Wildlife lovers headed to Belper, Derbyshire, to express their outrage at government plans to ramp up the badger cull.
The Walk to Save the Badgers on 6 September was organised by five wildlife organisations in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire in response to a leaked document from Natural England showing that the government was planning to shoot 62,000 badgers this autumn in an effort to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB).
This is an 85 per cent increase from 2019 and includes five counties which have not previously experienced culling: Derbyshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Shropshire and Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire is the second county after Cumbria to be earmarked for culling despite being designated low risk for bTB.
The walk was organised by Derbyshire Against the Cull, South Derbyshire Badger Group, Badger Patrol Derbyshire, Mid Derbyshire Badger Group and South Yorkshire Against the Badger Cull and was held the day before the shooting was due to begin in Derbyshire. Speakers included Green Party Councillor Dave Wells of Amber Valley Borough Council in Derbyshire and Tim Birch of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.
Among the protesters donning black and white face paint and masks were members of badger groups across the Midlands and northern England, some of whom have volunteered for badger vaccination schemes in the belief that they were doing their bit to save as many animals as possible from being culled.
Cath Baker of Calderdale Badger Protection Group qualified as a lay badger vaccinator last year after training in Derbyshire and travelled to Belper to express her outrage at the plans.
She said: “The badger cull makes no sense to me. It distracts from the real issue, which is cattle to cattle transmission of bTB. There are real issues around the spreading of slurry, unregulated cattle movement over short distances and biosecurity on farms, all issues highlighted in the report the government commissioned to help plan their bTB policy.
“Halfway into setting up our own vaccination project (a process delayed, ironically, by a different virus), I find out that the very badgers we vaccinated are threatened by the cull.
“I can't describe how angry I am. I am opposed to the cull anywhere. The recommendations in the Godfray review about incentivising farmers to reduce the spread of bTB in cattle are being all but ignored. Culling badgers is a distraction from dealing with the virus where it is causing a problem – in cattle. They need to stop cattle movement, increase hygiene, develop a vaccine and test test test (sound familiar?).
“With the licensing of culls in Derbyshire, vaccinated badgers may be shot. This is completely perverse. I headed to Belper on 6 September to join the walk against the cull –and now the slaughter has started again.”
Since 2014, Derbyshire has had the UK's largest and longest running project to vaccinate badgers against bTB, and has been a mentor and model of good practice for badger groups around England setting up similar schemes of their own. These schemes are run mainly by volunteers and financed by fundraising initiatives and public donations in order that badger vaccination can be offered to landowners for free.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) and Conservatives blame badgers for rising rates of bTB in cattle, although this is disputed by leading conservationists, vets and even some government scientists, who point instead to the transportation of livestock, poor biosecurity on farms and inaccurate testing.
A government decision not to cull in Derbyshire in 2019 – one which was upheld in the High Court, despite a legal challenge from the NFU – was applauded by badger groups as a success for the humane alternative of vaccination.
A government announcement as recently as March indicated that they intended to phase out lethal strategies in favour of vaccination.
Badger groups are concerned that plans to extend the cull have received scant media coverage this year amid the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of public appetite for further grim news. They fear the government could take advantage of this by pushing ahead with cruel and destructive measures which could eventually lead to this much loved native species being wiped out in parts of Britain.
An NFU statement read: “Vaccination could be an important tool to help control bTB in the future.
“But the evidence suggests it will not work on its own and where both cattle and badgers are concerned, a realistic programme remains a number of years away.
“Vaccination won’t work on an animal that already has bTB, and no country in the world where wildlife carries the disease has eradicated it in cattle without tackling it in wildlife too.”
Emily Rawlins is Publicity Officer for Calderdale Badger Protection Group.