An ongoing police investigation into alleged interference with badger setts on a Gloucestershire estate will not derail plans for a pilot cull in the county, according to Natural England.
A joint investigation between Gloucestershire Constabulary, West Mercia Police and Natural England is under way following a complaint that a sett was allegedly filled in on an estate in Forthampton, near Tewkesbury.
Police are examining evidence collected from the 1,215ha Forthampton Estate, said to cover about 3% of the 300km cull zone, and are trying to find out whether the sett was disturbed by anyone connected with the estate or an outside party. The owners of the estate have declined to comment.
Badgers and their setts are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which makes it illegal to kill, injure or take badgers or to interfere with a badger sett.
A spokesman for Natural England said: “Natural England is aware of alleged disturbance of badger setts on the Forthampton Estate. The matter is subject to an ongoing police investigation and sub judice, so we cannot comment on it.
“Were there to be any prosecution or conviction as a result of the police investigation it would not have any material effect on the badger cull trial going ahead.”
The spokesman added: “We have granted Gloucestershire a culling licence. The arrangements they want to put in place and the degree to which they are operationally moving is a matter for them.
“The licences are there for Somerset and Gloucestershire. We will not be entering into discussions about confirming the licensed applicants’ timetable.”
The NFU said culling licences in Gloucestershire and Somerset were still in place, and “nothing has changed”.
A union spokeswoman said: “There is an ongoing police investigation. We are not going to comment until that investigation has been completed.”
Suggestions that the police investigation could prompt cull organisers to switch the pilot cull zone from Gloucestershire to the reserve zone of Dorset were “wrong”, she added.
Six-week pilot culls in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset could begin any time now as part of government plans to combat bovine TB, which led to the slaughter of more than 38,000 animals in the UK last year.
About 5,000 animals will be culled across both counties to test the safety, humaneness and efficacy of the policy, which, if successful, could be rolled out to other TB hotspots.
On Saturday (1 June) hundreds of protesters, led by Queen guitarist Brian May, took to the streets of London to protest against the cull.