So many questions, so little time

Just how humane is free shooting badgers likely to be?

The pilot badger culls have begun and over 5,000 badgers are destined to die despite there being many unanswered questions. Shooting wild badgers without trapping them in cages first – what the government calls ‘controlled shooting’, but which we and others refer to as ‘free shooting’ – has never been done before on such a scale with Government sanction. Questions that need answers include how many badgers will the shooters manage to kill outright on the first shot and how many will just be wounded and bolt, only to die a painful death along a dark country lane or underground back in their sett?

A key objective of the so-called ‘pilot culls’ in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset is to test the humaneness of this new method of killing badgers, before deciding whether to roll out the policy on a much bigger scale. But how will the Government actually do this? How many badgers have to suffer and by how much before ‘humane’ becomes ‘inhumane’ – and how will the Government figure this out? These questions and many more have been put to Defra, the Government department managing the badger cull policy, but with few satisfactory answers.

It took Humane Society International/UK more than six months of repeated requests before Defra finally published its humaneness monitoring proposal in May 2013. The only problem was that just a few sections of the 24-page document were actually readable as most of the document was blacked out.

Even so, it’s clear from what can be read that Defra doesn’t expect all badgers to be killed outright on the first shot. While some very lucky individuals may escape or survive with minor injuries, others will experience considerable suffering – a slow, painful death over several hours or even days. Some may even live a little longer, but in a weakened state, only to die from secondary infection or starvation. But what we still don’t know is how much suffering Defra thinks is acceptable, nor how Defra plans to measure this in order to decide if free shooting is humane or not. These unanswered questions are vital, since the future fate of many tens of thousands of badgers depend on them.

Clearly obtaining reliable and independent information on the manner in which badgers die will be key to this decision. However, on 2 August 2013, Pauline Latham, the MP for mid-Derbyshire, published some details on the Government’s plans for monitoring and doing post mortem examinations of badgers on her website. According to Mrs Latham, 120 badgers that have been killed with independent observers present along with another 120 carcases shot without observers present, will be the only carcases that undergo post-mortem examination, i.e. 240 in total.

An immediate question is why so few post-mortems, since some 5,000 badgers will be shot in the two cull zones? Testing humaneness is one of the three stated objectives of the pilot culls. But in order to be able to confirm that only a small number of badgers are likely to be killed inhumanely through free shooting, one would need to examine a much larger number of carcases – that is if you want to reach a scientifically valid conclusion. Another question is how will Defra monitor wounded badgers that escape, especially those that bolt back into their setts and die underground?

Back to our earlier question – what does Defra consider an acceptable rate of suffering? Some would argue even one badger dying a painful death as a result of free shooting is unacceptable. But a quick look at published wounding rates when shooting wild animals shows that rates are unlikely to be much below 10%. This means that around 10% of shots will not kill the animal outright – and for some species the wounding rate has been shown to be much higher. So what do Defra, BVA and others in favour of free shooting’ badgers consider to be an ‘acceptable’ wounding rate in the case of badgers?

Perhaps the answer lies hidden somewhere in the blacked-out pages of Defra’s humaneness monitoring proposal. In the meantime, Badgergate has looked into some of the scientific literature on free shooting in other species. In these studies1, 6% of impala, 13% deer and 30% of flying foxes were not killed outright. A further study, using fox targets, rather than real foxes, estimated wounding rates could be up to 47%.

So what can we expect from free shooting badgers? Unfortunately there are no comparable data, however, we do know that shooters have been recommended to shoot badgers in the chest, not the head.  This, in itself, is unusual, as head shots are regarded to be more humane, resulting in a rapid loss of consciousness and minimising suffering. A badger head is thought to be too small for a reliable shot, and so badgers are likely to suffer more, even when shot cleanly, than say a deer. Then we have the position of the leg – clearly marked in the shooting guidance kindly provided by Defra. Where the leg is positioned, will affect the likelihood of killing a badger outright, or deflecting the shot and causing severe injury and a long, drawn-out death.

Defra states that ‘Shots must only be taken when the animal is stationary, when the target area is clearly visible and the animal is more or less broadside on, so the shooter is confident of an accurate and humane shot’. But badgers are wild animals, and will be shot at night, by gunmen with no prior experience of shooting free-roaming badgers. How likely is it that the badgers will pose conveniently for the shooters, leg outstretched, side on, to enable a clean lethal shot?

These kinds of complicating factors suggest that the percentage of badgers that is not killed on the first shot is likely to be higher than in deer and impala, while the suffering induced by the first shot, which will be aimed at the chest and not the head, may be substantially more than that undergone by deer and impala before death. It also suggests that we can expect more than 500 badgers (i.e. over 10% of badgers culled through free shooting), to undergo some level of suffering beyond what they would experience from a direct shot in the chest, while all badgers killed through free shooting will die more slowly and with full consciousness.

Given all this, how will Defra actually establish the humaneness of free shooting badgers? Back in June, the President of the BVA reiterated his support for the pilot culls to establish whether the cull would be humane. But how do you measure the suffering of an animal that is not killed outright? By how long it takes to die? And again, what is the cut-off point – how long is too long? In Defra’s humaneness monitoring proposal, there is reference to studies of other species in which suffering was measured by the volume of the screams of dying animals. More worrying still, is that ministers, not scientists, will decide whether the data collected from the pilot culls shows free shooting to be humane, and how much suffering is to be deemed ‘necessary’.

The Information Commissioner has recently ruled that Defra was wrong to withhold information on humaneness assessment by hiding behind Environmental Information Regulations, and ordered it to release the unredacted (i.e. full) version of its document on humaneness assessment. It is time Defra comes clean about how much suffering they expect and on what basis they will decide whether free shooting badgers is humane – or not. Defra must disclose to the public how it intends to monitor and evaluate the humaneness of the two pilot culls. Unless Defra does this before the culls actually begin, there is a danger that the public will conclude that the Government is setting the ‘acceptable level of suffering’ after the event in order to justify rolling out more badger culls across England next year.


Defra has updated its May 2013 guidance on free shooting in August 2014. The latest guidelines make no reference to taking the shot while the badger is ‘broad side’ (see Shot Placement, p.7).  Additionally the Independent Expert Panel’s report on the 2013 pilot badger culls records that the National Farmers Union and cull contractors decided to slightly alter the target area (‘Point of Aim’) to ensure the one shoulder and the underlying chest area would be hit (see p. 31/Section 5.3.16 of the IEP report for more detail).

References on free shooting of other species, see p.32 in particular