The grim reality of free-shooting badgers

The dry facts of how Badger 200 died make for uncomfortable reading. But to fully capture the reality of those long, dark, increasingly cold and wet nights for many hundreds of badgers in the cull zones, we need to delve deeper. Based on the experiences of some of the public who were out and about during the cull, a little bit more of the story can be revealed.

By the time the first shot rang out in West Somerset on the night of Bank Holiday Monday in August 2013, many groups of people from all over the country had already assembled.  They came to observe, monitor and protest against the cull. Many drove hundreds of miles at their own expense to walk along unknown footpaths in remote areas, not knowing where shooters armed with high velocity rifles would be lurking.

These were ordinary people driven to do an extraordinary thing, united by their deep concern that hundreds of healthy badgers would be shot for no good reason. For some these would include badgers they had watched and enjoyed in the wild over the years.

Badger 200 may well have been one of these much-loved badgers. His sett of four or five family members was not far from a small village on the edge of the West Somerset cull zone. He might even have been a regular visitor to the churchyard there.  He would certainly have ambled through the gardens where people have put out peanuts for decades in the hope of seeing these otherwise elusive creatures.

Badger 200 survived being shot or trapped for the duration of the original pilot cull period. But on the first night of the extension, people standing on a small lane on the outskirts of the village suddenly heard a shot ring out in the adjacent field. This was followed by the sounds of a vehicle speeding away. Some time later, the body of a big male badger, in the prime of his life, was found close to a hedgerow.

Now, thanks to the autopsy carried out at Secret World, we know Badger 200 was shot in the spine, an injury that the pathologist described as ‘severely debilitating’. His heart, lungs and brain weren’t affected, which suggests that the badger was conscious – and presumably in severe pain – for an unknown length of time. He might even have been able to run away and cover a short distance before collapsing as his hind legs became rapidly paralysed. A violent and painful end for a badger that otherwise had been perfectly healthy – completely TB-free.

© Secret World Wildlife Rescue

© Secret World Wildlife Rescue

Badger 200 isn’t alone.  Natural England recently released copies of reports compiled by their monitors who observed shooters in action during the culls in both West Somerset and West Gloucestershire.   On 29 October 2013, during the cull extension in West Gloucestershire, a badger was shot ‘too high and too far back’.  The badger dropped onto its rump, got back up and ran quickly to the hedge where it slowed down and ‘loitered for a minute watching the contractor all the time’ before turning and walking slowly into the hedgerow and out of sight.  The contractor pursued the badger on foot and eventually, 5-10 minutes later, shot it in the head. Yet Defra’s guidance on best practice for shooting free-ranging badgers explicitly states that “a head  shot presents an unacceptable risk of wounding and must not be attempted.”

We’re still waiting for the Government to release the full report from the its Independent Expert Panel (IEP). However, information leaked from the IEP report to the BBC suggests that between 6-18% of badgers took longer than 5 minutes to die – far above the 5% maximum figure laid down by the Government as its standard for judging the humaneness of free-shooting.

Prior to the culls, the Government and others had assured us that all badgers would be shot cleanly in the specified heart-lung area by highly-trained marksmen to minimize the risks of causing undue suffering. Typically, we heard things like the following (this particular quote taken from a BBC radio interview):

“You’re talking about a heart/lung shot, which is a reasonably big target on a badger and there’s been a lot of chat about how difficult they are to shoot, they’re not difficult to shoot, when you hit them they die.”

From our own observations during the culls, we believe the reality was very different. The evidence is mounting that our observations were not unusual, but more likely the norm.

Cull figures released by Natural England under a Freedom of Information request show that just over 1,000 badgers were recorded as free-shot in both zones. But how many more badgers escaped the first shot only to die painfully elsewhere, perhaps even outside the official cull zone? How many of those counted but not observed by independent monitors also suffered the fates of the badgers described above or worse?  And how many people lost badgers they had known and cherished over the years?

Maybe when the full IEP report is finally released officially, these questions will be answered or maybe not… Meanwhile, we have learnt a bitter lesson and must ask ourselves whether this Government and its supporters within the veterinary profession and the farming industry can be trusted with any form of wildlife management, let alone badger culling.