The Guardian understands that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has sought urgent legal advice on how to bring the night-time shooting under its direct control, and has even discussed using gassing as a more effective method of culling.
A Defra spokesman, however, denied any discussions had taken place about the department taking control. “There have been no discussions or considerations about Defra taking over the badger cull pilots. The pilots are being carried out by licensed companies and this will not change,” he said.
On Wednesday night, according to information leaked to the Guardian, marksmen failed to kill any animals at at all. This week, the government refused to deny claims that fewer than 100 badgers had been killed in two weeks of shooting in the Somerset cull zone.
The badger cull pilots, aimed at curbing the rise in bovine tuberculosis (TB) which caused 28,000 cattle to be slaughtered in 2012, must eliminate 70% of the badgers in each zone, or risk increasing TB as fleeing badgers spread the disease further afield. But the Guardian’s sources said far too few badgers were being shot in the opening weeks of the six-week trials.
Ministers chose the more difficult option of shooting of free-running badgers at night over the more reliable cage-trapping and shooting because the former is significantly less expensive.
The Guardian’s sources also said the possibility of gassing badgers had been discussed. A government strategy on eradicating TB, released in July included consideration of gassing if humane methods could be developed. Gassing with cyanide was outlawed in 1982.
“The failing badger cull could make the public forest sell-off debacle look politically painless,” a source told the Guardian, referring the embarrassing U-turn on the planned sell-off of England’s forests. “That is largely because every problem so far [with the cull] was first outlined in briefings and advice to ministers and ignored.”
Badgers are being shot in pilot cull zones in Gloucestershire and Somerset to test whether free shooting can kill sufficient numbers and do so humanely. But the number of badgers killed in the Somerset cull zone is just three or four a night, according to a source quoted by the Western Morning News.
“They are having major problems. It is just a case now of who gets the blame for the whole thing failing,” the source said.
The Guardian understands that the total number of badgers killed so far is now more than 100, but is far below the 120-per-day average that would be needed to meet the minimum final quotas across both of the zones.
A spokesman for the National Farmers Union said it was “premature” to talk of crisis, as the cull had several weeks to run, and a Defra spokesman said: “We are not commenting on operational details.”
The Guardian previously revealed that, according to experts, the population estimates for badgers in the cull zones are so uncertain that every badger in the area could be killed and the minimum quota would not be met.
Mark Jones, a veterinarian and executive director of Humane Society International/UK said: “It comes as no surprise that the badger cull is failing in its efforts to devastate badger populations in the pilot areas. This unjustified policy has been a shambles from the outset. The government must abandon this travesty that has already cost farmers and the taxpayer dear and caused deep divisions within our communities.”
The culls have sparked the biggest animal rights protests since fox hunting with dogs was outlawed, with more than 300,000 people signing a government e-petition against the cull. But ministers have insisted the cull is a necessary part of bovine TB control measures which cost taxpayers £100m a year for TB testing and farmer compensation.
Many scientific experts oppose the cull, calling it a “mindless” and “costly distraction” from developing vaccines for cattle and badgers and tightening cattle movement regulations and farm biosecurity.
Jones said Defra was also now in breach of a decision from the information commissioner, who ordered the department to release information under freedom of information rules to HSI UK on exactly how “humaneness” was to be measured and assessed during the pilot culls. He said the legally binding deadlines for Defra to release the information, or appeal the decision, have both passed.
Some information on humaneness was released and reported by the Guardian, including that the sounds made by dying badgers was part of the assessment. But the documents were heavily redacted and the IC ruled this redacted information should be revealed.
Jones said: “We can only assume Defra knows that independent scrutiny would find the methodology to be full of holes.”