The future of the badger cull in England has been cast in doubt after a leaked report concluded the pilots in the South West were not effective.
The Independent Expert Panel (IEP), which was appointed by DEFRA to evaluate the pilots, has apparently also concluded they failed the test for humaneness, after 5% of culled badgers took longer than five minutes to die.
On public safety, however, it is understood the panel will report there were no issues.
DEFRA said it hasn’t seen the IEP report, but admits there are “lessons to be learned” from the first year of the pilots.
The government remain adamant, however, that England must use “every tool in the box”, including culling, if we are to eradicate this crippling disease, which costs the taxpayer about £100m each year.
Questions will undoubtedly focus on whether allowing marksmen to shoot free-running badgers at night is the best culling method.
Gloscon, the company that carried out the culling in Gloucestershire, said it was “surprised” to hear reports that the culls had failed the humaneness criteria.
“I felt the culls were successful – and I still do,” said Gloscon director Carl Gray.
“We will look at the results of the IEP and see if there are areas that require attention, which we can improve on.”
However, until it hears otherwise, Gloscon is still pressing on with plans to continue culling in the county in years two, three and four.
“But whether it can continue in its present form or not, that will be out of our hands,” said Mr Gray.
An alternative would be to trap badgers and then remove them. But this is more costly.
The spotlight could also fall on a return to the gassing of badgers . The use of cyanide was banned in this country in 1982 as it was considered inhumane.
However, DEFRA scientists have commissioned research into the use of different gases, such as carbon monoxide, as a potential culling method as part of its 25-year TB eradication strategy.
A test and vaccinate or remove (TVR) trial is being piloted in Northern Ireland this year and the NFU and DEFRA are watching the pilots closely as a possible way forward for England.
Before the negative news about the south-west pilots broke on Friday (28 February), NFU director general Andy Robertson said selective culling might be operationally easier and more acceptable to the public.
Speaking at this week’s NFU Conference, he talked positively of the experiences of culling in southern Ireland, which has culled badgers since the 1980s.
A “reactive culling” strategy, which involves the culling of social badger groups in areas surrounding new TB breakdowns, is used in southern Ireland.
The Irish government has partly credited the strategy for the 50% reduction in bovine TB since the year 2000. Indeed, the government announced last month that being TB free is now a “practicable proposition” in Ireland.
However, the UK government would need to be persuaded that reactive culling was the right approach for England. Any proposed strategy would have to overcome the likelihood of a legal challenge.
See also: bovine TB and the badger cull
The NFU has also explored the possibility of just one culling company getting involved in further action, rather than a different one for each pilot area. But the concept has soaked up a lot of NFU staff time and would cost a lot of money to administer.
Mr Robertson said he thought the two pilots in England had been carried out “safely, effectively and humanely” despite a “toxic combination of guns, darkness and people who want to get in the way”.
But he admitted the panel’s findings would be crucial in determining government response and future policy.
He also warned farmers that the Cabinet would have to give the final clearance to further action on bovine TB and that it was likely to take some time. “A decision is not going to be quick or guaranteed,” he said.
The NFU told its members this week there had been 32 expressions of interest across the country from farmer groups wanting to carry out culls in infected areas in the future.
A further 10 more expressions of interest are expected within weeks, so that every county with TB issues would be represented.
His view was: “We have not stopped dead the approach. Everyone is queuing up at the gate, waiting to go.”
Before the review of the two pilot culls, the NFU regarded these expressions of interest as a strong signal to government.
“The message it gives is that despite all the difficulties and controversy, the industry believes this is the right policy and wants to continue,” said Mr Robertson.
But he recognised that to roll the policy out on the same basis as the pilots would be difficult, particularly to scale it up across the country.
Important questions remain about who will pick up the bill for any future culls.
Policing the culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire last year cost more than £2.4m, notwithstanding the practical costs. Critics of the policy claim vaccination is a cheaper option when the exorbitant costs of policing the culls are factored in.
However, farmers blame 20 years of government procrastination for getting us in the bTB mess we’re in. And many feel at odds with farm minister George Eustice’s comments this week that any future culls will need to be “industry-funded”.
DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson, who is recovering from emergency eye surgery to repair a detached retina, faces huge challenges when he returns to office in the next few days.
After coming under fire for his handling of the flood protection budget, he now has a massive decision to take on the wider roll-out of badger control and whether the policy can proceed in its current format.
The pilots, it would appear, have failed to meet their targets. Yet so much has been learned that could be taken forward this year.
Mr Paterson has nailed his colours to the mast on badger culling. Farmers will be relying on him to stand by his word and roll out wider culls.
If he performs a dramatic U-turn now ahead of the next general election, he risks losing credibility with farmers.