Debating Badgers in Parliament – some first thoughts

Westminster Parliamentary petitions: Wild Justice supports the use of parliamentary petitions across the UK parliaments. They are a valuable way of bringing matters to the attention of politicians that might otherwise be avoided. All UK residents and citizens living abroad are entitled to sign such petitions. A Petitions Committee exists to run the process in the Wetminster parliament and acts as a gatekeeper to which petitions can go ahead and if and when they are debated. Almost always, a petition that receives 100,000 signatures in a 6-month period is subsequently debated in Westminster Hall, primarily by backbench MPs but with closing remarks from Opposition Shadow Ministers and Government ministers. Any petition which reaches 10,000 signatures receives a response from the government department responsible for that matter in England. Relatively few petitions reach 10,000 signatures, very few of those started get anywhere near 100,000 signatures.

Petition 333693 on how Badgers are killed in England: this petition was initiated by Wild Justice. Since someone has to submit the petition, in this case it was submitted by Mark Avery and the parliamentary process regards him as ‘the petitioner’. We regard ‘Wild Justice’ as the petitioner but that is of little importance since this petition was signed by 106,108 people and they all have an equal share in it. Thank you to all who signed the petition.

This petition was very clearly about how Badgers are culled in the DEFRA-sponsored Badger cull which purports to be a key means of eradicating bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle. Here is the complete text of the short petition;

Shooting of Badgers is licensed by Natural England as part of the DEFRA Badger cull. 24,000+ Badgers were shot in 2019.

Shooting is poorly monitored and Wild Justice believes it has never met the animal welfare standards recommended by a 2014 Independent Expert Panel, whose recommendations were accepted by DEFRA. This method of culling is inhumane and should be banned immediately.

This petition was submitted by Wild Justice on 3 August 2020, immediately received the half a dozen signatures that each petition needs to jump the first hurdle but was not considered by the petitions team until late September (let’s put it down to covid). There was initial pushback from them saying that this petition was very similar to an existing petition until we pointed out that our petition was quite clearly about shooting, and about whether shooting was humane, and did not even mention vaccination. Our petition was published on 24 September 2020 and closed 6 months later on 24 March 2021 having passed 100,000 signatures. It took almost a year, until 21 March this year, for this successful petition to be debated (let’s put it down to covid although many petitions which reached 100,000 signatures after ours have been debated in the interim).

Support for this petition came from across the UK, but unsurprisingly primarily from England, and unsurprisingly, mainly from rural areas many of which are experiencing Badger culls.

At the time when this petition started Wild Justice pursued a legal challenge to the lawfulness of this method of culling – that challenge was unsuccessful (which doesn’t, of course, mean that shooting Badgers is acceptable).

In the run up to the debate many Wild Justice supporters drew the debate to the attention of their MPs (thank you for doing that), Mark Avery met, virtually, Nick Fletcher MP from the Petitions Committee to brief him on the petition and our thoughts, and we and other organisations, particularly the Badger Trust (many thanks!) briefed MPs on the issues.

The debate: and so, at 4:30pm on Monday afternoon, a small number of MPs met to debate this petition and in the public gallery Mark Avery and the Executive Director of the Badger Trust, Peter Hambley, attended in person. You can read the transcript of the debate – click here – or watch the video of it – click here and move to 10 minutes into the video for the start of the debate.

Here are our initial thoughts on the debate.

  1. Nick Fletcher MP’s introduction: we are grateful to Mr Fletcher (Conservative, Don Valley) for the time and care he took to get briefed on the subject. His introduction was polite and fair. He stressed that ‘I have spoken to the petitioner, Mark Avery, and his main request is whether, should the Government continue with culling, it can be carried out more humanely. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill has just gone through Parliament. Surely that attitude to improving animal welfare should be reflected in our approach to TB reduction. Trapping and then killing is far better than wounding a badger and then letting it die a slow, painful death.‘. He might have added that the British Veterinary Association withdrew support for shooting free-running Badgers because this method is not humane as long ago as 2015. He might have pointed out that government did not adopt the welfare standards (fewer than 5% of badgers should take >5minutes to die) recommended by an expert panel and that monitoring of shooting shows that those standards have not been met in any subsequent year of Badger culls involving over 100,000 animals being shot.
  2. Mike Amesbury MP (Labour, Weaver Vale): Mike didn’t say much, but it was good to hear ‘Not only does culling not respect animal welfare…’
  3. Chris Loder MP (Conservative, Dorset West): if this name sounds familiar to you then it might be because Mr Loder went out on a limb, and has not been supported by fellow Conservative MPs when he said that White-tailed Eagles weren’t welcome in his constituency. Mr Loder comes from a farming family. It is unclear that Mr Loder actually read or thought about the petition and he certainly didn’t address the point made by his colleague Mr Fletcher in opening the debate, that this is about how to cull (if such a cull is to continue, as Mr Loder clearly thinks it should). Mr Loder failed to address the choice in front of this government about the method of culling – should it continue with the current less humane method or ensure that all Badgers culled (if the cull is to continue) should be culled by the most humane method available. If this were an exam question then Mr Loder failed to read the question carefully and deserves to get low marks.
  4. Jim Shannon MP (Strangford, DUP): Mr Shannon agrees with Mr Loder, and owns a farm and is a member of the Ulster Farmers Union. He is also the treasurer of the All Party Group on shooting. Mr Shannon said that he supported the culling of badgers but failed to address the issue of the petition, pointed out by Mr Fletcher at the start, of whether he supported the less humane method of shooting at free living Badgers (though we can infer that he does). Although he uttered the rather empty words that Badgers ‘must be handled compassionately’ he did not say whether he thought shooting at Badgers in the dark was compassionate or whether he would favour a move to a more humane method. If this were an exam question then, like Mr Loder, Mr Shannon failed to read the question carefully and deserves to get low marks.
  5. Sir Bill Wiggin (Conservative, North Herefordshire): Sir Bill is a farmer too, and a shooter too, funny that. Sir Bill regards, it seems, gassing as the only alternative to shooting in the dark with rifles – it clearly is not. Sir Bill, like Mr Loder and Mr Shannon, failed to read the question carefully and deserves to get low marks.
  6. Daniel Zeichner (Labour, Cambridge): spoke for the Opposition EFRA team. He was well-briefed and on top of the subject to a large degree. Labour’s position would, in theory, avoid these welfare issues by switching to Badger vaccination, biosecurity and movement controls. Mr Zeichner made these points of direct relevance to the petition ‘The petition has a significant number of signatures. It focuses on the killing of badgers rather than the bovine TB issue, which I shall return to. The view expressed is that the shooting of badgers is poorly monitored and inhumane. Anecdotally, one is certainly told of cases where badgers are not shot cleanly and are left with injuries. According to Natural England’s compliance monitoring report for 2020, badgers were shot at but not retrieved in 11.4% of cases, but only one case of a badger being shot at but wounded and lost was reported; presumably some of the rest may not have been found. As with all such figures, the situation is not clear. I suggest that there is some cause for concern.‘ and ‘Can the Minister say why the number of badgers culled through free shooting rather than cage-trapping has changed so dramatically? According to the figures in the very good briefing prepared by the House of Commons Library, those numbers have increased from rough parity in 2014 to around four in five in 2020, creating a greater risk of inhumane culling. What is the reason for that? It seems that that is directly relevant to the question raised by the petitioners.‘. Mr Zeichner had read the exam question and scored high marks from us as a result.
  7. Dr Lisa Cameron MP (Scottish National Party, East Kilbride): made a useful short intervention on vaccination.
  8. Sir Robert Goodwill MP (Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby): made short interventions in favour of continued culling but failed to differentiate between shooting free running Badgers in the dark and the welfare issues it poses and cage-trapping. Sir Robert, like Sir Bill, Mr Loder and Mr Shannon, failed to read the question carefully and deserves to get low marks. That’s a clean sweep of back-bench MPs who favour continued culling who swerved the welfare issues associated with shooting in the dark – it’s almost as if they cannot face up to the issue even though they come from rural constituencies, claim to be farmers or know about farming and are largely supporters of fieldsports. Hmm.
  9. Jo Churchill MP, (Conservative, Bury St Edmunds), Parliamentary under Secretary of State, DEFRA: the Minister, briefed by all those officials in DEFRA did not address the question of the welfare issues associated with the current and planned methods of Badger culling. The closest she came was to say, very briefly ‘we need to approach this issue in the most humane way possible‘ without giving any indication of what that is, despite the recommendations of an expert committee in the early years of this large-scale cull which her department have neglected to implement. Like Sir Robert, Sir Bill, Mr Loder and Mr Shannon, all those who spoke in favour of culling, the minister of the very department responsible for the cull and the way it is carried out could not bring herself to address the welfare issues involved.

It would be possible to read into this failure to address the welfare issues associated with a government-led massive cull of wildlife; that the Department responsible for it does not really care about the suffering its policy is imposing on our wildlife.

Wild Justice will be writing to DEFRA for clarification of their views on the welfare issues associated with shooting of free-running Badgers.