And so it begins again.
In spite of all the evidence and against all reasonable scientific advice, the sound of rifles and shotguns will be ringing out at night across large parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset over the coming weeks, as innocent badgers are indiscriminately massacred whilst going about their nocturnal business. Animal suffering will doubtless ensue despite a lack of evidence that this killing will help tackle bovine tuberculosis.
The Independent Expert Panel of Defra-selected scientists concluded that last year's pilot culls were "ineffective" and "inhumane", a huge blow to the government's plans to roll out the culling to other areas of England, but not enough, it seems, to protect the badgers of Gloucestershire and Somerset from continued slaughter whilst culling methods are "perfected", with a view to further roll-out in the coming years.
So, what's changed?
Well, there will be no independent scrutiny of this year's culls. The IEP has been stood down and two government bodies, Natural England and Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) , will take charge of reviewing the killing for humaneness and effectiveness. Monitors will be present at only 60 of the nearly 2,000 potential shoots, and a mere 120 badger carcasses will be post-mortemed. The IEP report raised concerns about the "overall standard of competence of Contractors in the field". Hired guns will be required to undertake some additional training, although no details have been released of what this entails.
Much criticism and claims of alleged breaches of best practice have been levelled at the culling contractors. As well as clear evidence that they failed on too many occasions to kill badgers cleanly or quickly, Gloucestershire police are now investigating evidence submitted by a government agency observer that alleges breaches which may have put public safety at risk.
And what about the "effectiveness"? Natural England all but admits that its badger population estimates, on which the cull targets have been set, are based on little more than guesswork. It will also rely on feedback from contractors themselves in order to monitor how many badgers have been shot. The IEP report stated that "data provided by Contractors were deemed insufficiently reliable".
Natural England has set targets that could result in 931 to 1,876 badgers pointlessly slaughtered over the coming weeks. The cull is slated to last for a maximum of six weeks. It is, as yet unclear whether Natural England will issue extensions should contractors fail to meet their targets, as they did last year.
Just like the 1,861 badgers who lost their lives in last year's cull, not a single animal will be tested for TB this year, so once again we won't even know if they were carrying the disease they are accused of spreading.
Last year's cull was condemned as an 'epic failure' by Natural England's chief scientific adviser.Ironically, rather than reducing the TB risk to cattle, killing badgers may have actually made it worse because of the massive disruption it will have caused to badger society.
There is a paucity of ethical or scientific justification for this ongoing badger slaughter. By all accounts the political drive to license the killing of badgers is to be pursued at pretty much any cost, and inconvenient things that get in the way, like scientifically rigorous evidence, are to be ignored in the process.
With so many compelling reasons to abandon this divisive, ineffective and unnecessary policy in favour of a more progressive, humane and acceptable approach, it beggars belief that we're about to go through it all again.
Success in Wales
While DEFRA and its NFU partners waste vast amounts of time, money and badgers' lives, bovine TB in Wales is reducing in leaps and bounds without a single badger being harmed. The combined approach of stricter cattle measures across the principality and badger vaccination in the hardest hit areas has reduced TB incidence and the number of cattle slaughtered by around a half since the peak in 2008.
Vaccination funding, but not where it really counts
Last week, Environment Secretary Liz Truss tried to distract attention from the renewed culling by announcing government matched funding and additional resources for badger vaccination.
While it was good to see a Defra minister finally admit that vaccinating badgers might have some part to play in the control of bovine TB, there was a catch, and it's a big one. Government help will only be available for vaccination schemes that target badgers in the so-called 'edge area', excluding areas where the disease is most prevalent and where badger culls could take place. In other words, badger vaccination is fine, so long as it doesn't interfere with Defra's plans to kill more badgers.
The Welsh Chief Vet admitted recently that she didn't understand Defra's notion of vaccinating badgers in the 'edge area'. In Wales she oversees a highly successful badger vaccination programme in the Intensive Action Area where the disease is rife and the vaccination of badgers could have the greatest impact.
Perhaps most disappointing from a personal perspective, has been the attitude of those who purport to represent the veterinary profession on this issue.
Last summer, the British Veterinary Association declared its support for the 'pilot culls' on the basis that they would reveal whether free shooting could be done humanely. In a letter from the then BVA President Peter Jones dated 25 April 2013, he said "our support for the culls will be withdrawn if it is shown that they are not humane". However, in spite of the Independent Expert Panel concluding that the culls were not humane, the BVA has gone back on its word and supported further culling, and has even had the audacity to declare its pride in doing so.
It seems even the BVA is less interested in evidence and independent scientific advice, and more interested in placating the political agenda of some of its members. It's a sad day indeed when we can't trust these representatives of a large part of the veterinary profession to withdraw support for a policy that will clearly have a huge negative impact on the welfare of animals (as they promised they would), while providing little or no benefit.
In years to come, bovine TB will doubtless be brought under control, as the realisation dawns (as it has in Wales) that this cattle industry-created problem requires a cattle-based solution. But in the meantime, continued politically-motivated badger culling will only cost more public money, create more societal divisions, further discredit the veterinary profession, and result in the pointless slaughter of more innocent animals, while doing nothing to help farmers.Suggest a correction