9 October 2013
Last updated at 07:26
The numbers of badgers in both cull regions has been revised significantly downwards
A pilot badger cull in west Somerset may be extended by up to three weeks as marksmen have failed to kill enough badgers to reach their target.
Sources at Defra say that 850 badgers have been shot in the area over the six-week trial, just over 40% of an initial target of 2,081.
But those sources insist the Somerset scheme has proven to be effective.
They say new population data means there are far fewer badgers in the pilot area than originally thought.
The controversial pilot culls set out to study if badgers could be killed safely, effectively and humanely.
It is being carried out in an attempt to control TB in cattle, which can be spread by badgers, though opponents say it will have no impact.
The plan was to kill 70% of the badgers in the areas of west Somerset and Gloucestershire by free shooting.
Across both regions this meant around 5,000 badgers were to be killed in total.
Decline in numbers
But Defra sources said these targets were based on population estimates from 2012 that have proved to be highly inaccurate.
“We have high confidence that between 2012 and 2013, there has been a decline in the badger population in both areas,” said a source.
As the cull started, hundreds of hair traps were set so that DNA could be extracted and analyzed to give a more up-to-date assessment of badger numbers.
In west Somerset, the population, which had been estimated at 2,400, has now been revised downwards to 1,450. In Gloucestershire, the numbers have been lowered from 3,400 to 2,350.
There are a number of reasons behind the apparent decline according to Defra, including the impact of last winter’s bad weather, disease and lack of food.
As a result, the targets for culling have also been revised downwards to around 2,600 for both areas combined.
To kill 70% of the badgers now estimated to live in west Somerset, the culling company needed to kill 1,015 badgers.
After six weeks of shooting, they achieved 59%, and the company is now seeking an extension of its license for another two to three weeks.
Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said the number of badgers to be killed had been reduced because it was important not to “wipe out” entire populations.
He told BBC Breakfast the marksmen needed “a few more weeks” to “meet the best criteria that the scientists have set”.
“Last year 38,000 cattle were killed and we’ve got to do something about the spread of this ghastly disease,” he added.
Asked why the desired number of badgers had not been killed, especially given the lower total population now estimated, Mr Kendall said these were pilot schemes and those involved are “learning as we go”.
He said there had been some “protester activity” and all shooting had been stopped whenever a person has been “spotted in a vicinity”, though he said the protesters were not the reason the target number had not been reached.
Defra sources believe that even on the lower figures, the exercise has been effective.
“This level of culling is a significant culling of the badger population and sufficient to achieve cattle disease benefits at the start of a four-year… period,” the source said.
There was a “possibility” that the company carrying out the Gloucestershire cull will also seek an extension.
Reports in recent days suggested that the exercise in west Somerset was in trouble, with a Conservative MP admitting it had not worked as well as hoped.