The government has declared war on England's badgers. The shameful, politically motivated slaughter has begun. Far from the controlled, humane and science-led cull the government promised, what we have is fast-developing chaos, division and suffering in our countryside.
Neither the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs nor its partners in this travesty at the National Farmers Union will confirm exactly where or how many badgers have been killed so far in Somerset or Gloucestershire. Yet reports from wildlife groups and others monitoring the killing reveal sounds of shots fired and of animals dying in agony. Some peaceful protesters are even reporting that dogs have been heard in the killing fields, possibly being used to flush out or chase wounded badgers.
The start of the official shooting may also have sparked the targeting of badgers beyond the licensed pilot cull zones. According to local wildlife organisations, badger carcasses have been turning up on roadsides in counties outside the cull zones with wounds and bite marks. We have heard of suspected cases of poisoning and baiting in Gloucestershire. A local badger group in Somerset tells us that their helpline for dead and injured badgers has never been so busy.
Peaceful, law-abiding middle-England citizens, many of whom have probably never protested against anything in their lives, are getting involved. Taking to the country lanes and footpaths of the cull zones at night, they attempt to bear witness, and to help animals who may be found in distress. They have been subjected to threats, verbal abuse and intimidation by cull proponents, and have found little sympathy or protection from the police. Some even report the closure of public footpaths.
DEFRA claims the pilot culls will determine how effective, humane and safe the shooting of free-roaming badgers proves to be, so that decisions can be made on whether the policy can be rolled out across much wider areas. But only a tiny proportion of shoots are being monitored and a fraction of badger carcases examined. So how on Earth will any objective decisions be possible?
The government confirms that nearly 3,000 badgers will be targeted in the Gloucestershire cull zone and up to 2,200 in Somerset. However, these targets are based on population estimates from last year. They don't take account any higher-than-normal cub mortality caused by our very hot and dry early summer. If cubs died in the heat, current badger populations may be significantly lower than official estimates. These culls could wipe out badgers across wide areas of countryside.
With so little monitoring, we have no confidence that shooters will stick to DEFRA's 'best practice guidance.' The chain of custody to ensure all shot badgers are accounted for seems woefully insecure. We hear that shooters fully intend to kill every badger in some cull areas. Every dead badger has a price on his or her head. Are DEFRA officials really so naïve as to think shooters will not deviate from the guidance to meet their quotas?
Those of us campaigning against this unjustified killing have long warned that the badger cull would be an inhumane and uncontrolled killing spree. Our worst fears are confirmed as every night of shooting passes. This cull is bereft of scientific credibility, morally bankrupt and motivated by politics. It must be stopped now.