Opposition MPs branded the cull a ‘shambles’, claimed it was heading for disaster and mocked Mr Paterson over his infamous ‘moving the goalpost’ comment.
But Mr Paterson stood firm, insisting there was nothing underhand about the latest estimate of badger numbers in the Somerset cull area that suggested nearly 60 per cent of badgers had been culled over six weeks.
“These pilots were set up to establish the safety, the humaneness and the effectiveness of controlled shooting by skilled marksmen and it is quite clear over the first six weeks we have succeeded on all three criteria,” Mr Paterson said.
Accused again of ‘moving the goalposts’ on badger numbers, he attributed the reduction in badger populations in the cull areas and elsewhere in England to poor winter weather and disease.
He defended the possible extension of culling in both pilot areas beyond the six weeks specified in the licence. Natural England is currently considering applications from the Somerset and Gloucestershire cull companies.
“We are satisfied that if the local companies want to go on, if they wish to apply for an extension, we would be broadly supportive,” he said.
Opposition MPs condemned the policy. Labour MP Barry Sheerman said the policy was ‘morally reprehensible’ and called on Mr Paterson to resign.
In her first appearance at Defra Questions, new Shadow Defra Secretary Maria Eagle branded the policy ‘an absolute shambles’, pointing out that the 70 per cent removal target has not been reached in Somerset and predicting the Gloucestershire pilot would fail, too.
Mr Paterson responded: “We are are absolutely clear, we have had advice from our Chief Veterinary Officer that the number we have achieved (in Somerset – 850 badgers representing 59 per cent of the estimated population) will lead to a reduction in disease.”
He accused the previous Labour Government of allowing the disease to spread by ‘doing nothing’ and repeatedly urged Opposition MPs to look to the experiences of Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the US where the disease had been tackled by culling wildlife.
He confirmed the Government is looking at the possibility of deploying gassing as a means of culling badgers in the future but said this would only be permitted if it was proven to be ‘safe, humane and effective’.
Asked about reports farmers were taking the law into their own hands and gassing badgers, he warned that ‘random culling’ had been shown to make the disease situation worse and said such actions should be reported to the police.
But Mr Paterson deflected a question on the policing of the cull, after police and crime commissioner for Gloucestershire Martin Surl expressed concern about plans to extend the cull in Gloucester.
Mr Surl estimated policing costs were almost £1m so far in the Gloucestershire area, twice the original estimate.