, the Government and the cattle industry which had "wasted the lives of many hundreds of badgers".
"This ill-advised cut-rate shambles has involved miscalculation of badger populations, manipulated time scales, huge expense for the taxpayer in policing costs, and the fiasco of repeatedly missed targets," he said.
"If it was not so serious it would be comical and should never have happened in the first place".
He said the free shooting method "has departed far beyond any scientific precedent and even beyond its own original terms of reference".
"Cage trapping and shooting in the randomised badger culling trial lasted only 11 days, but ministers and officials said on six occasions that six weeks would be necessary for the pilot trials.
"They then extended them to nine weeks in Somerset and a disgraceful 14 weeks in Gloucestershire.
"Natural England is responsible for issuing the culling licences, but its board was divided when it recently decided to allow the two-month extension of the Gloucestershire culling period.
"This was against the advice of prof David MacDonald, chairman of its Science Advisory Committee and a board member."
Farming Minister George Eustice issued a staunch defence of the cull - insisting it had been "worthwhile" and praising marksmen who "worked so hard ... in the face of provocation".
"The extension to the cull has been worthwhile and has removed a significant number of badgers which will make a difference to disease-control in the area.
"Now that the cull company is seeing fewer badgers on the ground I agree with the decision to stop the pilot cull for this year and I pay tribute to all those who in the face of provocation have worked so hard.
"Let's not forget that more than 305,000 cattle have been slaughtered in Great Britain in the past decade due to this terrible disease, which is why we are doing everything we can to get it under control."
Paul Wilkinson, the Wildlife Trusts' head of living landscape, said: "This clearly demonstrates that there needs to be a change in direction by the Government.
"The Wildlife Trusts shall continue to call for badger culling to be dropped from the Government's proposed strategy to tackle bovine TB in England.
"The pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire both failed to meet the key test of 'effectiveness' and may have made the bovine TB problem worse, due to the 'perturbation effect', and at a cost of millions of pounds.
"Perhaps now the Government will consider dropping the cull and focus on tackling this devastating disease through investing in alternatives, including badger and cattle vaccination, stricter cattle movement controls and improved biosecurity."