Badger fiasco shows England needs new wildlife governance

| 3rd December 2013
Badger protest in London. Photo: davidjmclare2 / Flikr.
Badger protest in London. Photo: davidjmclare2 / Flikr.
It's high time for an independent Wildlife Protection Agency, argues Dominic Dyer. The botched badger cull shows we can no longer trust DEFRA, Natural England or the JNCC to carry out their duty to protect our wildlife.
By any measure the badger cull pilots in Somerset and Gloucestershire have ended in a catastrophic failure.

As the last gunshots rang out across the West Gloucestershire badger cull zone on Saturday 30 November, thousands of people gathered for a moments silence on College Green in Bristol.

It was time for the rapidly growing badger protection movement, now known as the "Badger Army" to reflect on what has been an incredible 3 months in the campaign to stop the senseless slaughter of a protected species, one which has lived in our landscapes for over half a million years.

If the Government and the National Farmers Union (NFU) believed they could get away with killing thousands of badgers without anyone taking much interest, they have been proved very wrong indeed. It's now clear that the culling of badgers has opened a much needed debate about how we value wildlife and who controls the levers of power, when it comes to making decisions about its protection.

By any measure the badger cull pilots in Somerset and Gloucestershire have ended in a catastrophic failure for the Government and the NFU, on the grounds of killing efficiency, humaneness and cost.

The free shooting of badgers at night has proved disastrous. The humaneness monitoring has been all but non-existent with badgers being shot and wounded or left overnight in cages in sub-zero conditions. Costs have sky-rocketed to an estimated £5 million across both cull zones.

But let's not forget the badger kill figures. Whichever way the government tries to spin them, they are appalling. And remember, this is a numbers game: for culling to work, the best science says that 70% of the total number of badgers in an area must be culled, within a limited period of time.

In total, 1,861 were killed (303 of these in the 'extension' periods). Originally, the target was 5,800 badgers to be killed across both zones. So they only managed to kill 32% - under a third - of the intended number.

Once the initial cull period finished, Owen Paterson - to mixed dismay and derision - claimed that the badgers had "moved the goalposts" because, he said, there weren't as many of them as first thought. His response was to ... move the goalposts. He revised the badger population in the zones down to 3,800.

But even if we accept DEFRA's massaged estimate, the number of badgers killed is still just 49% of that population - well short of the critical 70% figure. We must also ask - where have the 2,000 'missing' badgers gone? The spectre of illegal killing rises high above this aspect of the whole torrid affair.

Finally, estimates of the cost of the cull run around £5 million - meaning that every dead badger cost the taxpayer £2,686 to kill. And they say vaccination is expensive!

The utter failure of the cull policy is focusing attention on the influence of the NFU over DEFRA Ministers and officials; and the weakness of Natural England - which has proved unable, or unwilling, to stop a policy that was clearly failing on all measures as set out under their own licence conditions.

By any measure the badger cull pilots in Somerset and Gloucestershire have ended in a catastrophic failure.

The Government now faces a real choice: accept the pilot culls have failed, and end badger culling once and for all; or press ahead working with the National Farmers Union to expand the culling programme in the face of growing public and political opposition.

Before it decides which route to take, it would be wise to consider the growing power of the wildlife protection movement and its political influence. Huge anger over the failure of the Government to consider the scientific and humaneness arguments against badger culling is driving tens thousands of people to join the Badger Army, which is now the most rapidly expanding wildlife protection campaign in Europe.

This Army brings care and compassion to the countryside and will no longer sit silent and allow politicians to do backroom deals with the farming industry to destroy badgers and other wildlife. This movement wants to see a change in our system of Government where we place real value on our wildlife alongside broader economic interests.

A key rallying call for the Badger Army is to establish a new Wildlife Protection Agency which is completely independent of DEFRA and all other Whitehall Departments. This new Agency would have the budget, independence and expertise to stand up for the protection of our precious wildlife across government.

From protecting the Green Belt to pesticides and bees, marine nature reserves, HS2, fracking and badger culling, the Wildlife Protection Agency would play a key role in ensuring the wildlife and conservation agenda remains at the heart of decision making.

The Wildlife Protection Agency should replace the Joint Nature Conservancy Committee (JNCC). Despite the hard work and dedication of many people involved in the work of the JNCC, it has not proved itself a strong independent voice for wildlife protection. It receives most of its grant aid from DEFRA, its Chairman and Board are appointed with the approval of the DEFRA Secretary of State and all its priorities and work programmes have to be approved by DEFRA Ministers.

Taking this into account, it comes as no surprise to see that the JNCC has avoided any confrontation with Owen Paterson on key issues of concern to wildlife conservationists, such as the badger cull, greater protection for hares and the killing of buzzards on game bird estates.

David Cameron might believe his best chance of remaining Prime Minister in 2015 is to dump the "Green Crap" from his Government. But public opinion tells us he is heading in the wrong direction.

He would be better to dump Owen Paterson and his failed badger cull, and accept the need to restore confidence in the Government's Green Agenda. A first step would be to establish an independent, effective Wildlife Protection Agency.

Dominic Dyer is Policy Advisor for Care for the Wild.


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