Devon police under fire for proposal to suspend badger protection law

Devon and Cornwall force’s idea to ease the pressure of policing the cull was termed ‘appalling’

A police force has been strongly criticised by animal rights campaigners after proposing the suspension of the law that protects badgers in areas where the government’s controversial cull has been taking place.

Devon and Cornwall police suggested that decriminalising the taking of badgers in cull zones would ease pressure on resources, save the public money and could help stop the spread of bovine TB.

The force insisted it was not suggesting abolishing the Protection of Badgers Act across the UK but campaigners claimed the proposal would lead to “open season” on badgers.

The Badger Trust called the suggestion “appalling”. Its chairman, Peter Martin, said: “This is them simply trying to make their role in policing the cull easier by allowing all and sundry to be out and about killing badgers in the cull zones. It would create a completely unregulated slaughter of wildlife.”

The charity’s CEO, Dominic Dyer, added: “I recently raised serous concerns in a meeting with the Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] secretary of state Michael Gove over the demonisation of badgers by the government and farming industry to justify the cull policy. This is leading to increased persecution of the species across the country and it now appears that the police are also playing a part in this process.”

Under the Protection of Badgers Act, anyone caught taking, killing or injuring badgers risks a fine or imprisonment. Since 2013, culling in zones including areas of Devon and Cornwall have been permitted under licence. Policing the cull has added to pressure on forces already badly hit by cuts.

In 2015, the government sought the views of police forces about the cull. The responses were declared “sensitive” and not published.

Following a two-year battle that went all the way up to the Information Commissioner’s Office, Anna Dale, a library assistant from the New Forest, uncovered the police views (pdf).

The most eye-catching suggestion came from Devon and Cornwall police, who suggested: “Why not decriminalise the possession or taking of badgers in cull areas with the provision that any taking has to be done with due regard to animal welfare.”

Asked what they meant, a spokesperson for Devon and Cornwall police said: “We are not advocating the removal of the Protection of Badgers Act across the UK. This is about the control of bovine TB and for agencies to be able to consider all available options in cull areas to manage its spread.

“We … asked Defra to consider the removal of the act in cull zones only to allow greater flexibility in the methods used to stop the spread of bovine TB.”

The spokesperson added: “It is important that agencies who are working on such matters are free to raise these concerns and suggest alternative solutions to bodies such as Defra, working together to control the spread of bovine TB while also reducing the cost burden on the taxpayer and the impact on police resources.”

Chris Cheeseman, an eminent badger ecologist and expert on bovine TB, said: “Rather than advocating what would in effect be open season on badgers in the cull zones, and probably beyond, they should focus their efforts on ensuring that the culls are conducted safely and strictly according to the rules, while also allowing legitimate peaceful protest.”

Mark Jones, of the Born Free Foundation, said: “It’s not the police’s job to suggest whether a law should or should not apply. It’s their job to uphold the law.”

Amanda Barrett, who acts as a liaison between badger protectors and the police in the West Country, said she was disappointed but not surprised.

She said: “Based on my experience with police liaison since the beginning of the culls, I seriously wonder how people protecting badgers can expect the promised fair and independent policing when a constabulary holds such ill-advised, partisan and biased views?”

Jay Tiernan, of Stop the Cull, said activists believed that police did not take wildlife crime seriously enough. “Those at the top are clearly biased towards those that wish to kill,” he said.

Devon and Cornwall police’s suggestion has not been taken up. A Defra spokesperson said: “Bovine TB is one of the greatest animal-health threats in the UK and has a devastating impact on our farmers.

“We work very closely with all agencies involved to inform our long-term TB eradication strategy, using their advice, alongside the best possible scientific evidence, to improve our plan to eradicate the disease.”

Contributor

Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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