Night vigils for badgers in the cull zone
- 25 September 2013
- From the section Science & Environment
As the pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire enter the final weeks, Helen Briggs joins a group of campaigners who carry out night patrols to rescue any wounded badgers.
It's 19:00 in a quiet market town on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. People in high-vis clothing are gathering for their regular nightly patrols of the countryside.
One of them is Mark Jones, a qualified vet, and executive director of Humane Society International, which opposes the cull.
The wounded badger patrol is a collection of "ordinary law-abiding middle England people" who are concerned about what is going on in their countryside, he says.
Ministers and the NFU say the cull is needed to control TB in cattle, with 28,000 cattle slaughtered in 2012 at a cost of £100m to taxpayers. The plan is to shoot 5,000 badgers at night in two areas over six weeks, to test whether culling can be carried out in a safe, humane and effective way.
"We're going to go and walk some of the footpaths and travel along some of the roads and have a look at some of the areas where we know there are active badger setts to see what's going on," Mark Jones explains.
"And to see if we can ascertain whether there is any shooting going on in this area and whether there are any animals that might need our help."
He says he has been out on several patrols before and has not seen any killed or injured badgers - indeed, sightings have been rare across both zones. But he says he has witnessed police activity, and has been stopped and filmed by the police during the patrols.
There's just a small group tonight, but the patrol leader, a retired wildlife cameraman, reads out the ground rules - stay together, stick to public footpaths and public roads, and strictly no offensive behaviour. This group has no desire to cause trouble.
We drive to a country road and park. A herd of inquisitive cows watches us from over the gate. We climb the stile and set off on a signed footpath across the valley.
It's getting dark, but there is a brilliant full moon, which casts a silvery light. As we follow a hedgerow at the side of a field, the patrol leader tells us to be quiet as we are close to a badger sett. We strain our eyes but Mr Brock doesn't put in an appearance.
As we follow the footpath along a field, I chat to Nick Berry, a former local government employee who believes the badger cull "makes no sense". He says they have about 350 people on their list from across the country, who say they want to be out doing something.
"The whole purpose of our group is to look for wounded badgers - badgers that have been shot during the cull process and then haven't been killed outright," he says.
"Our patrols are working purely within the law, won't intimidate farmers, and only keep to public footpaths and the roads, to look for these wounded badgers."
He says he is in contact with the police daily on behalf of the group. "Most of the police are very good," he explains. "They're very pleasant to the badger patrollers, they know what our remit is. But at the same time we've had a few instances where we feel the police are not being balanced in the way that they're policing the cull."
Gloucestershire Police says its policing is neutral and there have been no official complaints from protesters being stopped and spoken to.
We walk along a footpath through a small wooded reserve, where there is a large, and very active, badger sett. By torchlight, I can see the entrances the badgers have dug between the roots of the trees. Down the way, there is a wasps' nest that has been carved out by badgers. Yet there's no sign of the badgers themselves.
Another patrol in the area rings in to discuss what it has seen. As it's a quiet night, the decision is made to head back to the cars.
A short stop at a local pub to consult the map. The idea is to spend the rest of the night driving along local roads where badger setts have been identified.
As we drive, I speak to Vanessa Crawford, a medical doctor. She navigates by torchlight from the back of the car around areas on the map where there are known to be badger setts. She comes up from London to join the patrols, motivated by a desire to be out doing something.
"I am very concerned that we are losing the ability to use evidence base for policy decisions and we want transparency," she says. "If it had been a medical pilot project and things weren't going according to plan, you would revisit and have transparent results and then look again at how you progress with the strategy of your research.
"It doesn't feel like there's an ethics committee behind it and that's a concern, that we're damaging the ecosystem and may change that forever if we carry on."
As we drive in the dark past hamlets, woods and fields, there are no signs of either police or shooting. Eventually, we pass a vehicle parked at the side of the road. It belongs to a pair of young hunt saboteurs who have come down from the north-west. The movement against the badger cull has drawn people from all walks of life, from animal welfare campaigners to public figures to anti-hunting saboteurs.
The end of the night. It's been quiet - unusually so, I'm told. But the patrollers say they will be back again, rain or shine, to cover as much of the cull zone as possible with the numbers they have.
No official information has been given about what is happening in the pilot cull zones "for operational reasons" and the media are not being given access to cover the shooting.
There are rumours - which can't be verified - that not enough badgers are being shot to meet targets, a claim that has been denied by officials.
Meanwhile, a Somerset wildlife sanctuary claims to have found a shot badger but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has denied the badger is connected with the cull.
Commenting on progress during the pilots, a Defra spokesperson said: "We won't be giving out detailed information about the pilot culls while they're going on but a full report will be published after the culls have finished."
For the time being, it seems, there are many more questions than answers.