How often will Natural England (NE) be told by judges to release information about the ongoing badger culls?
Last December NE was in court, arguing its case for not releasing information sought by ecologist Tom Langton, and the Tribunal has now judged against it – the second time it has lost, on exactly the same grounds.
Nor will the National Farmers Union (NFU) be pleased, seeing that the culls should be considered as an NFU project.
In 2008, the findings of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial having been made public, the then government respected the conclusion in Professor John Bourne’s report that culling badgers would make no ‘meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.
Two years later and a new government saw an unscientific decision to cull badgers, along with further TB testing and cattle controls which Defra had to persuade the farmers to accept. Professor Bourne tackled a senior politician about this, and received this reply:
“Fine John, we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers.”
A further carrot had already been offered to the Tory Party in 2008 by the NFU and Countryside Alliance: basically give us the cull and we’ll give you the votes.
So NE, supposedly there to protect our natural environment, is tasked with licencing mass killing of a much-loved protected species.
It has received many Freedom of Information requests seeking wide-raging information about the badger culls and routinely refused to release anything of worth, often using EIR exception 12(5)(a), which states that:
‘… disclosure would adversely affect international relations, defence, national security or public safety’
Also cited is: ‘The protection of the environment to which the information relates’.
Killing protected wildlife will obviously not affect international relations, defence or national security, nor can one argue that wholesale killing of one of our important wildlife species is good for the environment. But ‘public safety’ was NE’s lifeline.
With the NFU providing ‘anecdotal’ evidence of the stress and fear of farmers receiving ‘threats to life and limb’, NE argues that releasing information allows people to more easily map culling area boundaries and then harass and intimidate farmers participating in the cull. They also claim the removal or destruction of cages used to trap and shoot badgers ‘compromises public safety’, though do not explain how.
It thought its reasoning was strong, but it was defeated in an appeal by the Information Commissioner and Anna Dale in 2015, when the judge clearly ruled:
“Where, as here, Government policy on an environmental issue is a matter of substantial debate and concern, the provision of environmental information, including information facilitating protest, is vitally important. Increased protesting in the cull areas (or better directed protesting) is perfectly legitimate in a democratic society.”
It was concerns about the protection of the environment that led Langton to ask NE for information on the level of assessments they had carried out on protected sites within badger culling areas. He maintains that the information he seeks would allow ‘proper and informed scrutiny of the adequacy of the assessment of the environmental impact of the badger cull’.
They refused his request. Langton went to the Information Commissioner and in August 2017 the Commissioner, using the Anna Dale judgement, ordered NE to comply with the request. Instead it appealed.
The NFU appears to be responsible for the stories about the ‘terrifying’ harassment suffered by farmers which NE uses as the reason to block information. The witness statements and evidence produced for Anna Dale’s case were dismissed by the judge as ‘anecdotal’ and ‘speculative’.
In 2013 there were arrests of ‘badger protesters’ followed by their ‘de-arrests’ and one person has been prosecuted for aggravated trespass. There have also been some arrests for damaging or removing cage-traps, but the only prosecution of an anti-cull supporter for an act of physical violence towards a pro-cull man appears to have been from 2015.
In a film of the incident, it appeared to be the result of a confused scuffle between him and a member of Outlaws, a local motor cycle gang, who rented a unit at a local farm. That the Farmers Guardian called the victim ‘a farmer’ points to the bias of farming media in cases like this, as substantiated evidence-based reports of anti-cullers’ physical violence are non-existent.
Natural England’s Appeal
In NE’s appeal, it again claimed there was extensive intimidation and harassment of farmers. The two witness statements from farmers NE provided were not convincing. One witness tried too hard to portray living in fear, claiming the intimidation went on day and night for the length of the culls. The other was ‘involved in the administration of one of the cull areas’ and suffered harassment via Stop the Cull.
As Ray Puttock, witness for Langton, explained, anti-cull people wouldn’t have wasted their time this way. Nor do they support Stop the Cull’s activities. Had the intimidation really been of this level the police could have taken action, or the NFU sought injunctions. Such statements come from those too closely connected to the NFU and/or cull contracting companies. It is known that the first witness is closely connected to a culling company official. The second admitted that he was.
However, despite NE using their main badger-cull licensing official as a witness, the evidence put forward was shown by Tim Nesbitt, the barrister acting for Tom Langton, to be ‘largely second hand, hearsay, wrong or vague.’ According to Nesbitt, the evidence showed that only around 10 out of 6000 farmers could be said to have been targeted with phone call harassment.
Embarrassingly, for both NE and the NFU, the licensing official could not explain why there were no police incident numbers or police witnesses, or written statements to support the alleged harassment detailed in the evidence, even though there were copious references to the number of times police were contacted.
In dismissing NE’s appeal, the Tribunal was scathing about the lack of evidence for the claim they were making – that releasing the information would increase the intimidation. Certainly there was no increase after the Dale judgement.
Nor did their argument that ‘protesters’ would have more accurate maps of culling areas hold up. NE appears to think the maps put out by Stop the Cull are relied on by everyone. Puttock disagreed, saying people knew their localities and used that knowledge to guide their actions. In fact the Tribunal said Puttock was ‘an impressive and reliable witness, knowledgeable about the anti-cull movement and its ways of working on the ground’. They had no such kind words for NE.
NFU county and cull contracting company officials are lax regarding public safety
The ex-chair of Dorset NFU and North Dorset’s culling company’s CEO was reprimanded by Dorset police in both 2015 and 2016 for harassing anti-cull people, using vehicles to block access to paths and to block people’s cars in, so they could neither get out nor drive away.
The director of Hereford’s culling company FAPC Ltd., was filmed by a lone female trying to ensure that a combine harvester did not damage a badger sett, while he subjected her to threatening and abusive language.
Devon’s NFU Chair is also the Director of culling company JRD West Country Ltd. His farm was the site of an example of illegal shooting. Hunt saboteurs also highlighted cull biosecurity regulations being ignored there, finding blood (presumably badgers’) all over the bonnet of the cullers’ vehicle.
In 2013 Gloucester’s ex-NFU chair ran over and injured a 50 year-old woman involved in badger protection. The incident was witnessed by several people, but he got off with a simple warning. When GABS posted this on their website they received a poorly composed threatening letter from NFU lawyers. This man had run Council-backed school trips at his farm, and was jailed last year for sexually assaulting a boy. I doubt the NFU made much effort to defend him this time.
Though the police seemed unwilling to support Natural England’s evidence, some forces are still too close to the NFU.
Both Avon & Somerset and Gloucester police forces started with the attitude that all anti-cull activity was illegal. They still claim to have no knowledge of the boundaries of culling areas, so cannot log any illegal shooting outside those boundaries. NE reportedly refused to inform them, so they were depending on the NFU, who they thought were ‘in charge’.
People in every culling area have observed police vehicles escorting shooters, despite police denials. In 2013 people were outraged to find that in Somerset, the NFU had a presence in the police control room and, because they could hear incidents being reported by anti-cullers, informed and directed their gunmen accordingly.
Yet in 2017 that close relationship was still in place. The policing in both Devon and Cheshire has been very pro-farmer, a repeat of what it was like in Gloucester and Somerset during 2013.
In Devon, police often gathered at Stannaway Farm, not out on lanes or land but sitting in the farmhouse. Two middle-aged ladies were walking back to the road on a footpath running along the edge of Stannaway farmyard when no less than 8 policemen came from the house, stopped them, questioned them and searched their bags – all very aggressive and wrong as they were on a legal path.
Some rural people supporting fox hunting can react violently towards hunt monitors and saboteurs. But neither they nor pro-cullers appreciate the fact that wildlife protectors, particularly hunt sabs, now record acts of violence and illegality. So what has been recorded over four years of badger culling?
As with policing, the actions of farmers/cullers during the first year of culling are repeated in any new area. So in 2013 both Somerset and Gloucester reported dangerous driving, tail-gating, damage to cars, wing mirrors torn off and tyres slashed. Vehicles repeatedly sped past walking badger patrols while the occupiers shouted abuse.
Mud and muck was thrown at cars or smeared over parked vehicles. Farmers covered stiles on public footpaths with slurry, or tried to illegally block paths with electric fencing.
Guns were deliberately and illegally fired close to patrollers. Fireworks and crow scarers were thrown at walkers. On occasion farm vehicles were driven at patrollers walking on public footpaths through fields.
All this was threatening, dangerous, and childish. What makes it more so is that last year, in Cheshire’s first experience of badger culling, every single incident above was logged by anti-cull people.
There have also been incidences of targeted physical assault by farmers/shooters:
Somerset, 2013 – teacher Chris Tasker attacked by two cullers, who tried to claim he had attacked them. Gloucester – a woman run over. Gloucester 2017 – an anti-cull woman beaten up by a man while his friends egged him on. West Dorset 2016-17 – more than one assault on anti-cull people, who hold a lengthy list of police incident numbers for outbreaks of violence and intimidation, unlike Natural England which could provide none.
And all of the above have one thing in common: despite witnesses, recordings and films, and (in some areas) the best efforts of the police, not one person involved in culling badgers has yet been prosecuted for intimidation or assault.
The misuse of guns is worrying
Dorset found evidence of shooting across public footpaths. GABS has recorded many firearms offences. Peter Martin, Chair of the Badger Trust, is particularly concerned about contractors’ disregard for safety regulations. “Have the shooters been trained in safety procedures or is it that they just don’t care?” he said, citing issues such as lack of backstops when the bullet from a missed rifle shot could travel several hundred metres and still be lethal.
There is little monitoring of shooters by NE; most act alone and unobserved. When Martin asked the Deputy President of the NFU Minette Batters about the competence of the shooters, she said they all received a single day’s training. “Then how do you ensure safety in the field?” he asked. “We don’t,” was the reply.
In its Appeal, NE showed itself to be ignorant about England’s ecology; clueless about the legal activities of anti-cull folk, even calling a demonstration in a town an act of intimidation; and apparently oblivious to the behaviour of some farmers and shooters. The NFU also appears to condone violence among those backing the cull, with a don’t-care attitude towards the way the cullers ignore safety regulations.
So here’s a thought: NE wanting to withhold information about impact assessments perhaps implies their inadequacy.
NE was told to release the information in August, before the 2017 culling started. Had it done so and the information exposed a lack of proper assessment, thus breaching its own regulations, that could have halted the culling, at least for 2017. By immediately appealing, it delayed the inevitable decision by the Tribunal until the killing had taken place.
With that thought in mind, all badger supporters will be anxiously waiting to see what Langton makes of the information he has fought so hard to obtain.
With thanks to all those from different counties who have, over the years, supplied information. Keep it coming!
Lesley Docksey © 28/01/2018