| Secret badger shoots pose 'a risk to public safety'|
|The government has refused to publish risk assessments of danger to the public during England's imminent night-time badger shoots because doing so "could have an adverse affect upon the health and safety of the public", the Observer can reveal.|
The police have previously warned of the "clear potential for harm to public safety" but the location and timing of the culls remain a closely guarded secret, which campaigners say puts those vaccinating badgers or patrolling for wounded animals at grave risk.
Environment secretary Owen Paterson, who has argued against the shooting of foxes as an alternative to hunting with dogs, said: "It is highly unlikely that any government would wish to see a proliferation of rifles in the countryside."
The shooting of about 5,000 free- running badgers is set to begin at any time in pilot cull areas in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The culls are part of the government's effort to curb the rise in tuberculosis in cattle, which saw 28,000 cattle slaughtered in 2012 at a cost of £100m to taxpayers. But eminent scientists have dismissed the culls as "mindless" and warn that they may make matters worse as badgers flee the shoots.
Campaigners requested the publication of the risk assessments under freedom of information rules, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refused, stating: "Disclosure of this information would impact adversely upon the protection of the public, e.g. from acts of sabotage, and could have an adverse effect upon the health and safety of the public."
Avon and Somerset Police also refused, stating: "Public safety is of paramount importance and there may be occasions when the release of information concerning public safety may not actually be in the public's interest."
George Kearton, from campaign group Badger Rescue and Vaccination Everywhere, who made the FOI requests, said: "In the cull zones there is no information available locally about where the actual shooting is to take place, even if the farms concerned are immediately next to village housing areas. We have yet to see any consideration or reassurance given to the people of this country as regards their safety and that of their children and pets."
A previously released Defra document stated "no shooter will have prior experience of shooting badgers" and "some shots may completely miss the animal".
Mark Jones, executive director of Humane Society International/UK, said: "Allowing pot shots with high-velocity rifles at moving badgers in the dark self-evidently poses a serious risk to human safety. Their rifles have a range of a mile or more, so if they miss their target, where are the bullets going to go?"
A spokeswoman for Defra said: "We will not release the exact cull zone location in order to protect people taking part in badger control. The professionals taking part in the cull will adhere to strict firearms safety, hold the right firearms licence and pass a specific, government-approved training course. [Shooting] is an accepted method of disease control already used [for] other species, such as deer and wild boar."
She added: "There is no reason why people cannot continue to enjoy the countryside as normal. Marksmen will not shoot if people are in the area."
Paterson has been a steadfast supporter of badger culling as part of a TB eradication strategy. But in May 2000 he wrote to the Burns Inquiry into fox hunting with dogs and argued that shooting foxes was not a viable alternative method of control. "Animal welfare groups talk about marksmen; however, it is highly unlikely that any government would wish to see a proliferation of rifles in the countryside," he wrote. At the time several animal welfare groups were advocating that shooting foxes should replace hunting.
Paterson also addressed policing: "I am convinced that the [rural] police simply do not have the resources to enforce a ban on hunting.
"In Welsh border areas, where feelings run extremely high, I have been told many times that people will resort to civil disobedience."
The high expected cost of policing the badger cull means it will be more expensive than a vaccination programme, according to some experts.
Mary Creagh, Labour's shadow environment secretary, said: "Owen Paterson warned against 'a proliferation of rifles in the countryside' when fox hunting was to be banned, but apparently thinks it is fine for the badger cull. The police have significant concerns that the badger cull could present a risk to the public safety of tourists, ramblers and protesters."