By Dominic Dyer
The media had some fun last week following the statement from the environment secretary Owen Paterson that the badgers had "moved the goal posts", triggering an extension of the pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire. But beyond the humorous front pages, cartoons and spoof video games, the announcement by Natural England of a 66% decrease in the badger numbers in the cull zone areas over the last 12 months is a matter of serious concern and needs more investigation.
The reasons put forward by Owen Paterson for the massive decline in badger numbers over such a short a period do not hold water. He informed parliament last week that the key factors were a cold winter, shortage of food and disease. However there is no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims and no leading expert in the field of badger behaviour and population studies is willing to accept that these factors alone could explain such a huge drop in numbers.
Natural England have not released their assessment of the collapse in badger numbers for parliamentary or public scrutiny, but we can be certain it did include a focus on a growing problem which Paterson and the National Farmers Union (NFU) are doing all they can to hide: the widespread illegal gassing of badgers.
Anyone in involved in the animal welfare and wildlife protection movement will tell you that farmers have been illegally killing badgers, a protected species, for decades via a variety of methods including shooting snaring and filling of badger setts with slurry.
What has changed in the past 12 months, particularly in the cull zones of Gloucester and Somerset, is that famers are now organising themselves into groups to carry out widespread co-ordinated illegal gassing of setts using carbon monoxide. They are using social media to share best practise and sett locations and have even formed professional networks to hold meetings in rural communities to openly discuss the gassing of badgers.
The possible extent of these illegal gassing networks was uncovered by an excellent investigative report by Isabel Webster of Sky News last week, which became headline news. Within a matter of days Sky News found 14 farmers in one area of Somerset alone, who were willing to admit they were illegally gassing badgers. They confirmed that following the collapse of the pilot cull last year, many farmers lost confidence in the government's ability to deliver a legal culling programme against strong public opposition and decided to take the law into their own hands and illegally gas badgers on their farms.
The gassing of badgers has been illegal since 1982 and for good reason. The use of carbon monoxide pumped into badger sett is a very inhumane and an inefficient way of killing badgers. The gas does not disperse equally throughout the sett and many animals which do not die as a result of the gas poisoning will be left brain damaged. Illegal gassing of this kind can also lead to TB-carrying badgers dying underground or injured badgers moving between setts, both of which pose a serious disease spread risk. Illegal gassing is also a serious criminal offence which has can result in a prison sentence and fines of up to £5,000 for each badger killed.
However when asked to respond to the Sky News investigation, Paterson did not condemn the gassing of badgers as an illegal criminal activity. In fact the words he used were "that's most unfortunate as it can lead to an extension of the disease". This statement gives a clear message to farmers across the UK that they can act with impunity and little risk of prosecution by illegally gassing badgers. What is more worrying is that despite growing evidence of these illegal badger gassing networks and an investigation by Avon and Somerset Police, the government is now pushing ahead with researching gassing as an option for culling badgers, which gives an effective green light to these criminal activities.
As a result of the failure of Paterson and the NFU to take serious steps to stop the illegal gassing of badger, we have found that farmers have moved rapidly to kill large numbers of a protected species in Somerset and Gloucestershire and no doubt across the country. Our wildlife protection laws put in place to protect badgers from illegal killing are now being completely undermined.
What the media missed last week was a far more worrying issue than the usual incompetence and manipulation of figures to support a failing policy, what we might be seeing is the widespread illegal destruction of a protected species by organised criminal networks in the farming community to influence the future direction of the government badger culling policy.
Not only is this a political scandal but it's also a wildlife protection disaster. If we continue to cull badgers when we can no longer be certain of the population numbers due to widespread illegal killing, we are running a serious risk of eradication of the species from large areas of the UK.
I spoke to hundreds of anti-badger cull protesters in the prime ministers constituency of Witney on Saturday. I challenged David Cameron to stop the badger cull not only due to rising costs, animal welfare concerns and public anger, but also because of widespread criminal activity, which threatens the future of a species which is protected by law and has lived on this land for 300,000 years. I think he would be wise to listen in the weeks ahead, as the political costs of inaction in the face of such widespread criminal activity in our countryside could be very high indeed.
Dominic Dyer is a policy advisor at Care for the Wild. He has been a Care for the Wild trustee for around seven years, and throughout 2011 served as executive chair for the charity.
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