See our comment below.
The Sunday Telegraph
- 12 May 2019
- By Helena Horton
NATURAL England has been accused of bowing to badgers’ rights campaigners after setting farmers the “impossible task” of proving the cull poses no risk to ground-nesting birds.
A High Court challenge by protester Tom Langton claimed that as badger culls increase numbers of foxes, rare ground-nesting birds preyed on by them are put at risk. The environment watchdog successfully argued that culling badgers can improve such bird totals but it agreed that people doing the culling would have to provide data.
Landowners said this is “impossible” as they were not asked to collect data before they culled the badgers, so they have no comparison for any new figures. One culling company in Gloucestershire has said it may have to stop operating because of the stipulations.
It comes after Natural England (NE) lost its power to issue bird shooting licences in a row with farmers who kill birds that attack livestock and crops, after legal action by BBC host Chris Packham and his campaign group Wild Justice. They argued the licences did not take into account welfare concerns.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP for the Cotswolds and chairman of the parliamentary group on shooting, said: “I don’t believe that by culling badgers you are increasing the fox numbers, but if that is part of the undertaking that Natural England is taking to the judge, it was a stupid thing to do as it was an impossible thing. The worry is that no one will be able to cull badgers. To stop them on a minor technicality would be a nonsense.”
The MP asked Michael Gove to fix the situation and the Environment Secretary admitted the decision has caused “confusion and disruption”.
Mr Gove said: “I agree unnecessary bureaucracy should not be imposed on companies carrying out culls, and understand their frustration in having to adapt to new information. I am aware that a supplementary badger cull company in Gloucestershire … has raised significant concerns and have been assured by NE discussions are ongoing.”
He said his department and NE are working as quickly as possible to resolve the issue, “in a way that avoids any further confusion or disruption for landowners and other stakeholders”.
He added that if Natural England’s review finds “legally relevant adverse effect on bird populations, they would introduce measures to reduce fox numbers within 2km (1.2miles) of protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest”.
Farmers argue that they have to cull badgers to prevent the spread of bovine TB. Mr Langton, who runs The Badger Crowd, said he would press for further restrictions on culling. A Natural England spokesman said: “We will continue to review and improve our work to assess the impact of badger control operations on protected sites.”
Comment from the Badger Crowd
Yesterday evening (11 May) the Daily Telegraph, who recently leaked the story about the government’s unlawful licensing of the shooting of wild birds, was given early tip off of a government announcement, apparently scheduled for a few days time. We were not contacted by the journalist. The matter relates to a part of our twin Judicial Reviews in July 2018 that resulted in August 2018 in a Natural England Draft Internal Guidance on evaluating the ecological consequences of badger culling on European Sites.
Following our court representations, this guidance accepted much of our factual arguments on the potential disruption to numbers and distribution of predators, to animals in lower trophic levels and potentially to habitat structure due to changing grazing pressure, once a dominant species such as badger is heavily depleted. One possible effect is that food (including large amounts of road-killed and discarded shot game birds) and underground burrows are more available for foxes and other predatory species, with potential knock-on effects.
Any increased predation resulting from shooting may disturb roosting or breeding birds and increase the predation of eggs, young and adult birds to a greater extent where systems are in constant flux, as opposed to more settled countryside, including land on or near to nature reserves. Other more subtle changes may go unseen or take several years to appear, or even be undetectable.
Government should and may well require the establishment of a measure of predator numbers across the cull areas, at least where nature reserves of international importance (such as RAMSAR, SPA and SAC) are within or near to cull zones on an area by area basis. This should really have been done before culling started as a baseline and is likely to be required for any new cull area in 2019 as well as existing ones. Then, in order to assess impacts upon other species, the fox numbers require monitoring through the cull years to detect change, and the fate of local ‘at risk’ bird populations properly monitored too.
In 2018 Michael Gove ordered badgers not to be killed around three sections of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, where nesting Stone Curlew are holding on. He also required dozens of foxes to be shot in order to mitigate the influence of increasing or more mobile foxes moving in from further away. But it was unclear if natural England had sufficient resources to check if this was done, leading to confusion.
The new measures should better address the monitoring of rare bird numbers where natural communities are being disrupted. Badger Crowd has battled to obtain a copy of the public-funded preliminary desk study of the Pilot cull areas, commissioned from the BTO* by Natural England last year. It has been strenuously withheld but is now likely to be released with any new announcement, probably concluding that it is impossible to detect change without actually doing the necessary fieldwork:
*Kettel, E & Siriwardena, GM. 2018. Comparisons of breeding bird population and abundance trends within and outside two specified areas located in SW England. Report to Natural England. British Trust for Ornithology, Thetford, Norfolk, UK.
Badger Crowd awaits the report with interest and the new measures to be introduced. As the number of bovine TB confirmed herd breakdowns increased in response to Supplementary Badger Culling in both Somerset and Gloucestershire last year the pressure to suspend culling in these two pilot areas and not to start in Dorset seems more and more likely.
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