Free shooting badgers: a decidedly risky business

Any day now, badger culling could begin again in Gloucestershire and Somerset. But the Government’s policy and methods of killing badgers to control bovine tuberculosis in cattle remain highly controversial for many reasons. These include the scientific justification, cost-effectiveness and humaneness of killing badgers to control bovine TB and are explored elsewhere on Badgergate. This article looks at whether shooting badgers away from bait points, which is potentially unavoidable, is either legal or safe (for people).

An important aspect of the Government’s approach to culling badgers is the use of licenced operatives to ‘free shoot’ badgers without first trapping them.  The conditions of the Licences that relate to free shooting are very specific, including the type of equipment that may be used, where a badger may be shot and from what distance. Any deviation from these may mean that the operatives are not acting lawfully.

For instance, Section 10 of the Licence WML-CLO5 (11/13) states that only  night vision scopes of Generation 2 and above can be used with an infra-red illuminating device.  Section 29 of the Best Practice Guidance on free shooting (aka ‘controlled shooting’) states that night vision scopes can only be used to shoot badgers at bait points1.  But what happens if a badger isn’t killed outright?  In theory, a second shot is allowed. However, it’s well documented that badgers, even if they’re fatally wounded, run away.  This means that the second shot would very likely have to be taken away from the bait point and if a night vision scope2 is used for this, this may well be unlawful.

The Independent Expert Panel’s report on last year’s badger cull states that 5.1% of the 158 badgers subjected to postmortem examination had been hit by more than one shot (Page 30, Section 5.3.1). Not only is this potentially illegal but what about public safety?

We asked Dr Chris Cheeseman, an expert marksman with 55 years of experience in all types of shooting, for his opinion:

“Night vision scopes may be used on either rifles or shotguns at a bait point, but the law states clearly that these cannot be used away from the bait point. The reason for this is clear and crucially important – it would be extremely dangerous to do so.

Night vision technology has provided enormous benefits to the military and police, for example, and indeed in many circumstances where the ability to see in the dark is an advantage. I have used such equipment in my own studies of badgers and it is quite literally a wonderfully illuminating experience. Their one disadvantage is a relatively narrow field of vision and the fact that peering through a night vision scope can temporarily seriously reduce the user’s own night vision.

Safety is quite rightly of paramount importance when shooting at night. The Independent Expert Panel that oversaw the initial pilot culls found that an unacceptably high proportion of badgers was wounded by shooters and took longer than five minutes to die. Second shots are therefore required when wounded badgers have to be pursued. A wounded badger is not going to stay in the vicinity of the bait point, therefore the shooter may break the law if he moves away from the bait point and then uses the firearm for a second shot. That’s the law.

When we remember that there are likely to be many peaceful protestors present in the cull areas during the shooting, the dangers are almost too horrific to imagine.  In the initial culls last year, many protestors were equipped with their own night vision aids and reported the frequent occurrence of looking at shooters who were looking back at them through the night vision scopes on their rifles! These shooters were either not aware of the code of practice, or flagrantly ignored the rules that say under no circumstances must a shooter use a rifle scope to look at anything other than their quarry. The reasons are obvious – rifles often have very delicately set triggers.

The fact that there were no reported shooting accidents last year is more down to chance than anything else. If this activity continues it is only a matter of time before someone gets killed or seriously injured.

The police and those responsible for the culling operations must get a grip on this issue. Frankly, this is something of a show stopper for shooting badgers at bait points because we already know that badgers are going to be wounded, and what happens then?”


1. Bait points: where peanuts or other badger ‘treats’ have been placed for several nights running in order to encourage badgers to go to a specific spot.

2. Night vision scopes allow images to be produced in levels of light approaching total darkness or images lit by infra-red light that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.