FARMERS would be shooting themselves in the foot if they pressed ahead with a badger cull this autumn.
Delaying a badger cull to combat bovine tuberculosis will be painted as another government u-turn – but the decision makes sense after closer scrutiny.
To put it bluntly, culling badgers is a numbers game.
In the end, there were too many badgers and not enough time to ensure that a six-week cull would be deemed successful once completed.
Farmers will be angry and dismayed – especially those who believe a badger cull must go ahead for cattle TB to be controlled in their herds.
But this isn’t a case of the government bowing to public opinion, despite a vociferous campaign by animal welfare activists to get the cull stopped.
Mindful that they would face accusations of yet another u-turn, both Downing Street and Defra were determined to press ahead with the cull.
But farm leaders were reluctant to go ahead with the cull in the face of increasingly unachievable targets.
Failing to reach the cull target would prevent the policy from being rolled out to other TB hotspots.
So farm leaders decided it was better to postpone.
With no final culling licence issued by Natural England – for reasons that remain unknown, despite repeated questioning – the NFU is now in an invidious situation.
But the numbers just didn’t stack up – and they were getting worse.
To be successful, 70% of the badger population would have to be killed in the two cull zones of west Gloucestershire and west Somerset.
Last week, the government revealed that the “best estimate” for badger numbers in the two areas was 3,600 in west Gloucestershire and 4,300 in west Somerset.
This was twice as many as first thought in the west Gloucestershire cull zone and about 60% higher than the original estimate for west Somerset.
Higher than expected badger populations would make it more difficult to take out the badgers required in the time allowed.
One of the wettest autumns on record has compounded the challenge.
Suggestions that 80% of badgers must be targeted to meet the 70% cull target have only added to the problem of an already tight timetable.
Culling would be carried out using a combination of cage trapping and free shooting. But a seasonal closed period is looming on cage-trapping.
Although badgers can be shot after 1 December, cage trapping is outlawed after that date, making it harder to cull enough animals to reach the target.
Farm leaders had always warned that a cull would have to get under way by mid-October for it to be successfully completed.
Pushing ahead now would risk the cull being ineffective – especially as badgers move under ground later in the year.
Mindful that a failure would end any chance of the cull being extended to other parts of the country, they decided a delay was the lesser of two evils.
Those in favour of controlling badgers will hope a cull will now go-ahead successfully next year – but a lot could change between now and then.