28/05/2014 08:31 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 06:59 BST

Badger Blame Game Leading to Increased Persecution

Badgers are our largest surviving carnivore and have lived in our landscape for over half million years. Some badger setts in our countryside are over 500 years old and date back to the Elizabethan era. However our relationship with this iconic species has often been savage and cruel.

In the 18th and 19th centuries agricultural workers would dig badgers from their setts and use them for fighting with dogs in inns across the country. In the 20th century colliery workers took the persecution of badgers to a new level of barbarity, with large scale badger baiting, which resulted in the destruction of tens of thousands of badgers along with their setts.

In the current century, despite now being a protected species, the badger is back in the firing line once again, this time from the Government and the National Farmers Union, who claim badgers are a key source of TB infection in cattle and must be culled as a result.

To make matters worse, in their drive to maintain support for the disastrous badger cull policy, the Government has set about creating a wider climate of fear about the badger, with the strong support of the National Farmers Union and even leading public figures such as Princess Anne.

This has resulted in a deluge of negative media headlines in the last few months with badgers being blamed for destroying our hedgehog population, causing a significant decline in bumble bee numbers and even posing a threat to human health by spreading TB to cats, which can then infect their owners.

In my first few months as CEO of the Badger Trust, I have seen only too clearly how this badger blame game can lead to increased levels of badger persecution. From farmers and landowners illegally gassing badgers in Somerset, from gangs of youths in Leeds and Bradford sending their fighting dogs down setts to attack badgers, to badgers being found skinned by the side of the road in Derbyshire, the number of cases of illegal persecution of this protected species is on the rise across the UK.

I recently held a meeting with the Chief Inspector of Police on the Isle of Wight, where we discussed a number of badger persecution incidents since the beginning of 2014, ranging from illegal poisoning of badgers, to petrol being poured down setts and set alight and the entrances to setts being illegally blocked.

It was clear from our conversation that despite the Isle of Wight being a major wildlife tourism destination, the increased level of negative media coverage of badgers was a key concern for wildlife crime officers, who now considered the species to be under a higher risk of persecution.

Last week I spoke at a leading gathering of international scientists, academics and researchers at the University of Nottingham, along with the DEFRA Chief Scientist Ian Boyd, one of the key architects of the current badger cull policy.

I used this platform to put Ian Boyd on the spot over the many failures in science policy making in DEFRA on the badger cull policy, which has proved a disastrous failure on scientific, economic and animal welfare grounds.

I challenged Mr Boyd to explain why as Chief Scientist he remained silent as Owen Paterson and his allies in the National Farmers Union went to work demonising badgers, despite the fact this was leading to an increased level of persecution of this protected species. I told the audience that despite Ian Boyd's talk of science being at the centre of DEFRA policy making, the badger cull was a political decision taken by David Cameron when in opposition, to maintain support from the National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance and to win rural votes.

To deliver this disastrous policy in the face of growing public, political and scientific opposition the Government has embarked on a badger fear campaign, which in turn is leading to increased levels of persecution of this protected species.

Even the BBC has played a part in this process, leading to huge public anger. Its decision to air the Princess Anne interview on Countryfile with her claims that badgers are the sole source of infection for TB in cattle and gassing them would be humane and would also help protect hedgehogs and bees, was a green light for badger persecution.

I also made it clear that the Badger Trust would much rather spend the tens of thousands of pounds we raise from our supporters in bringing those who illegally persecute badgers to justice, rather than having to take an expensive Judicial Review case to the High Court in an effort to stop the Government's disastrous badger cull policy.

Ian Boyd's silence and obvious discomfort at being held to account for these failures, made it clear to me and the audience how the influence and standing of the DEFRA Chief Scientist has been undermined by Owen Paterson during his time as Secretary of State.

The demonisation of badgers to support the badger cull policy not only undermines the reputation of DEFRA and Natural England but also the NFU and the wider farming industry.

We must bring an end to the disastrous badger cull and the badger blame game which is being used to justify it. For too long we have allowed badgers to be exploited and killed. It's time we gave them the protection they need and deserve.