Just before Christmas, the National Farmers Union (NFU) launched a review against DEFRA accusing the environment secretary, Theresa Villiers, of ‘unlawful’ interference over a decision to cull badgers in Derbyshire.
At the time, a leaked source to the press said Villiers’ intervention had been brought about by pressure from the prime minister’s partner Carrie Symonds, a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation who has ties to the Badger Trust, an organisation which is opposed to the cull.
Badgers in England and Wales are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. But since a cull pilot began in 2013, 300,000 badgers have been killed across 43 areas in England as part of a government initiative to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle, according to the Wildlife Trust.
Protection of Badgers Act 1992
11 Apr 2011
Last autumn, Villiers ordered Natural England to scrap the cull in Derbyshire – where badgers are also being vaccinated against TB in a four-year trial – and continue with vaccinations. But the NFU believes Villiers’ action was unlawful because she ignored the “current scientific evidence” on TB spread by going against the advice of DEFRA’s own chief veterinary officer who recommended the cull permit be approved.
Speaking with farmers at the 2020 Oxford Farming Conference this month, Villiers said it was “regrettable” that the decision to block the permit was taken so late. But added the decision was made to allow for more time “to evaluate the mechanics of badger cull and vaccine mechanics”. She also admitted to delegates that she had “engaged” with No10 over the decision, but did not comment on Symonds’ involvement.
The NFU’s vice-president Stuart Roberts said: “We think that what the secretary of state did is unlawful, and that is why we’re launching this legal challenge. Alongside the Derbyshire farmers, we’re asking the court to rule that the direction issued to Natural England should be overturned.
“It’s come to light that before the secretary of state made her decision, her expert veterinary and scientific advisers told her that a licence should be issued to the Derbyshire area, to prevent the spread of bovine TB. It remains our view that any policy decisions must be based on science and evidence.”
In response to the NFU’s judicial review, a DEFRA spokeswoman confirmed the government had been notified about the legal challenge but said the department could not comment on ongoing proceedings.
She said: “Bovine TB remains one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK, and the decision to pause the cull programme in Derbyshire will let us look at how the cull and existing vaccination projects in that area have worked together.”