The RSPCA has insisted it remains opposed to the badger cull after its new chief executive apologised for the charity’s behaviour in recent years and hinted at a change of approach on the policy.
In an extraordinary interview in the Telegraph, Jeremy Cooper, who has just succeeded Gavin Grant as the charity’s chief executive more than two years after the departure of the controversial figure, admitted the RSPCA had become ‘too adversarial’.
Mr Cooper accepted the charity had alienated farmers through the way it had campaigned on the badger cull and said it was ‘very unlikely’ to ever bring another private prosecution against a hunt.
“Of course we have made mistakes in the past, and we are very sorry about that. We have to be honest and admit the mistakes and acknowledge them.
“For me it is about recognising those mistakes and then doing everything we can to prevent them happening again.”
In recent years, notably under the outspoken leadership of Mr Grant, who left the RSPCA for health reasons in February 2014, the RSPCA has come in for heavy criticism from farming and rural communities over its stance on certain issues.
Most notoriously, Mr Grant threatened to ‘name and shame’ farmers who took part in England’s badger culls in 2012.
He also threatened in an interview with Farmers Guardian to campaign to ‘stop consumers drinking milk’, if supermarkets did not differentiate between ‘badger friendly milk’ and milk from English badger cull areas’.
The RSPCA has banned farmers who take part in the culls from being members if its RSPCA Assured welfare scheme.
In 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority banned an RSPCA advert featuring a syringe and a bullet alongside the headline: “VACCINATE OR EXTERMINATE?"
The charity has also clashed with the industry over an incident that ended with an RSPCA official shooting a number of sheep destined for live export, following an inspection and chaotic scenes at Ramsgate port in 2012.
The charity was warned about its campaigning stance by the Charity Commission in 2013, following a complaint by farmers.
It has also sparked controversy with its hunting prosecutions, most notably when it spent large sums trying to prosecute Heythrop hunt, in Oxfordshire.
In his interview, Mr Cooper was at pains to signal a new approach, insisting, for example, while RSPCA would investigate complaints about fox hunting, all future decisions on hunting prosecutions would now be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.
He acknowledged the charity had been ‘over-zealous’ in its prosecutions – there were nearly 1,800 last year - and said he would like to see the number come down.
On the badger cull, Mr Cooper described calls for naming and shaming of farmers who shoot badgers as ‘not helpful’.
He said: “We care as equally about badgers as we do about dairy cows.
“We don’t have an issue with the need to manage badgers. It is the method. Foxes need to be managed as well.
"It is about humanely managing the animals. We recognise that dairy cows suffered problems and badgers need to be managed.”
Mr Cooper, who was previously chief executive of RSPCA Assured, promised the charity was ‘going to be a lot less political’ under his leadership.
“It doesn’t mean we won’t stand up for animals. But we are not a political organisation,” he said.
Mr Cooper’s comments prompted a big reaction, with a number of RSPCA supporters and animal welfare campaigners, including Badger Trust chief executive Dominic Dyer, seeking assurances on whether it was still opposed to badger culling.
In a statement the RSPCA said: "We're still opposed to the badger cull and have been publicly campaigning against such.
“We believe that vaccination, increased levels of testing and improved biosecurity are more effective ways of dealing with bTB in the long term. We do not condone or endorse the needless killing of wild animals.
But it added: “We are aware that in some circumstances farmers will choose to kill a wild animal that may be worrying or causing suffering to their animals. In those cases we call for such to be carried out in a humane manner.”
It insisted it remained as ‘committed as ever to speaking out for vulnerable animals’ and said it made ‘no apologies’ for its campaigning work that has benefited animals but accepted ‘we got the tone wrong sometimes’
Mr Cooper added: “I feel very privileged and very humble with what I have seen already. It’s about looking forward. It is about doing what we can do on animal welfare, the prevention of cruelty, rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming. That is what we are about.”
The Farmers Union of Wales, which has made a number of complaints against RSPCA, welcomed Mr Cooper’s apology but said many questions remain regarding the organisation’s conduct and that of the Charity Commission.
FUW Deputy President Brian Thomas said: “For more than a decade the FUW repeatedly raised concerns about the conduct of the RSPCA in relation to its overtly political campaigns, and pursued a number of complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority and the Charity Commission, amongst others.”
“In response to serious complaints against the RSPCA the Charity Commission was generally dismissive and at times appeared to try and brush concerns under the carpet.
“Their passive approach to the RSPCA effectively gave the charity a green light to become more militant and more political, and we would argue that Mr Cooper’s public apology is at least in part a direct consequence of this failure by the Charity Commission.”
“A sinister shadow has been cast over the honourable roots of the RSPCA and the important work done by its employees.
“The only way in which to redeem its reputation is through full transparency, and a full investigation of the role played by the Charity Commission in allowing the organisation to fall into such disrepute.”
Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner said: “The Countryside Alliance welcomes the RSPCA’s commitment to focus on animal welfare, rather than pursuing an animal rights agenda.
"The Society’s decision not to pursue prosecutions against farmers and hunts is a sensible one, and provides further support for the argument that it should not prosecute criminal cases as a first resort at all.
"We believe that it would be better for the RSPCA and for animals if it concentrated on protecting welfare and investigating allegations of cruelty whilst allowing the police, CPS and other statutory bodies to make decisions about whether criminal charges should be brought.”