Badger cull companies across England are facing the prospect of an increased workload which could affect their ability to operate after a campaigner mounted a legal challenge against Natural England.
The judicial review, brought by ecologist Tom Langton, claimed badger culling was increasing fox populations and, therefore, threatening ground nesting birds with protected status.
In order to collect more data on fox numbers in cull areas, NE has requested all cull companies provide records of historical fox control in 2017 and 2018.
It has also demanded information on current fox control practices within miles 1.24 miles (2km) of sites where ground nesting birds are listed as features of special interest.
But Tom Rabbetts, head of TB delivery at the NFU, warned the companies, which are made up almost entirely of farmer volunteers, did not have the capacity to take on this extra workload and could not guarantee the information they collected would be accurate.
According to an email from Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s office to an MP, seen by Farmers Guardian, one company, believed to be in Gloucestershire, has already indicated it was not prepared to carry out the culls this year because of the new conditions.
Mr Rabbetts said: “When the cull companies were set up, this was certainly not a requirement.
“They have not recorded this data and they do not have access to every person controlling foxes in the area.
“You could be in a situation where you have to go to 100 or more farmers to try to find out the level of fox control on each farm.
“To do it in any single year is hard, but to try to backdate the information is even harder.”
FG understands all cull licences will, in future, require a fox control condition, which NE believes will not be burdensome if the level of existing control is sufficient to mitigate for any potential increase in fox numbers.
But Mr Rabbetts warned making fox control a licence condition was the union’s main concern.
He said: “If the companies are not able to collate all this data and it becomes a licence condition, they will ask whether it is worth putting themselves at risk.”
He also questioned why cull companies were being forced to carry out the work when fox control was not part of their remit and NE has responsibility for collating data on wild bird populations.
A Natural England spokesman said: “We take our role in assessing and issuing badger control licences very seriously.
“As is normal practice, we will continue to review and improve our work to assess the impact of badger control operations on protected sites, including SSSIs.”