Badgers and Brushfires: Opening Fire on Nature
October 23, 2013
Damian Carrington / The Guardian & BBC World News
The UK's controversial "badger cull" faces collapse after the Badger Trust warned that it was prepared to appeal to the high court to take action to halt plans to more than double the period allotted for hunting the emblematic creatures. Meanwhile, Australia's military is investigating whether a training exercise using explosives may have started one of the huge bush fires burning in the state of New South Wales -- leading to at least one death and the loss of 200 homes.
Britain's War on Badgers Comes Under Fire:
Badger Cull Hit by Legal Challenge
Damian Carrington / The Guardian
GLOUCESTERSHIRE, UK (October 19, 2013) -- The controversial cull of badgers in Gloucestershire faces collapse after a legal challenge to halt the killing was launched on Saturday. The Badger Trust has formally warned the authorities to abandon the shooting or face a high court challenge on the grounds that a plan to more than double the killing period is illegal.
The badger culls, intended to help curb the rise of tuberculosis in cattle, are already in deep trouble having failed to kill the minimum number of animals within the six weeks legally permitted. In Gloucestershire, just 30% of the badgers were shot, far short of the 70% minimum. The group conducting the cull, supported by environment secretary Owen Paterson, have applied for an eight-week extension which the licensing body Natural England is considering over the weekend.
"It is extraordinary that they are pushing ahead with an extension in the face of all the things they said previously in their own policy, consultation responses and in court," said Gwendolen Morgan, a solicitor at Bindmans, the firm acting for the Badger Trust. If the cull is not halted, the trust's next step would be to start the judicial review process and seek an injunction to stop the shooting.
"There is an unbelievable lack of transparency from this government, which has a feudal attitude towards wildlife," said Jeff Hayden, a director of the Badger Trust. "We have taken this action, although it will likely prove a very expensive exercise, partly to protect the badger of course, but also in an attempt to thwart this return to the middle ages."
Natural England declined to comment on the legal letter but said it expected to decide on the extension application "shortly".
Scientists have warned that failing to kill the minimum number of badgers in a short time risks making TB worse, as fleeing badgers spread the disease further afield, an effect called perturbation. A previous landmark, 10-year trial of badger culling, in which the killing took place over just 8-11 days, found that more than 70% of badgers had to be killed to ensure TB was not made worse.
"Their justification for pouring more fuel on the fire by extending is to prevent perturbation, but they are flagrantly ignoring the advice that extending the cull further would actually make perturbation even worse," said Morgan.
The Badger Trust's legal letter quotes ministers' and officials' own words on the importance of restricting the cull to six weeks. In a statement that formed part of the government's successful defence against a Badger Trust judicial review in 2012, Paterson said: "The decision to allow culling over a maximum period of six weeks was taken in the light of advice from relevant scientific experts in the field."
The government's chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens, in another statement, addressed one of the key purposes of the current pilot culls: "In relation to 'effectiveness' specifically, the purpose is to confirm our assumption that controlled shooting will be an effective method to reduce the population of badgers by 70% within 6 weeks."
Professor David Macdonald, a badger expert at Oxford University, said the pilot culls had already been successful in testing whether shooting free-running badgers was effective. "The answer is no," he said.
Another expert, Professor Rosie Woodroffe at the Zoolological Society of London, said: "The pilots have shown very clearly that the approach is not effective and extending the culls further will not help." She added: "Extending the cull now prolongs this perturbation of badger populations. In my view it should stop now."
The Badger Trust's legal letter states: "Mr Gibbens appears to have changed his advice about how to respond to the entirely foreseeable and foreseen circumstance" that the cull would not meet its target. It notes that ministers previously rejected requests to cull for more than six weeks during its consultations, with ministers writing: "The evidence suggests [the six week limit and the 70% minimum] are necessary to realise the overall reduction in TB in cattle in culled areas."
The letter observes that, while government policy states that "a panel of independent experts [will] oversee the design of the data collection, its analysis and interpretation", this has not yet happened. "Their failure to consult the independent group is very serious," said Morgan.
A spokeswoman for the department of environment, food and rural affairs declined to comment on the legal challenge but said the pilot culls were important: "Bovine TB is an infectious disease that is spreading across the country and devastating our cattle and dairy industries. We have to use every tool in the box because TB is so difficult to eradicate."
The pilot cull in Somerset also failed to kill the minimum number of badgers, managing only 59%. This was despite government estimates of the initial population present being slashed by two-thirds, making the target much lower. Natural England granted a three-week extension for the Somerset cull, but the far lower kill rate in Gloucestershire means an extension there will be harder to justify.
Paterson said the missed targets were because the "badgers moved the goalposts" by crashing in population due to bad weather and disease. But the Guardian revealed on Thursday that other better monitored badger populations had seen no decline at all and that experts think that illegal culling or problems with the cull zone estimates are to blame.
Australian Bush Fires: Military Probes Link to Lithgow Blaze
BBC World News
(October 19, 2013) -- Australia's military is investigating whether a training exercise using explosives may have started one of the huge bush fires burning in the state of New South Wales. The exercise took place at a base near the town of Lithgow in the Blue Mountains region on Wednesday. It was the same day that a massive bush fire -- which is still burning -- began.
About 200 homes have been destroyed in dozens of fires, which have been burning for several days.
The BBC's Jon Donnison in Sydney says this year's fires have come unusually early after unseasonably hot weather, and many are fearing a long and dangerous summer. One man has died -- possibly of a heart attack -- while trying to protect his home.
The Australian Defence Force issued a statement about the fire burning between Lithgow and Bilpin, some 80 km (50 miles) north-west of Sydney, which is reported to have burned through 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) and destroyed properties. It said it was investigating the circumstances of the fire, which began on defence land.
"The fire started on 16 October, the same day that defence personnel were conducting an explosive ordnance training activity," the statement said. "Defence is investigating if the two events are linked.
"Our thoughts are with those who have lost property or whose property is threatened by these devastating fires."
Firefighters have been trying to make the most of a relatively cool day to tackle about 20 fires that are burning out of control, but higher temperatures and strong winds are expected to create difficult conditions in the coming days.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said Saturday's conditions were a "pause", but that the fire perimeter stretched for more than 500km. "We're by no means out of the woods," he told broadcaster ABC. "It's just calmed down a little bit and obviously we're bracing ourselves for these worsening conditions."
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said some of the fires were so large they would take some time to completely extinguish. "Firefighters will be working on these fires for weeks," he said. "It's all about reducing the risk of these fires to breach containment lines and run under hotter, drier, windier condition over coming days."
Smoke and ash from the wildfires have blanketed the Sydney skyline.
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