At least a third of England’s badger population has been killed in the government’s drive to stamp out bovine tuberculosis, new figures show.
Last year, 33,687 of the animals were culled, bringing the total since the campaign began in 2013 to at least 175,000. Estimates put England’s badger population at between 400,000 and 500,000.
The government announced last year’s toll as wildlife campaigners launched a legal battle over plans to begin culling the species in Northern Ireland.
Wild Justice, a lobby group involving wildlife presenter Chris Packham, together with the Northern Ireland Badger Group, is challenging the decision in the courts.
As last year’s English cull tally was revealed, Britain’s Badger Trust warned: “The scale of the attack on one of Britain’s best-loved animals could lead to badgers disappearing from areas across the country and populations becoming unviable in others.”
It said the proportion shot while free running – which may leave injured badgers to die slow deaths – rather than being caged and trapped hit a record of nearly nine out of 10.
The 33,687 was a slight fall on annual figures for 2020 and 2019, but higher than any previous year.
Badgers are known to spread TB, and the government insists its strategy is working. TB infections force farmers to have thousands of cattle culled early each year.
But opponents strongly dispute the efficacy of the cull, saying when badgers are killed, survivors move away from their habitats, potentially carrying disease to new areas.
Peter Hambly, executive director at the Badger Trust, said: “Most people oppose the cull, yet they don’t realize the cull is intensifying and getting worse in its nature, threatening one of the greatest mammals this country has. We should be protecting badgers, not attacking this protected native species.
“The number of badgers unnecessarily slaughtered every year accounts now for over 35 per cent of the estimated badger population in England and Wales, whilst the percentage of cattle killed each year is less than 0.5 per cent.”
He said the Welsh government was addressing “the root cause of the issue, cattle-cattle transmission”.
Scotland has been declared officially bTB free without a badger cull but with rigorous biosecurity, including risk-based trading of cattle, he said.
Last month, Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister Edwin Poots announced the first badger cull in the province, saying it was “the most cost-effective and practical way forward” and would be carried out by specially trained farmers.
The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals campaigned against a badger cull, presenting a petition with 10,000 signatures to Northern Ireland’s assembly.
Wild Justice, the Northern Ireland Badger Group (NIBG) and Born Free this week filed an application for judicial review of this decision at the Royal Courts of Justice in Northern Ireland and asked for an early hearing.
Mike Rendle, of NIBG, said: “This indiscriminate badger cull will kill thousands of badgers using a method that has been branded by the UK government’s independent expert panel as ineffective and inhumane.”
A government spokesperson said: “Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that the livestock sector in England faces today, causing considerable trauma for farmers and costing taxpayers over £100m every year.
“Our bovine TB eradication strategy has led to a significant reduction in this insidious disease. As a result of the progress made, we are now able to move on to the next phase of the long-term eradication strategy, including steps to expand badger vaccination alongside improved cattle testing and a possible cattle vaccine.
“We have always been clear we don’t want to continue the badger cull longer than absolutely necessary.”