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Natural England has been covertly expanding badger cull areas

The government’s annual badger cull, which began in 2013, has always been shrouded in secrecy. And now Freedom of Information (FOI) responses reveal the extent of Natural England’s underhanded tactics as it murders our beloved species.

Environmental journalist Tracy Keeling accessed the FOI requests, and reported her findings in the Canary. She found that since 2017 Natural England – which is sponsored by Defra – has been secretly expanding badger cull areas, some by more than 100km². The aim of the cull in these expanded areas is the same as in the original areas: to murder at least 70% of the local badger population.

As Keeling reports, the original cull areas were subject to public consultation, yet these expansions have been done without public knowledge, and wouldn’t have been revealed to the public without the FOI responses.

What, exactly, is the badger cull?

The badger cull has taken place every year for the past decade. Natural England issues four-year licences to land owners in different cull zones across the country, along with target figures of the number of badgers it wants murdered. Badgers are then intensively shot and trapped for a six-week period each year, usually beginning in September. The government argues that culling badgers prevents the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle, but studies have found that this is ludicrous.

The boundaries of each cull zone have always been kept a secret, and activists trying to save badgers have had to guess where one zone ends and another begins. The government also keeps it a secret as to which land owners take part in the cull, too, although it’s a good bet that if a farmer’s cattle has bTB, he will be murdering badgers on his land.

The government officially stopped issuing the four year licences in 2022. But instead of phasing out the cull (as it led the public to believe), it introduced another way to extend it. When a cull zone’s four-year licence has come to an end, Natural England can then grant it a supplementary licence. These licences permit land owners to murder badgers for another two years. In 2022 alone, the government awarded two-year supplementary licences to murder badgers in ten new locations across the country, which were licensed to run until January 2024.

And now these latest FOI findings, showing that the cull zones are not only extended by length of time, but also by the number of kilometres they cover, shows just how much the government puts the farming lobby over the lives of supposedly one of our most protected species.

‘Cull zones in their own right’

Keeling discovered that Natural England approved 10 expansions to cull zones in 2022. She said:

“This amounted to badger killing on an additional 327km² of land. In 2021, it greenlit eight extension areas totalling 342km² in all.”

The FOI responses show that one cull area in Avon was expanded by 136km² in 2021, while an area in Shropshire was expanded by 173km² in 2022. Keeling argues that these new areas “are clearly large enough to qualify as cull zones in their own right.”

Badgers are murdered more intensively in these expanded areas. As Keeling reported, Natural England admitted in one FOI response:

“Larger extension areas are monitored separately to the rest to the area to ensure an effective cull is achieved in a reduced number of years. This includes requiring an increase in cage trapping and controlled shooting similar to that required in year 1 of a licensed area.”

Keeling said:

“This indicates that larger extension areas are operating in some respects as if they are separate badger culls. This includes apparently aiming to kill badgers more intensely than the cull areas they are attached to, due to the reduced number of years of operation.”

Natural England can’t officially introduce new cull zones in 2023, having stated that it stopped issuing four-year licences in 2022. So these expansions – adding more land to existing zones – will likely be used extensively from 2023 onwards. It is the government’s way of making new cull zones without actually having to admit that it is doing so.

A bleak future

The future for our badgers is looking dire. Once cull zones’ four-year licences come to an end, and then their two-year supplementary licences also come to an end, the government may continue to issue licences indefinitely to kill badgers at a targeted, local level from 2026, although it hasn’t made official statements regarding how this would be implemented. 

The majority of badgers are murdered in the most cruel way, killed by ‘free shooting’: that is, hunters stand in a field and shoot at the badger from afar. One badger can take many excrutiating minutes to die, and can be hit with multiple gunshot wounds.

Animal welfare campaigner Dominic Dyer has previously stated that:

“We could kill every badger in England and remove them in parts of the country where they have lived for over half a million years and TB would still be present in the national cattle herd.”

It is estimated that half of the UK’s badger population has now been murdered in the government’s misguided campaign to eradicate bTB. A number of areas in the UK are now facing local badger extinctions.

You can fight the cull

You can get involved in the fight against the cull by joining one of many local groups who go out to try to stop the shooting and trapping. Search for your local group and help to save our precious badgers.