Dominic Woodfield is the Managing Director of Bioscan, a long established and well respected consultancy specialising in applied ecology. He is a life-long birder, a specialist in botany, habitat restoration and creation and in protected fauna including bats, herpetofauna and other species. He is also a highly experienced practitioner in Environmental Impact Assessment and Habitats Regulations Assessment. Most of his work is for the development sector, but he has also undertaken commissions for Natural England, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and campaign groups. He once mounted an independent legal challenge in defence of an important site for butterflies in Bicester, Oxfordshire, which resulted in planning permission for a five-hundred unit housing development being overturned. He lives in Oxford with his partner and family.
On Wednesday, Tony Juniper issued a statement on the .gov website about the badger cull. It was released to coincide with the formal issue by the agency of licences enabling the continuation and further expansion of the Government’s badger cull, bringing with it the prospect of near elimination of badgers over vast swathes of countryside in western and northern English counties. Tony’s statement can be found here . He says that he has fulfilled his promise, made when first taking the Chair of NE, to look into the badger cull and has satisfied himself that all is legitimate and well in respect of Natural England’s role in facilitating it.
The suggestion is that it is simply the reaching of this conclusion that has elicited this statement, but the timing suggests other factors at play. Possibly pre-emption of an awaited ruling in the Court of Appeal, but perhaps more so an attempt to answer the renewed disquiet about the cull amongst the public, conservation scientists and veterinarians, and the growing consensus (except within Defra and certain powerful elements of the farming lobby) that the science behind it is flawed, and that such flaws are systematically being outed by poor empirical results. For supporters of the cull, the harsh fact remains that the Government is still unable to point to any clear evidence of significant or sustained reduction in bovine tuberculosis from the killing of badgers. On the other side of the debate, the evidence mounts and mounts that it is pretty much a pointless waste of millions of pounds of tax payers’ money and that it is a distraction from much better means and routes by which to tackle the disease.
When Tony took the chair of NE, many in the conservation sector including myself, breathed a sigh of mixed relief, hope and expectation. After years of the organisation being spearheaded by ex-house builders, accountants and landed individuals with undisguised commercial hunting connections, here at last was someone at the helm with proven expertise and credentials in nature conservation. I know from NE staff that morale within the organisation rose for the first time in many years. Initial soundings were good – Juniper appeared willing to stick his head above the parapet on matters such as Natural England’s decimation by cuts and the dire consequences this had for the exercise of even its most basic functions. Against that context, the statement on badgers issued yesterday contains acutely disappointing diversions into PR speak. Indeed one wonders whether Tony himself actually penned all of it, or whether large parts were written for him.
One or two passages certainly sound like genuine Juniper. He says, for example, that since taking the chair “I have gained a deeper understanding of Natural England’s work and the extent to which it sits within wider Government policy decided upon by Ministers, rather than by our Board or Chief Executive”. This is a thinly coded message to critics that they are right to suspect that Natural England is not at liberty to question or resist dictation from Government. The first four letters of the acronym QUANGO might be better dispensed with. Those who have witnessed and lamented the decline in the vigour and interest with which it performs its regulatory function over the last decade will probably agree that ‘GO’ is a much more fitting acronym for the current organisation. Tony appears not to be refuting that charge, but rather to be saying “don’t blame me for what I’ve inherited”.
However what is alarming is the degree to which alternative facts and selective amnesia pervade the comments made about what the statement calls the ‘conservation adviser’ part of Natural England’s role in licensing badger culling, and in the comments made about the legal challenges that NE has faced. This attempt to spin the facts does not read like Tony, but more like the modus operandi NE have adopted in the face of scrutiny over this issue, and were already adept at before his arrival.
One particular passage is particularly audacious in its presentation of an alternative truth. Tony’s statement says “Although many people may not be aware of this, conservation is also a big part of our licensing work on the badger cull. Natural England carries out detailed assessments of possible impacts that licensed activity may have on protected wildlife sites, imposing conditions on the licences to ensure that no harm is caused. We have also commissioned the British Trust for Ornithology to investigate any evidence suggesting that culling operations may be indirectly affecting vulnerable ground-nesting birds. Our licensing of badger control has been challenged several times in the High Court and Court of Appeal. To date, none of the challenges has been successful in revoking Natural England’s licences, underlining the rigorous, professional approach our staff take to authorising action and I would like to thank our licensing team for the great job they have done under considerable pressure.”
This is an extraordinary attempt to spin a crushingly embarrassing story for Natural England and one can’t help wondering whether Tony has allowed it to be attempted simply because he has been selectively briefed on the facts. The reality is that Natural England consistently failed to carry out the legally required assessments of the impact of badger culling on protected wildlife sites, prior to the legal challenges that are referred to being brought to bear on them. As a consequence, several years of badger culling affecting protected wildlife sites in Gloucestershire, Somerset and elsewhere went by without “conditions to ensure no harm is caused” being imposed to protect those sites. Once this was exposed through legal challenge, Natural England then dragged their feet at every turn rather than improve their assessments to make them legally compliant. This continued right through the courts. At one stage, a witness for Natural England claimed that bats roosting in SSSI caves could be disregarded from assessment because ‘gunshots are a low frequency noise’. The real story is that the “detailed assessments of possible impacts that licensed activity may have on protected wildlife sites” that Tony refers to are the product of a forced and painful genesis that can be tracked through the court papers and pleadings dating back to 2016. Indeed in every year since culling commenced in 2011, due and proper assessments of impact by NE have either been absent, or have been shown by the courts to be deficient in a number of respects. Natural England have only escaped sanction for this in the High Court by promising the judge that they will up their game each time. That is the reality of this story and it is extraordinarily brazen of Natural England to attempt to spin an alternative narrative.
So I am sorry Tony, or whoever wrote that bit for you, but you cannot be allowed to try and disguise the truth that the agency charged with protecting our most precious wildlife sites has consistently failed to carry out the steps required of it to discharge this most fundamental of its responsibilities, and indeed has had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts to reach the position we are in today. To thank those responsible for their “rigorous, professional approach” is the ultimate irony and suggests either that you are unsighted on the facts, or (more worryingly) are already falling into line with the institutionalised pack that marches to the beat of the Defra drum.