Science & Environment

Document reveals divisions over badger cull extension

Image caption Both pilot badger culls have been extended

Minutes of the meeting giving the go-ahead to a controversial extension of the badger cull reveal deep unease among several board members about the decision.

Wildlife expert, Prof David MacDonald expressed the opinion it "would not lead to a worthwhile gain for farmers".

He was among four board members who disagreed with the decision to grant an extension to the Gloucestershire pilot.

The document was released by the Badger Trust, which may take legal action.

The minutes are of a meeting of board members of the government wildlife agency Natural England over the eight-week extension of culling in Gloucestershire.

The decision was crucial to the success of the cull, which managed to kill about 30% of the badger population in the six-week pilot, less than half the initial target.

The document seen by BBC News reveals that David MacDonald, chair of Natural England's science advisory committee and Professor of Wildlife Conservation at Oxford University, expressed deep concerns about the decision.

The minutes say: "He stated that whilst fully understanding and respecting arguments that led to the decision, he had personally arrived at the conclusion that an extension in the culling period would not lead to a worthwhile gain for farmers."

The document also revealed concerns by some of the board about the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), Nigel Gibbens, that the benefits of an extended cull were "likely to outweigh the perturbation impact of leaving a higher badger population".

Another board member at the meeting on 23 October "expressed concern about the weight being given to the advice from the CVO and expressed the view that independent advice should have been sought".

Other information that emerged included:

  • Parts of the Gloucestershire cull zone were not accessible during the initial 6-week period of the cull because of the presence of protestors
  • A 70% target for the extended cull was considered "not realistic" because the experience in Somerset was that "the number of active badgers and number culled was diminishing"
  • One board member left the meeting during discussions, although a reason was not given.

At the end of the meeting, executive Andrew Wood made the decision to grant a new license to allow the cull to continue in Gloucestershire.

However, four board members asked for their unease at the decision to be recorded, saying the extension would not improve bovine TB (bTB) control in cattle.

A spokesperson for the Badger Trust said it was "consulting its lawyers to consider its position in relation to litigation, and in particular the question of timing of any action".

Defra said Natural England's experts carefully considered all the information and recommended the licence to continue culling should be granted.

"This was in line with the Chief Veterinary Officer's advice, which has been backed by the British Veterinary Association," said a spokesperson.

"We need to do everything we can to get on top of bovine TB which is spreading across the country and devastating our cattle and dairy industries."

'Robust' debate

Natural England said while different individual views were expressed during meetings, what was important was that board members were able to debate the evidence robustly, as they had with bTB.

"While individual board members have been able to present their views, the board has been very clear that decisions about licensing - including the decisions on whether licences should be granted for an extended period of culling this year - should continue to reside with Natural England's executive, not with the board itself," said a spokesperson.

"The executive has accordingly granted the extensions in West Somerset and West Gloucestershire with the full authority of the board and taking account of the very clear advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer that this would have net disease control benefits."