Cull trials 'are at risk of failure'
The badger culling trial – a ray of hope for West Country farmers in the fight against the ravages of bovine tuberculosis – could already be in danger of failing.
Some unofficial reports have suggested that only a handful of badgers are being shot daily in the Exmoor culling area. After almost two weeks of shooting, the total toll was said to be "well below 100" – a tiny proportion of the 2,000 badgers which need to be culled if the six-week trials are to be successful. The culling company is also said to be "desperate" to recruit more marksmen to prevent the pilot, a vital part of the Government's strategy to combat the disease, from crumbling.
One source told the Daily Press: "They are having major problems. Only three or four badgers are being shot every day. It is just a case now of who gets the blame for the whole thing failing."
In West Somerset, the target is to kill between 2,081 and 2,162 badgers, an average of about 50 badgers a day, which represents some 70 per cent of the local population.
The controversial cull started in Somerset on August 26 and is also being run in Gloucestershire. If these reports about current rates are accurate, the pilots could fail the "effectiveness" test set by the Government – jeopardising the rapid roll-out of culling to other TB hotspot areas which farming leaders say is vital. The trials will also determine whether shooting is a safe and humane way of killing badgers.
Derek Mead, an entrepreneur dairy farmer from Weston-super-Mare, said: "I understand the West Somerset badger cull may be failing to meet its own target, despite Secretary of State Owen Paterson's assurances that the operation is proceeding according to plan.
"The information I have been given suggests that as at the middle of last week the number of badgers accounted for was still well below 100.
"We have to remember, of course, that this exercise is merely to test the effectiveness of culling, not one aimed at clearing up TB."
The culls were licensed as part of the Government's long-term plan to tackle bovine TB which resulted in more than 20,000 cattle being slaughtered in the South West last year.
Latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show 1,353 cattle in Cornwall and 2,683 in Devon were slaughtered because of bovine TB in the first six months of this year.
The figures are down from 1,573 and 3,215 respectively from the same period in 2012.
Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said talk of a crisis was "premature".
"It is a pilot cull. Therefore we can't fully assess the effectiveness of it until it is completed," he said. "It still has some way to go. I would say making such comments could be somewhat premature. We shall have to wait and see."
There was no indication from Defra yesterday that its position has changed.
In a written statement to the Commons last week, Mr Paterson said: "I understand the pilot cull is proceeding to plan and those involved are pleased with progress to date."