Defra is under renewed pressure to call off its policy of badger culling in two counties of England after the company conducting the cull in Somerset asked for more time to complete the job.
The cull company has asked for a two-to-three week extension on the six-week campaign to reduce badger numbers.
The company behind the cull in Gloucestershire is also likely to ask for an extension.
Badgers have been blamed for the spread of bovine TB (bTB) in cattle herds; however, opponents say there is no evidence that killing the animals will have an effect on bTB levels.
In statement to the House of Commons yesterday, environment secretary Owen Paterson said the Somerset cull had reduced badger numbers by just under 60% - just short of the target of 70%. “The Chief Veterinary Officer has advised that the 60% reduction this year will deliver clear disease benefits as part of a four-year cull,” he said.
“I am not moving the goalposts. The badgers are moving the goalposts”
However, Defra has also revised downwards the number of badgers in the Somerset area, from 2,400 to 1,450 – a move that critics say has made it easier to reach the cull target. In an interview with BBC Somerset this morning, Paterson denied this was the intention: “I am not moving the goalposts. The badgers are moving the goalposts.”
Dominic Dyer, policy advisor for Care for the Wild International, described the cull extension as a “last clutch at the straw by the government”. “They failed to shoot as many badgers as they needed to ensure the culling didn’t make the situation worse. They now claim that they don’t need to kill as many badgers as planned because apparently in the last six months the numbers have ‘dropped’. What happened - did all the badgers hear about the cull and take off on holiday?
“We estimate that the cull so far has cost around £2m, including police costs. If they kill around 2,000 badgers, that works out at about £1,000 each – this must be the most expensive cull in history.”
The RSPCA added its voice to calls to stop the cull: “We remain committed to persuading the government to put a stop to a misguided, unethical and unscientific attempt to control bovine TB in cattle, which will not help solve the problems caused by this devastating disease or benefit cattle, badgers or dairy farmers and rural communities.”
Labour’s newly appointed shadow environment minister 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.
“Instead of going to ground, Owen Paterson should have immediately come before parliament to explain what has gone wrong with his badger cull.”
NFU president Peter Kendall welcomed Paterson’s statement and thanked the companies carrying out the culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire. “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,” he said.
“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.”
A decision will be taken this week on whether the Somerset cull will be extended.