The night of 14th to 15th September 2014 was warm and damp, ideal foraging conditions for a female badger living in the heart of the Somerset cull zone. She was healthy, with no signs of any disease, including TB.
Somehow she had managed to survive the mayhem during the first year of badger culling although other members of her community may have been less lucky. After their deaths, previously unknown badgers travelling from far away may have arrived to fill the vacant spaces, causing stress and upheaval amongst the previously tightly knit group.
Before leaving her sett in a tiny patch of woodland, she is likely to have waited until it was dark and quiet. After spending some minutes, perhaps carefully checking the air for danger, she would have headed off to forage keeping close to the hedgerows. Once she was out and about, she would have searched for tasty morsels such as earthworms, fruit and nuts that would have helped put her in top condition. She may even have been ready to give birth the following spring. (1)
As she meandered around different feeding spots, she would have remained alert for worrying sounds or smells. Had she detected something wrong, she would have bolted immediately towards the safety of her sett. Maybe she was distracted by something, a tasty earthworm or some bait such as maize or peanuts; and what should have been a normal night of contented foraging for this badger took a sudden and tragic turn.
What we know is that at some point, she was shot in her abdomen. The bullet fragmented on impact and severely damaged her spleen, liver, small intestine, large intestine and abdominal muscle. She may have tried to flee back to her sett. But if she did, she didn’t make it. Instead, she collapsed a few hundred meters away and lay bleeding to death on a quiet, country lane. A campaigner against the badger cull discovered her there and took her to Secret World Wildlife Rescue, where she was found to be dead on arrival.
The facts from Badger 41's post mortem are clear. (2) The bullet’s entry point had missed the heart-lung target area recommended by Government guidelines to avoid prolonged suffering and ensure rapid death. There had clearly been no follow-up shot, nor had the shooter or shooting team managed to find the badger. Badger 41’s carcass was also subjected to stringent tests for TB and, just before Christmas, we learned that she tested negative. The same was true for two other shot badgers rescued from the Somerset cull zone by campaigners in 2013. (3) The fact that these badgers tested negative for TB is not that surprising given that most badgers, even in high-risk TB areas, are free of TB. (4)
So why did the bullet miss? Was the shooter a particularly bad shot? Was the shot taken too far away? Taken too quickly? Or was she already running when the shooter took the shot, despite Government guidelines that shots should only be taken when the badger is stationary? Perhaps she only moved a few centimetres, just enough for the shot to go wide of its mark. We shall never know.
After consultation, the Government has agreed that if a badger takes 5 minutes or less to die after being free shot, it is considered a humane death. (5) Unlike wild animals, the humane death of a domestic animal in a slaughterhouse, is measured in seconds not minutes. Badger 41 illustrates how difficult it can be to hit the required heart-lung target area to kill a badger cleanly. Many experts, including marksmen, believe that the Government should never even have considered that shooting badgers in this way could possibly be humane. We don’t know how many more badgers suffered in similar or even more horrendous ways during the pilot culls. Nearly 300 badgers (9-11% of badgers shot at across both years) were never recovered after being shot at.
Around 234 badger carcasses retrieved during shoots observed by Natural England monitors in 2014 also underwent a post mortem; of these, 17% had ‘no major thoracic damage’ as would be expected if the target area had been hit. Even more worryingly, the majority of reported post mortems on badgers from shoots that were not observed by monitors did not have ‘major firearm injury identified in the thorax’.
Does the death of Badger 41 death represent the tip of a dirty iceberg? (6)
We may never know the details of Badger 41’s death, but the last word belongs to a shooter with over 50 years of experience in shooting, including with high velocity centre-fire rifles:
‘'I ask how is it possible to miss by such a margin? The so-called marksmen are supposed to be able to hit a four-inch circle at 70 yards. A marksman should only take a shot when he can be certain of a clean kill. The high rate of missed shots documented in the badger cull is a disgrace to the shooting community. The individual responsible for the death of Badger 41 should be identified and banned from all future culling activity if found to have been licenced as part of the cull.'’Badger 41’s death is subject to an on-going police investigation so more detail is still to come. But it is clear that a badly placed shot results in considerable suffering. Badger ecologists point out that wounded badgers will retreat to their setts where they cannot be recovered and their final fate, including the extent of their suffering, will remain completely unknown.
Badger 41 was a young healthy badger, and posed no risk to cattle or farmers. Yet misguided government policy condemned her to an agonising death. How many more healthy badgers will die in this way before the coalition government finally implements a truly evidence-based policy on bovine TB control?