12 September 2013 by Patrick Barkham
Defra and Natural England monitors are silent about the culling – so how can we be sure it is being carried out properly?
Link to video:
Badger cull in Somerset: on the trail of the marksmen
I was pulled over by police twice in the space of 20 minutes last week for being “intimidating”. The second time officers said they had received a call from a member of the public who felt harassed by me. This member of the public was a large bloke driving a pick-up truck which was almost certainly laden with a high-calibre rifle. I was in a people carrier, armed only with a torch. He was enjoying an evening of paid employment killing badgers. I was enjoying an evening of paid employment seeking to discover a few details about the offensively secretive badger cull currently unfolding in the English countryside.
In an incident entirely typical of this cull, the gunman was helped to do his job by the police, who conveniently prevented me from doing mine. On both occasions, officers held me for far longer than it was necessary, to establish I was not breaking any law. This delay enabled the badger cullers to drive away into the darkness and continue their work without having to suffer the terror of a journalist politely stammering, “Excuse me sir, how is the badger cull going?”
We are being kept in the dark over the badger cull, an important and expensive policy which is designed to reduce bovine TB in cattle. There are rational arguments that can be made in favour of this slaughter of 5,000 badgers, but the secrecy with which it is being conducted is suspicious and scandalous. Defra won’t release any details about how it is being carried out. When they are forced to by freedom of information requests, it is so heavily redacted it is meaningless. The National Farmers Union won’t answer questions about the cull; neither will Natural England nor the expert independent monitors – respected academics tasked with assessing the efficacy, safety and humaneness of it.
It is impossible to shine any light on the cull, in west Somerset at least. I’ve visited for five days and long nights in the last two months and the marksmen won’t talk about it, the farmers won’t talk about it, and when you ask local people, anyone who supports it behaves with the kind of bashfulness last seen in the late 1990s, when it was shameful to publicly admit to voting Conservative. Even the landscape is secretive: vast tracts of crown land and hidden valleys with nothing but a dead end road and lonely farmhouse, with a tractor and trailer pulled across the farmyard for protection.
I understand why some farmers have good reason not to talk about the cull. I met a farmer’s wife whose eyes filled with tears as she described months blighted by threatening phone calls from anti-cull activists. I spoke to a farmer who received three arson attacks soon after publicly declaring his support for the cull. Farmers have families and often live in isolated spots where they feel particularly vulnerable. These fears have to be respected.
But farmers in the cull zone are doing themselves a huge disservice with their silence. Country dwellers complain how city types are utterly ignorant of their way of life, but without farmers’ voices it is impossible for the public to understand their point of view – and the valid, persuasive reasons they may have for supporting a cull.
It is a shame that they feel scared because I have also met many of the anti-cull activists and found them to be the gentlest people you could encounter on a dark night in the countryside. The scariest one is a skinny 6ft 4ins vegan with a rape alarm which is set off in the middle of empty fields in the vain hope of scaring distant badgers away from harm. A man carrying a gun who knows how to shoot it and is kitted out with infrared night-vision appears far more of a threat.
At this stage of the cull, the people who really should be speaking, however, are the Defra and Natural England monitors. This is supposedly a pilot cull but we do not have any information about how many badgers have been killed so far, how many have been injured, how the marksmen are ensuring clean kills, who is checking the badger body bags, how fiddling the figures or fraud will be prevented, whether there have been incidences of “unofficial” culling, and many other important details. With no clue about the monitors’ way of working, how can we be sure they are doing these proper checks?
I hate secrecy; everyone in a democracy should. People misbehave when they know they are free to act without scrutiny. The main reason for it in this situation is simple: the cullers know only too well that no amount of reassuring information about the cull’s efficiency, humaneness or safety can disguise the fact that badgers are being shot dead and most of the country finds this distressing and would like it to stop. The only thing that was not secretive in paranoid Somerset last week was Britain’s most elusive mammal. I saw five badgers roaming the countryside after dark: more than any monitors or marksmen. If they are to survive, they’ll have to learn their opponents’ habit of secrecy, and fast.