In March of this year, after what seemed like an interminable delay, the Independent Panel of Experts (the IEP) published its report on the 'pilot' badger culls carried out in Somerset and Gloucestershire last autumn.
The report paints a picture of government-licensed incompetence and animal suffering on a huge scale.
Specifically the IEP was mandated to determine whether shooting free roaming badgers at night with rifles and shotguns (so-called 'controlled shooting') was an effective way of reducing populations of badgers, and whether it could be done humanely.
The pilot culls spectacularly failed on both counts.
In the event, contractors shot nowhere near the target of 70 percent of badgers. This was in spite of population estimates (and therefore target numbers) being drastically reduced just before the pilots began and both pilot culls being controversially extended well beyond their initial six week limits. The culling contractors also resorted to trapping and shooting badgers early in the process when it clearly became evident they were not going to get close to achieving their targets (and would, presumably, not get paid as much as a result).
In terms of humaneness, the IEP estimated that nearly a quarter of badgers who were shot may have taken more than five minutes to die, and some suffered for far longer. The (controversial) target they had set was that less than five percent of badgers should take more than five minutes to die for the culls to be declared humane. In all, contractors failed to retrieve around one in five badgers that were targeted by controlled shooting, so the fate of these badgers remains uncertain. The IEP stated in its report that 'we are concerned at the potential for suffering that these figures imply'.
Just as worrying are the references made by the IEP to how the contractors conducted themselves during the culling process:
Only around a third of badgers whose bodies were retrieved and examined were shot in the target area of the body specified by best practice guidance. Much of the data provided to the cull monitors by the cull contractors was described as 'insufficiently reliable'. Some shooters were not willing to make themselves known to police, or accommodate the independent observers, even though the latter was a license requirement. Information on who shot which carcase sometimes did not match with the reports from independent observers. Some contractors did not adhere to basic safety guidelines, like not shooting when members of the public were nearby, or always operating in pairs. Natural England monitors also reported poor compliance with biosecurity procedures, and contractors' accounts of incidents involving protestors at times differed from video evidence.
None of these reported facts support the picture painted by Secretary of State Owen Paterson, who on 17th October declared that 'as in Somerset, the pilot [in Gloucestershire] has been safe and humane', and on several occasions paid tribute to those who had conducted the cull describing them as 'trained professionals'.
The IEP report has revealed the true lack of professionalism and at times sheer incompetence of the cull contractors, and the appalling degree of animal suffering that likely occurred in the woods and fields of Somerset and Gloucestershire.
The IEP made a number of recommendations in its report in relation to any future culling. Key among these were that use of shotguns, and extensions to the maximum distances over which badgers could be shot with rifles, should not be considered. The National Farmers Union want to 'simplify the process' by allowing shooters to target badgers over greater distances, which says something about how much the NFU cares about the welfare of badgers.
According to the IEP, any future culling would need to take place over the shortest possible period, and simultaneously across large areas of land, so far more contractors would be required.
The IEP also recommended that the standards of competence of contractors should be higher, that only shooters who could demonstrate a high level of accuracy should continue to be employed with inaccurate shooters being identified and weeded out early, and that contractors should receive more training in culling techniques and field craft.
Monitoring of future culls
Of course, to check whether all this is happening, and resulting in the desired improvements in accuracy and humaneness, the process will need to be independently monitored, to at least the level of monitoring that took place during the pilots. This is indeed what the IEP recommends.
However, from the government's response to date it seems very unlikely that any such monitoring is intended, and that compliance will largely be measured through self-reporting by the culling companies.
This would clearly be a disastrous situation, which could lead to even greater animal suffering than took place last autumn, and no-one will officially be any the wiser.
The British Veterinary Association has declared that it will only support further culling if the recommendations of the IEP are implemented in full. Without such an undertaking it seems likely that DEFRA will lose the support of the BVA, support that has to date been critical to its attempts to justify the implementation of its badger culling policy.
In the end, the insistence by DEFRA ministers that culling should continue in some form or another only goes to highlight how little it cares for evidence, and how political this issue has become.
Every independent expert who has ever been asked to assess badger culling has concluded that it won't help, can't be done efficiently, and isn't humane - from Lord Krebs to Professor John Bourne and the Independent Scientific Group that oversaw the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, to the independent Expert Panel associated with evaluating the more recent pilot culls.
DEFRA ministers only need to look across the border to Wales to see how TB in cattle can be controlled without the need for ineffective, inhumane and unethical badger culls. It's high time they did so.