The West Country’s controversial badger cull could be stopped at the eleventh hour by a fresh legal challenge from the Badger Trust.
Lawyers acting for the leading body opposing the trial cull in Gloucestershire and in west Somerset have served a 16-page legal letter on Natural England as the question over whether badgers should be killed in a bid to halt the spread of bovine TB becomes the next big political storm for David Cameron’s coalition Government.
Late last week it was revealed that local estimates of the number of badgers in the cull areas had been under-estimated by as much as half in some places, which meant more cost and more of a challenge to the marksmen being given a bounty for each badger killed.
That, coupled with the anti-cull campaigners gaining increasing support from both opposition MPs and backbenchers on the Government side, means in the coming days the badger cull is going to be even more in the spotlight with the parliamentary debate – forced by 100,000 signatures on an e-petition – taking place later this week.
Over the weekend there were claims that, after years of campaigning by farmers to the Government for action over badgers and the link to bovine TB, the position had actually switched, with the Government privately appealing to the National Farmers’ Union to make sure its members went ahead with the cull in the face of mounting pressure, to save the Government from making what might be seen as another U-turn.
So the last-minute final legal challenge from the Badger Trust has been aimed as much at convincing previously undecided MPs, mainly from urban constituencies. The challenge to Natural England, which is licensing the cull, said the costs were spiralling.
“The costs of the cull are soaring out of control, with little benefit in sight for farmers and major risks posed for members of the public in the cull areas,” said Gwendolen Morgan, the Badger Trust’s solicitor. “It is time for the Government to reconsider.”
“We have now had information which reveals a number of serious flaws in the licensing process,” Ms Morgan’s legal challenge read, citing the reassessment upwards of the numbers of badgers involved. “We have advised our clients that the licences granted are unlawful.”
A spokesman for Natural England said the cull could begin this week, as soon as the final licence conditions were met by those with the guns.
“We are considering the letter and will respond in due course,” he said.
But time is running out for the badger cull itself. The cull needs to begin as soon as possible before badgers begin to hibernate as autumn turns to winter.
Those taking part in the cull have six weeks and have to kill at least three-quarters of the badgers in a cull area to help prevent badgers with TB moving away to new areas outside.