The police have failed to complete an investigation into the alleged illegal killing of 118 badgers by a farmer in a badger cull zone.
The alleged crimes were reported to an executive agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) by an employee.
However, evidence suggests that the government did not refer the matter to police – even though the killing of just one badger is so serious a crime that it can lead to a fine of up to £50,000 or a prison sentence.
The confusion caused by the significant delays led to the alleged crimes remaining unsolved – but who is to blame for this failure? Police or government?
The police are supposed to have a neutral role as regards the badger cull, but recently it was alleged that a Devon cull liaison officer had been acting partially.
So what further light does the ‘118 badgers incident’ shed on the role of the police in relation to the badger cull? Badger culling began six years ago in the autumn of 2013 in two pilot cull zones: West Gloucestershire and West Somerset. West Gloucestershire’s cull began on 3 September.
In August 2013 the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), an executive agency of Defra, received a report from a Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) field worker who was surveying setts before the cull.
The report said that a farmer had admitted to the field worker and his colleague that they would “not find any badger setts that are active on his land” and that “he had got rid of 118 badgers”.
The field worker wrote his report on 19 August and said in the report that he had notified AHVLA’s field office (in Gloucester).
The pilot culls were due to start in 2012 but were delayed. Culls were only licensed by Natural England if the percentage of participating land in a cull area was at least 70 percent. In 2013 participating land in West Gloucestershire was 70.17 percent. The 0.17 percent equated to about half a km².
If the alleged crimes had been reported to police it is possible that the farmer (a cull participant) would have had to withdraw from the cull during the investigation and that if his land was over half a km², the whole licence for West Gloucestershire would have had to be revoked.
118 is a huge number of badgers. Badgers are territorial and rely on suitable habitat and an abundant food supply to subsist. These factors suggest that the farmer’s landholding was considerably larger than half a km².
In October 2013 it was revealed that badger population estimates in both cull counties had fallen dramatically in the course of one year. Some experts suggested that illegal killing may have had a part to play in the substantial drop.
At the time a Defra spokesperson said that the department had not received any allegations of illegal killing in the cull areas and that if anyone had any information about suspected wildlife crime they should contact police.
Replying to a Freedom of Information request submitted in the same month Defra said: “No evidence has been received by Defra about any illegal culling. Defra does not hold this information as it is not the department’s responsibility to arrest or prosecute individuals undertaking illegal activity. This is the role of the police.”
This denial was disputed by the requester, who asked Defra to conduct “adequate and properly directed searches to confirm whether information about illegal badger killing [in England in 2013] is held.” Defra reiterated that it did not hold the information. But it did.
Two years later, as part of preparations for a hearing in the First-tier Tribunal, this Freedom of Information request was re-examined.
In August 2015 Defra admitted that it did hold the requested information and disclosed the field worker’s report with the name of the farm and the farmer blotted out.
Defra confirmed that the farm was in Gloucestershire and that the farmer was a cull participant in the Gloucestershire cull zone.
When asked if they had reported the alleged crimes to police, Defra said: “We do not know whether this information was referred to the police.”
In 2015, once the field worker’s report had been disclosed, the alleged incident was reported to Gloucestershire police by a member of the public. A wildlife crime officer undertook the investigation and said that he was unaware of the incident being reported previously.
Although it was well over six months since the alleged offence had occurred (and therefore a prosecution could not be brought) the officer acknowledged the seriousness of the alleged crimes and wanted to speak to those involved and to investigate why it had not been reported to police by Defra, if that was the case.
Progress was slow, but by September 2016 the officer had been supplied with the report that identified the farm and the farmer. He contacted the Animal and Plant Health Agency (formerly AHVLA) to request the contact details of the field workers and the farmer, the farm’s location, the details of the AHVLA manager to whom the incident was reported, the police force to which the matter was forwarded and a reference number or an explanation as to why it was not reported to police.
Early on in the investigation the officer was removed from his post as wildlife crime officer and by the end of 2016 he had retired. After he had left the force and enquiries were made as to the investigation’s progress there was considerable confusion.
The new investigating officer said she had not been made aware of the final outcome. She could not find the unredacted report or government emails and could not contact the retired officer. When she approached APHA, she said that they could not locate the report and could not find anyone who had spoken with the original investigating officer.
When pressed – and after more time had elapsed – the officer obtained the report. Then she dropped the bombshell that the farm was not in Gloucestershire’s policing area but in Avon and Somerset’s policing area and that consequently Gloucestershire police would no longer be involved in the investigation.
She said that she had contacted ‘the relevant person’ in Avon and Somerset police who turned out to be the cull liaison officer. He drew attention to the fact that a prosecution needed to be brought within six months of the offence and expressed regret that his force were not notified of the incident at the time.
Three and a half years had elapsed since the field worker wrote his report and one and a quarter years had passed since the incident was reported to police.
It cannot be confirmed whether anyone working within Defra or AHVLA had deliberately withheld the field worker’s report and chose not to inform police. However, there is evidence to suggest that they did not inform police (while there is none to suggest that they did).
The original investigating officer and the Avon and Somerset cull liaison officer both indicated that the alleged crimes had not been reported to their forces at the time. If they had been reported in August 2013 – or even in October when the requester sought the information – a full investigation could have been carried out and a prosecution brought.
Did Defra fear that a police investigation would create negative publicity for its controversial badger control policy – or that it would delay the pilot culls for another year? We will never know.
The original investigating officer was impartial and concerned with the truth. However, once this officer left, the investigation faltered.
Did the Gloucestershire farmer live in an Avon and Somerset policing area? This claim is not wholly convincing. If it is true, it is odd that the original investigating officer did not realise this when he received the report disclosing the names of the farm and the farmer.
Was the investigation transferred in order to close it down?
It is alleged that a high-ranking officer from Devon and Cornwall police suggested to government that the badger protection law should be suspended in cull areas (‘legalising’ illegal killing). Do other senior officers share his views?
Why was the investigation referred to a cull liaison officer?
It has recently been alleged that a cull liaison officer in Devon police referred to badger cull protestors as “idiots” while he was advising cull operatives. There are claims that he also said that he would confiscate cameras set up to monitor cage traps. Devon police has said that appropriate action would be taken against the officer who had not acted impartially.
Whether the two cull liaison officers share the same attitude is unknown. However, it is logical to assume that it would be more appropriate for wildlife crimes to be investigated by a specially trained wildlife crime officer rather than an officer with a close relationship to badger cull participants and marksmen.
What happened to those 118 badgers? Were they killed illegally? Sadly, it is likely that the mystery – and the investigation – will remain unsolved.
Were the badgers’ corpses disposed of below ground? If they were, then – thanks to the government and police – the truth was buried with them.
Anna Dale campaigns against the English badger cull.