Reactions to George Eustice avoiding fair legal scrutiny

The deeply disappointing news is that the legal Appeal, granted by the Court of Appeal in April and reopening the judgements in the High Court of Mr Justice Griffiths in 2021, has at the last minute been refused. It would have examined the claim of judicial error over potential ecological impacts of badger culling, and the NERC Act 2006, that the government has worked hard to deny. The case has been blocked, and the impugned decision has been protected by those who brought about the legal problem in the first place and then covered it up.

Having been given a date for the hearing, and arrived in court on Tuesday 26th July in expectation of the case being heard, the legal team were turned away after 90 minutes following representations relating to Defra’s last minute actions. Permission for a full hearing was denied due to legal tricks, prepared in secret over the previous nine months, crafted by Defra and Natural England to prevent matters proceeding.This is rough justice and shows that the government is more interested in ‘playing dirty’ than having an open and honest consideration of the essential duties that it carries out on behalf of the general public for the benefit of the environment.

Be very aware that this is the government that has presided over the worsening biodiversity catastrophe in nature-depleted England over the last decade, manoeuvring to prevent the natural course of justice over an issue of huge importance and uncertainty and ensuring that their ‘do-nothing’ approach is sustained.

A full account of events is being prepared and will be placed on this site in the next few days. But for an immediate reaction, please read Charlie Moores blog post here. Charlie, who many of you will know, runs ‘Off the Leash’ podcasts. He has kindly helped publicise the case, and provided an opportunity for the claimant Tom Langton and his expert witness Dominic Woodfield to discuss the important issues at stake in this latest of legal challenges in a podcast here. He attended the Court on Tuesday to listen to proceedings, met with many of the badger protection folk who turned up outside the court to give support, and his blog gives a heartfelt insight into his experience of the judicial system in action.

We will post more about this case shortly.

Badger Culls, Biodiversity, Birds, and the High Court

For an in-depth preview of the upcoming Court of Appeal hearing (Tuesday July 26th) on aspects of the ecological impacts of badger culling, have a listen to this ‘Off the Leash’ podcast of Charlie Moores talking to Tom Langton & Dominic Woodfield

It’s a sobering story of how difficult it is to get justice for badgers and their wild communities  in the Courts. The Courts can accept (and have done in previous cases) the arguments made by claimants. But  government may still evade taking sensible and necessary precautions to avoid the side-effects of removing 70-95% of badgers. They do this via vague promises and superficial actions to monitor, assuming ‘absence of evidence’ to be ‘evidence of absence’, and by using the ‘no difference’ argument. In this way, they enable culling to continue and avoid undertaking proper research and subsequent avoidance and safeguards.

The interview is long and involved but  gives an insight into the really important principles behind this Appeal, and the problem of holding a slippery government to act properly within the detail & spirit of the law.

Badger cull eco-impacts to be heard next week:

Court of Appeal hearing date has been set for Tuesday July 26th

Next week: Tuesday 26th July, the Court of Appeal in London will reconsider the 2021 Judicial Review finding, in respect of the judgement of Justice Griffiths in the High Court. This is relates to the Secretary of State’s (George Eustice) alleged failure to have regard under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 when approving the 2020 ‘Next Steps’ policy to allow badger culling in England to expand.

The original claim, brought by ecologist Tom Langton, and supported by the Badger Crowd Network, was that of a failure of government to adequately consider the potential ecological impacts of mass badger removal upon priority species and habitats across the wider countryside. It argued that there was a deficiency in the government for not taking adequate steps to deal with potential impacts.

Earlier hearings in 2017 and 2018 brought similar claims in respect of ecological impacts upon statutory designated sites of national and international importance. It resulted in the initiation of measures to more properly address potential impacts. Such safeguards are missing away from designated sites.

The Appeal is marked for a one-day hearing with an outcome likely before the commencement of continued intensive badger culling in September 2022.

About that BTO report……

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) opens up about its ‘secret’ work for Natural England.

Gavin Siriwardena, a BTO ecologist, has been writing online about his experience of working with Natural England (NE). Please see the third comment below the guest piece by Dominic Woodfield on Mark Avery’s blog here. He writes regarding the prolonged suppression of the release of a BTO scientific report, paid for with public funds, that contained a flawed analysis. He helped prepare this report in 2018, with others, for Natural England. A published version was not released until 2021 when the 2018 version was suddenly labelled as a draft, despite not being cited as such before in official documents used for decision making. This report was a promised outcome of a legal case pointing out lack of attention to ecological protection from the effects of mass-killing badgers on sensitive nature reserves.

Why was the initial 2018 report suppressed? Turns out that yet again, government funded work surrounding bovine TB eradication and badger culling has been cloaked in secrecy and hampered by error. In this case the mistakes were rendered inconsequential, but only because the design of the study was so scant and unconvincing that it made the results ‘low inference’, and the exercise not fit for purpose anyway. Perhaps NE did not want to expose the mistakes, how poor an effort it was, and that they were using it to justify decision making to meet the expectations of a High Court judge. It was, after all, one of their main defences from legal challenge, having promised the court to look carefully at badger cull impacts. However, in exposing these problems the BTO employee has revealed a lot about the situation regarding a further, similar legal case on biodiversity protection that goes to court this month. Here are some of his remarks and some thoughts on those remarks:

“Badgers are a top predator in the UK today and are also ecosystem engineers to some extent. Changes in their numbers are certain to have some effect on some other animals and plants, some of which may be biologically significant. “

Natural England’s previous defence in court was that effects are uncertain, and avoidance or mitigation is in general “ultra-precautionary”.  Not the case now it seems.

“The analyses were limited by scale and context: this was not an experiment and cull areas are likely to have differed systematically in land-use from non-cull areas, added to which sample sizes were small. “

But NE relied on the BTO 2018 report in court. Gavin S acknowledges it is fraught with limitations, yet it remains the only action NE are taking. Disgraceful?

“However, there was a misunderstanding within the project team and a filter for inclusion of species was set at 30 square-year combinations, as opposed to 30 unique squares, and this was reported incorrectly in the report.”

Although NE used this non-peer-reviewed (at the time of use) analysis in their legal case, it contained mistakes that changed conclusions regarding many species.

“I sympathise with the view that policy should not be made on the basis of reports before they have been improved by peer-review, but I also sympathise with policymakers who may not have time to wait for the process to be completed. “

So BTO feels sympathy for policy rested on inconclusive work – not such a good idea to say this really?

“We could only analyse the species for which we had enough data, which inevitable biased the work towards more common species. “

Limitations to the data make the analyses worthless for many of the cohorts of scarcer species for which impacts are most likely to be significant in conservation terms.

“Monitoring therefore remains critical and we will continue to investigate the cull’s effects on birds where we can. “

We are in agreement that a proper monitoring scheme to look specifically at this issue is needed. Despite this, it appears the BTO is planning to repeat their previous dubious exercise with another year’s data, even though it is inherently non-conclusive/low inference by design. Is this just because they are being asked to do so by Natural England and the (taxpayers) money is just too good to refuse?

So, what do we make of all this? A BTO scientist appear to agree with us that there is/was a need to monitor the ecological impacts of badger culling properly. They say they did what they could with low-powered subsets of volunteer data. They admit that they made mistakes in the analyses of these data . Natural England used the error-infected study as evidence in a Judicial Review. A later process of peer review found the mistakes. NE and BTO declined to release the original report to their supporters and interested parties, or to confirm what they were doing with the BTO data. The report was submitted for publication as a peer reviewed paper but rejected on the grounds that the science was weak. They submit the report to BTO’s own journal. It is accepted for publication but conveniently not published until it is too late for it to be subject to legal scrutiny.  Pretty stinky?

As others have said, this is not a good look for BTO and is damaging to its reputation for independence, scientific integrity and impartiality.  Do NE, on the other hand, care that much?  What has been said by a BTO scientist in the Mark Avery online comment is useful. Very useful in showing the world how Defra and Natural England find ways to sidestep the necessary ‘due regard’ of the impacts of Government policy on the natural world. To deliver what their political masters want and to pick up the rewards for doing so.

You can donate towards the legal costs of opposing the flawed policy here:

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Badgers back in court in July

Who tampered with the data when examining potential ecosystem impacts?

In the last week of July 2022, the Court of Appeal in London will reconsider the 2021 Judicial Review findings of Defra’s alleged failures, under their NERC Act (2006) duty in relation to badger culling. The original claim was that of a failure of government to adequately consider the potential ecological impacts of mass badger removal upon priority species and habitats in badger cull areas under the Act, and to take adequate steps to deal with them.

Now is an appropriate time to report on one important aspect of the case. It relates to a scientific paper published in February 2021 in the journal Bird Study, published by the British Trust for Ornithology, entitled “A comparison of breeding bird populations inside and outside of European Badger (Meles meles) control areas”.

A forerunner of this paper was an unpublished report using BTO volunteer data, that was used in decision making, yet labelled by Defra agency Natural England (NE) as ‘secret’. It had been referred to in NE ecological impacts guidelines, having been cobbled together to try to show the judiciary that Natural England had not completely overlooked the subject after all, and were treating it seriously. NE needed to show something, having been found by a High Court judge as being in breach of duty in respect of SSSI protection.

Why then was this earlier report, prepared in 2018 and cited in government advice, not available publicly until 2021 and despite multiple requests for access to it, as is normal?  It is now a story that is worthy of close scrutiny. It is a story that the main expert witness in the case, Dominic Woodfield, a professional in ecological impact assessment, has devoted much time and energy to in support of the legal challenges. He tells clearly and concisely the story of what has happened in his new guest blog for Mark Avery.

We think it sheds more than a little light on the way Natural England, and their handlers Defra, are managing information with the aim of providing the messaging that they are looking for, to facilitate the continuation of badger culling policy. Policy-lead evidence if ever you saw it?

You can find the full story here on Mark Avery’s blog..

See also: https://thebadgercrowd.org/badgers-back-in-in-court

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Badger cull ecological impacts case –

Did Defra breach its ‘duty of candour’ to the courts ?

On Wednesday 13th April, the Rt. Hon. Lady Justice Simler granted permission for the High Court decision in Langton v Defra (case ref: CO/2062/2020) to be challenged in the Court of Appeal. The High Court case had been dismissed on 9 August 2021 by the Honourable Justice Griffiths. The case concerned an alleged failure of the Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (S/S) to have regard to the implications for biodiversity of ecosystem disruption following  badger culling, in accordance with the duty imposed on ministers and public bodies under Section 40(1) of the NERC Act (2006), before making his decision to continue badger culling under the ‘Next Steps’ policy.

It should be noted that previous challenges brought by Langton in 2017 and 2018 repeatedly found government and government agencies in breach of duties related to the assessment of badger culling impacts on designated nature conservation sites and associated protected species.  In the present case, it is argued that the NERC Act obligations require that the impact of badger culling across the wider countryside and on the broader and larger biodiversity resource within it must also be assessed, including by the Secretary of State, but simply hadn’t been. The Government argued in the first instance that the Secretary of State wasn’t subject to the duty at all, or that the duty was in any event covered by the assessments carried out by Natural England in the course of issuing badger licences (the same ones the earlier cases had previously convinced the courts were defective), notwithstanding that these only claimed to consider impacts on designated nature conservation sites and related land.

Last Thursday 28th April, Justice Simler confirmed that the appeal case had been expedited to June or July 2022, giving notice of a hearing in the coming weeks. This appeared to precipitate a rapid pre-prepared action from Defra that same day. They sent Mr Langton’s legal team a suite of new documents (including a mass of heavily redacted emails) showing that in October 2021 Defra had placed in front of the then Secretary of State George Eustice a brief paper exercise, summarizing their opinion on the wider biodiversity effects from badger culling, and that he had been asked to reconsider his decision to adopt ‘Next Steps’ in the light of that information.

It is very difficult to read this other than as recognition by Government that the NERC Act S40 duty:

a) did (and does) apply to the Secretary of State (despite their arguing in front of Justice Griffiths that it didn’t),

b) that it hadn’t been considered or discharged by the Secretary of State prior to the adoption of Next Steps (as argued by Langton and his team) and,

c) that the Government was concerned that it may not be possible to defend this position upon further review by the Court of Appeal.

The real matter of concern here is not so much that the Government and its agencies exercised a volte-face and sought to remedy the legal error, but that they did so in secret, without informing the court, and in a situation where the case was still ‘live’. Our legal team has raised this issue with the GLD in correspondence copied to the Court as a breach of a basic tenet of legal protocol – the ‘duty of candour’ – which requires that the courts be informed when circumstances have changed or decisions have been taken (or re-taken) that have a bearing on a live case. Both the court and the claimants legal team should have been informed of the fact of the Secretary of State’s reconsideration when it happened in December 2021. The fact that this secret Ministerial briefing was only revealed after the Court granted permission for the appeal is extremely concerning and begs the question whether it would ever have come to light at all had that permission not been granted?

It’s all there in black and white…. Secretary of State shows the court details of his Ministerial sign-off.

While it is not possible to comment of the quality and coverage of the new Defra material presently for legal reasons, it is sufficient to say that nothing has changed regarding the absence of any proper research by the Government into the collateral effects on biodiversity of badger culling. There remains an overarching need for extensive baseline research and data on the likely effects of predator removal, increases and perturbation in wildlife communities following ecological disruption on nature conservation interests. The research the Government seeks to rely on, to advance the premise that there are no meaningful side effects on biodiversity, remains scant to the point of being meaningless.

Where does this leave us?  Plainly the Government is scratching around to avoid the embarrassment of having the 2020  “Next Steps” policy quashed.

And it will no doubt seek to rely on what is called a ‘no difference’ defence it has sprung as a ‘get out of jail free’ card whenever procedural deficiencies and oversights have been exposed in previous eco-impact claims. Defra’s argument in essence, is that even if the Secretary of State had complied with the duty, he would have come to the same decision. There must come a point where the elasticity in that defence and its ability to cover and excuse all failures at departmental and ministerial level becomes fatigued. But legally speaking, whether what Defra has done behind closed doors may be sufficient for the quashing of the policy will be determined by the Court when it hears the case.  In our view, allowing badger culling to carry on in 2022 without revising the policy to address these very serious and wide-ranging biodiversity impact concerns is simply not tenable.

From a wider UK nature conservation perspective, it is very important that the case should continue, to ensure that ignoring of the NERC Act 2006 in decision making by government bodies is not allowed to become an accepted standard, and to get that confirmed by a Court judgment if Defra are not willing to concede it right away. In other words, the prospect that we could overturn the (we say perverse) ruling of Justice Griffiths in July last year that environment ministers are exempt from considering that part of the environment called ‘biodiversity’ when making decisions, is worth pursuing for many reasons.

If successful, the case could also have the effect of forcing Natural England to reconsider whether they are similarly failing to comply with what the duty demands in artificially restricting their considerations just to designated sites. It would bring into sharp focus the fact that the level of information they rely upon for impact assessment and to inform basic provisions for protection, is inadequate. Impacts are guessed or assumed because there is no background information to inform them beyond speculation, meaningless analyses of borrowed, coarse-grained datasets and a near total absence of monitoring, the lifeblood of real understanding.

These developments merely serve to reinforce the determination to halt badger culling. In recent days legal letters have been sent to Defra and Natural England asking them to stop badger culling in 2022 because of the current peer-reviewed scientific evidence that it has not worked.

So please consider supporting the Crowd Fund linked below. If everyone chips in we can spread the load and gain access to justice for badgers and all our wildlife and countryside.

Thanks you for your support. We are the Badger Crowd. We stand up for badgers.

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Permission Granted!

Court of Appeal confirm new hearing regarding the ecological impacts of badger culling (NERC Act 2006). Judicial Review Case: CO/2062/2020

The Badger Crowd is pleased to confirm that an Application to the Court of Appeal has been successful, reopening the judgements in the High Court of Mr Justice Griffiths in 2021. The appeal has taken a very long time to come through and we now hope the case will be heard before any new licences are issued by Defra and Natural England, and used this year.

Justice Griffiths in his ‘to everything there is a season’ ruling (1) had intimated that there was no need for the Minister to take steps to have regard for biodiversity protection for NERC Act listed priority species and habitats in England. The case relates to Minister George Eustice and Defra publishing a “Next Steps” policy in March 2020, prolonging the slaughter of tens of thousands of mostly healthy badgers each year in existing and new places with, according to current peer-reviewed science, no recordable benefit (2).

Defra claimed that it had decided not to protect NERC Act protected biodiversity interest from potential culling side-effects when culling began in 2013, and again in 2020, despite the 2018 Godfray review (3) flagging-up continuing professional concerns about impacts and the need for research to enable management of the risk, as determined by government funded pilot studies.

Oystercatcher; now you see them, now you don’t ? One of a number of medium sized waders (such as redshank, snipe and lapwing) at risk from changing predator patterns, but only afforded protective consideration by conditions on culling licences, when nesting on protected sites.
 

Removal of badgers from the countryside is known to bring about a range of changes to natural communities but the extent of these is unclear and determined only by careful monitoring. However, when identifying risks of such change, research undertaken over 10 years ago was limited to just a few species and habitats. Previous cases in 2017 and 2018 showed that Natural England were in breach of their duty in not properly considering the same kind of impacts to SSSI’s, leading to criticisms of government by the High Court and radical changes to Natural England’s operations. Impacts expert Dominic Woodfield from Bioscan continues to provide specialist advice on the case.

The current case challenges the continuing and long-term neglect of potential impacts on a wide range of potentially impacted habitats and species. The case also highlights Natural England’s pitiful contribution to the monitoring of nature, the unacceptably poor condition of many nature reserves and protected areas in England, and to the biodiversity depleted countryside in general.

This case will also resonate in Northern Ireland where the government department’s (DAERA) proposals to carry out ‘preliminary ecological assessment’ to form a baseline to monitor badger culling that it wants to undertake, has been widely derided and possibly now withdrawn. It is unclear how ecological impacts will be considered in NI and the case in England will certainly inform that consideration and potentially a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Badger Group (4).

Details of the timing of the Court of Appeal hearing are currently undecided, but as last year’s case was expedited in front of the issue of badger culling licences, this is likely to happen again this year. So far, this case has been generously funded by the Badger Crowd network of Badger Trusts and Groups, notably the Badger Trust, Badger Trust Sussex, & Wild Justice, together with well-wishers and the public who are thanked again for perseverance, generosity, and determination.

Reference

(1) https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2021/2199.html

(2) Langton TES, Jones MW, McGill I. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020. Vet Rec. 2022;e1384. https://doi.org/10.1002/vetr.1384

(3) Godfray Review 2018

(4) Northern Ireland Badger Group challenge, with others: http://www.badgersni.org.uk/pressrelease.html

 

Ecological Impacts (NERC Act 2006) Judicial Review: Application to the Court of Appeal.

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The Badger Crowd is pleased to  confirm that an Application to the Court of Appeal has been made and that further legal papers are to follow shortly. The case concerns whether the High Court Mr Justice Griffiths was correct to rule that there was no need for the Minister to take steps to have regard for  biodiversity protection for NERC Act listed priority species and habitats. This relates to Minister George Eustice and Defra publishing its “Next Steps” policy in March 2020, prolonging the slaughter of tens of thousands of badgers each year in existing and new places. Government claimed it decided not to protect NERC Act biodiversity interest from potential culling side-effects when culling began in 2013, and again in 2020, despite the 2018 Godfray review flagging-up continuing professional concerns about impacts and the need for research to enable management of risks.

The removal of badgers from the countryside is known to bring about a range of changes to natural communities. However, when identifying risks of such change, research undertaken over 10 years ago was limited to just a few species and habitats. Claimant Tom Langton’s previous cases in 2017 and 2018 showed that Natural England were in breach of their duty in not properly considering the same kind of  impacts to SSSI’s, leading to criticisms by the High Court. The current case challenges the continuing and long-term neglect of potential impacts on a wide range of habitats and species. These impacts may alter habitat condition and species survival as a result of  badger culling changing mammal diversity, including change to smaller predators numbers.

The case also highlights Natural England’s pitiful contribution to the monitoring of nature, the unacceptably poor condition of many nature reserves and protected areas, and to biodiversity depleted countryside in general. It draws attention to the lack of research into England’s habitats and species, and to the continued decline of many widespread and rare species and threatened habitats. It brings into focus the potential for badger culling to contribute to these declines, that despite recognition of this threat-type, government think too difficult or expensive to address.

 

Application to Appeal underway for dismissed ecological impacts Judicial Review

Mr Justice Griffiths’s judgement on the recent Judicial Review of the ecological impacts of badger culling in England is now to be challenged. Claims against the Secretary of State George Eustice concerning the government’s biodiversity duty, under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERCA) were dismissed recently, after the July 2021 hearing. Following legal and technical advice over the last week, an application for permission at the Court of Appeal is now being prepared. This needs to be submitted within 21 days of the handing down of the judgement and determination of the application will be later this year.

Sincere thanks again are due to all those funding and supporting the legal work as a part of the Badger Crowd. This includes The Badger Trust who helped instigate the action in 2020, Badger Trust Sussex for managing offline donations, Wild Justice, very many of the  badger groups and organisations around the UK, many other animal welfare and conservation bodies and a number of generous individuals. Hundreds of badger workers and the general public have also chipped in to spread the load. Others have helped with administration, publicity and coordination to enable a solid challenge. Sufficient funds are available at present and if permission is granted, a further fundraiser will be launched. We are the Badger Crowd. We stand up and fight for Badgers.

High Court judge decides that Defra 2020 badger cull policy does not trigger protection of biodiversity under the 2006 NERC Act

Today, Mr Justice Griffiths handed down a High Court judgement on the most recent Judicial Review on the ecological impacts of badger culling in England. He dismissed the claims made against the Secretary of State George Eustice, concerning the need for consideration of measures to protect species and habitats in the wider countryside, under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERCA). This follows the decision to keep on culling badgers with changes in culling methods, including the wider introduction of reactive culling.

The claim had been brought in early 2020 by conservation ecologist Tom Langton, with support from the Badger Crowd, the broad affiliation of badger trusts, groups, and wildlife charities fighting poor science and decision making surrounding the badger culls in England. The ruling today for Judicial Review CO/2062/2020 suggests that despite the lack of evidence of the defendant recording any considerations, the Minister did not need to do anything “to have regard… to the purpose of conserving biodiversity” when the “Next Steps” policy was published in March 2020.

The judge indicated that so far, badger culling had been done “…with the benefit of all the evidence available about ecological impact and biodiversity. There was no new evidence that might even potentially have caused Next Steps to take a different turn.”

A ‘do-nothing’ approach was lawful?

However, Tom Langton’s earlier cases in 2017 and 2018 had exposed Natural England as being in breach of its duty for lack of protective measures for habitat and species features protected by Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Measures needed, which NE then hurriedly put in place via a new set of guidelines, requiring a wide range of practical precautions.

The recent case addressed species and habitats across an average of 90% of badger cull areas; on land beyond SSSI boundaries and protected by the NERC Act 2006.  In a statement provided to the court, Natural England, who license badger culling, stated that protection imposed on badger culling licences “…are not necessary outside protected sites in order to comply with the purpose of conserving biodiversity.”

The 2018 Godfray Review conclusion to continue culling had stated that ecological studies of the consequences of reducing badger densities on other species should be undertaken. The Godfray review recommendation on ‘periodic culling’ involved a five-year badger cull cessation period with associated badger vaccination, and was considered the most ‘promising’ future approach. But this was not adopted by the government in March 2020.

An application to the Court of Appeal is now under active consideration.

A Badger Crowd representative comments:

“This is obviously a disappointment and blow to all those concerned with the biodiversity crisis in nature-depleted England, and who wish to see the potential cost, and damage to our environment from badger culling properly addressed. Ecological impact and potential impact from badger culling are accepted processes that are under-researched and not properly monitored. The need to address them was established by legal action in 2017 and 2018.  If addressing these problems outside SSSIs is too difficult, as has been suggested, or perhaps too time consuming and expensive, then badger culling should stop.   Freshly extracted evidence shows how government has improperly withheld information, that now needs to be fully examined. But, except for a few SSSIs, by his own admission, the Secretary of State has decided not to protect 90% of the countryside from scrutiny of the potential ecological effects of badger culling. England’s wildlife and the public deserve better. Thanks are extended again to the legal team and experts, and to the 700 individuals and organisations who have donated so generously and given support over the last 18 months to try to bring government to account.”

The Judgement may be read in full here.

Badgers back in in Court

Did the government forget about Biodiversity?

On Thursday 22 July, in Court no. 2 of the Royal Courts of Justice, London, the latest Judicial Review surrounding badger culling was heard: The Queen on the application of Thomas Langton vs The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England: Case C0/2062/2020.

The hearing was held ‘in person’ but, due to covid-19 restrictions, with few attendees, and with the Honourable Mr Justice Griffiths presiding. Outside the Court, a number of badger-suited campaigners were drawing attention to the ongoing badger cull travesty of England, including stalwart Betty Badger with her friend Mary Barton, Chris Wood and members of the Herts and Middlesex Badger Group and others from Buckinghamshire. They were making the public aware of the hearing going on  inside, giving out leaflets and polite explanations to passers-by, as well as getting a lot of social media attention.  Sadly the court was closed to the public, but online coverage was available to limited number of viewers from both sides of the case.

The government had a number of lawyers and advisors present, with spoken representations made by barrister Hannif Mussa of Blackstone Chambers. Mr Langton had spoken representations by barrister Richard Turney from Landmark Chambers. The case before the court was less complex than the previous ecological impact cases brought in 2017 and 2018. In those, inadequate provisions by Natural England (NE) with respect to European Designated Sites and in respect of Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protection of Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) had been successfully exposed. This had caused NE extensive work to remedy failings, having been found in breach of their statutory duty.  This time, the case before the court was simply that there was no evidence at all that the Secretary of State had ‘had regard’ to conserving biodiversity, and specifically the species and habitats listed by  and protected under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. SSSI’s might typically cover a small proportion of badger cull areas, but what about the wildlife interests on the other 80% or more of land? Where is the evidence of monitoring of and safeguard from changes to mammal populations and predatory influences, upon threatened and vulnerable species and habitats in the countryside?

NERC Section 40 and 41

Section 40 of the NERC Act places a duty to conserve biodiversity on public authorities in England. It requires local authorities and government departments to have regard to the purposes of conserving biodiversity and to do so, in a manner that is consistent with the exercise of their normal functions, such as policy and decision-making. ‘Conserving biodiversity’ may include enhancing, restoring, or protecting a population or a habitat.  Section 41 requires the Secretary of State to publish and maintain lists of species and types of habitats which are regarded by NE to be of “principal importance” for the purposes of conserving biodiversity in England. These 56 priority habitats and 943 species are drawn from carefully considered lists of United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species and Habitats and therefore take forward the UK’s response to its international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity (the Rio Treaty). The Section 41 lists are needed by decision-makers in local and regional authorities when carrying out their duties under Section 40 of the Act, and in addition to lists of species and habitats in other legislation. The case looked at whether they had been completely overlooked in respect of the potential impacts of badger culling and the ecosystem changes that may occur, or not?

Biodiversity Impact expert Dominic Woodfield had provided a witness statement to support Mr Langton’s statement on inadequate approaches by Defra, showing the court a comprehensive list of overlooked species and offering examples of the way in which disruption of ecological systems can bring about potential changes to NERCA species and habitats through change in  predation type and extent and via vegetation change, for example in lowland calcareous grasslands.

Defra’s position was that (despite the lack of evidence)  it had ‘had regard’, and that in any case NE considers such matters when issuing badger cull licences. Dr Eleanor Brown, a qualified vet who manages the Bovine TB policy for Defra and the Animal Plant and Health Agency, had made a witness statement mentioning a report on ecological consequences of badger culling, prepared by the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in advance of badger culling in 2011, and that refers to the section 40 NERC Act duty. There were some references to legal necessities in the original 2011 badger culling policy, including those regarding the protection of European Designated Sites, but nothing specific on the NERCA species and habitats, with respect to licensing conditions.

The government also sought to claim that “Next Steps” was a policy where intensive and supplementary badger culling was being ‘phased out’ in favour of badger vaccination. But the fact is that intensive & supplementary culling was to continue for five or more years, and ‘epidemiological’ culling, a type of localised intensive (reactive) culling, along the lines of the Cumbria cull is being ‘phased-in’ to replace it. Further, any use of badger vaccination was conditional upon the results of yet more vaccination trials. More badgers are likely to be killed under the new policy than have already died.

The ‘withheld’ 2018 British Trust for Ornithology report

Dr Brown had also mentioned some research commissioned by NE from the British Trust of Ornithology in 2019 to compare  bird recording records made by volunteers inside and around the edge of badger culling areas, before and after badger culling. The study had compared these with bird records from unculled areas. This had given rise to a published paper in 2021, but that was after the policy had been confirmed in March 2020. In the days leading up to the case however, the earlier report completed in 2018 by BTO for NE and used for the policy, was released.

Oystercatcher; now you see them, now you don’t ? One of a number of medium sized waders (such as redshank, snipe and lapwing) at risk from changing predation patterns, but only afforded protective consideration by conditions on culling licences, when nesting on protected sites.

Natural England, an interested party in the case, was not represented in court. However, a witness statement had been provided by Dr Matthew Heydon, who works on ‘Species Protection and Wildlife Management’ for Natural England.  His statement opined that protected species and habitats should be considered on a ‘case by case’ basis, but that looking at the whole list of NERCA species was considered too much of a burden. A note that he helped to prepare at the start of badger culling referred to the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but only to NERCA in the sense of it being the instrument by which NE could license badger culling for the Secretary of State. There was no mention of biodiversity duties. Natural England had drawn up some new advice “Guidance for the assessment of fox control practices around designated sites” dated April 2021, showing that NE agree that credible risks are present for which precautions are necessary.

How wide does the challenge reach and when might the ruling be?

The government put a lot of effort into saying the case only related to supplementary badger culling, but Mr Turney refuted this, pointing to the simple wording of the grounds of challenge. Any problem with the approach taken by Defra would ‘infect’ all forms of culling and not just supplementary badger culling, in any case.

The hearing had been expedited and the judge indicated that he would be making his decisions in due course. An exact date is not clear, but within six weeks seems likely and probably before the end of August.

 

Biodiversity Catastrophe

Badger cull case will test UK commitment to wildlife legislation

A High Court Judicial Review in London this Thursday 22 July is a timely test of the extent to which DEFRA has ‘had regard’ to biodiversity protection. The claim is that Secretary of State George Eustice failed to protect wildlife, as is required by the Natural Environment & Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006, when causing ecological disturbance to the wider countryside by mass badger culling in England.

The biodiversity commitment was made in 2006 in response to the UK signing the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, established in 1992. Minister George Eustice in a speech recently however admitted that the UK is “one of the most biodiversity depleted countries in the world.”

The case is particularly important as a New Environment Bill is passing through parliament and amidst claims that proposed targets for addressing the biodiversity crisis may be treated as non-binding, following worries that public bodies have not implemented the NERC Act 2006 adequately.

Concerns have existed since a House of Lords Select Committee in 2018 found the nature conservation agency for England, Natural England, to be run down, ‘hollowed out’, and unable to discharge aspects of its statutory function properly, including when advising Defra.

The case seeks to quash the Government’s 2020 (“Next Steps”) Bovine Tuberculosis policy covering the continuation of badger culling. It is being brought by ecologist Tom Langton supported by a large ‘Badger Crowd’ of Wildlife Trusts, charitable organisations, and the public, including The Badger Trust who helped get the case running and the new wildlife law group Wild Justice.