The aim of the pilot trials was to assess whether killing of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset would be able to deliver a significant reduction in the cattle TB rate. If, after a six-week period, these trials were shown to be effective in killing enough badgers, licences for culls would have been rolled out across parts of England.
That plan has now been delayed until next year following the realisation late in the day by ministers and farming groups that there are twice as many badgers as previously thought, making it difficult if not impossible for farmers to kill enough badgers in time to affect cattle TB rates.
The environmental agency Natural England granted two provisional licences: one in September and one in early October for culls of badgers in the pilot areas.
Culling could not begin until full licences were granted. These would be issued once Natural England was satisfied that farming groups in each of the areas had put up the money for a six-week cull to be held annually for four years, in a bid to to kill at least 70% of the badgers in the pilot areas.
However, last week it emerged that a census of the badger population in each of the areas showed there were twice as many badgers in each area than previously thought.
Last Thursday, the Agriculture and Food Minister David Heath MP gave the results of the census in a Parliamentary answer: 3,600 badgers in Gloucester and 4,300 in Somerset.
The marksmen employed to shoot the badgers were reported to be paid a bounty per badger and so the new population estimate meant that the cost of the cull in both pilot areas would be sent soaring. It became apparent last week these developments increased the cost of the cull for farmers. The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, Mr Heath and the government's chief veterinarian Nigel Gibbens were due to give a series of coordinated interviews but pulled out at short notice.
Mr Paterson has denied that the decision is a U-turn, stating it is a delay and that he remains committed to the cull. But it is not apparent how the problems can be overcome in a year's time.
The cull has been controversial. Many scientists have questioned whether the cull is practical or able to deliver more than a modest decrease in cattle TB rates.
The Hunt Saboteurs Association issued a press release yesterday after the announcement. Local hunt saboteur groups will be using this extra time to be even better prepared, if and when the cull finally starts. The HSA has had a massive surge in membership and interest from people sickened by the proposed slaughter. Groups have already informed the HSA that they intend to maintain pressure on fox hunts and game bird shoots within the zones through legal direct action and groups from across the country will continue to survey throughout the winter so that if the cull starts we will know exactly where the badger setts are located.
Lee Moon, spokesperson for the Hunt Saboteurs Association, stated: “Today was a massive step forward in the fight to save the badgers, however it is not the end. We must make sure we keep campaigning hard throughout the winter to ensure the concept of culling badgers is forever consigned to the scrap heap of history. Our local groups, bouyed by all their new members, are eager to get out in the fields and do what they do best, directly intervene on behalf of this country's persecuted wildlife”