As the clock struck 12 noon on Tuesday 8th September 2015 in London's Smith Square, home of DEFRA, a hearse rolled into view. It was a 1934 Austin known as JJ; as it circled you could clearly see the two metre long tributes of white chrysanthemums proclaiming Team Badger and #failingbadgercull. Perhaps, most poignantly, the metre square floral cushion simply stating the number 2263 - a reference to the number of badgers, pointlessly killed in the cull zones in 2013 and 2014.
Team Badger, the coalition of animal welfare charities committed to stopping the badger culls in England, were gathering. The assembled crowd went to a muted hush as Brian May, legendary guitarist and founder member of Queen finished his press interviews and joined the crowd around the small hearse.
Around a hundred placard bearing supporters left Smith Square in silence, behind a sombre Brian May with the hearse following at a ceremonial pace behind. As they walked the short distance to Old Palace Yard, the symbolical funeral and procession, marched with genuine respect for the deceased, even the London traffic slowed to walking pace as surprised drivers looked out to see a world renowned rock star leading the funeral procession.
After the assembled photographers and journalists had got the pictures and quotes they wanted, the funeral procession joined the several hundred supporters, resplendent in black and white outfits and stunning paper badger masks already at Old Palace Yard.
Brian May took to the steps of George 1V Statue to speak.
He then went on to introduce Angela Smith MP.
Followed by Hilary Jones Director of Ethics at Lush UK.
Before Brian introduced Will Travers OBE from the Born Free Foundation
the crowd were captivated. Every speaker had a unique viewpoint but a consistent message - the Badger cull is scientifically flawed and will never solve the serious issues that farmers face of bTB in cattle, in fact, it will probably make things worse.
Supporting this view, the next speaker was Marc Abraham, known as TV's Marc the Vet.
The crowd really warmed when the ever popular Green Party MP Caroline Lucas took to the stage.
Dr Iain McGill, Veterinarian and leader of Vets and Vet Nurses against the Badger Cull spoke next
, before crowd favourite Pauline Kidner, founder of Secret World Rescue Centre in Somerset, the only organisation to carry out and publish results of autopsies for badgers killed in the zone.
Afterwards, the speakers freely moved around in the crowd with Brian May stopping for countless selfies before finally exiting stage right. The government claim that the culling of badgers is a part of a wider twenty-five-year policy, however, the purpose of the pilot culls in Gloucestershire, Somerset and now Dorset is only to test the effectiveness of free shooting badgers.
The government's handling of these pilot culls has been shambolic. Firstly, they quoted badger population figures that caused the NFU to demand a recount, which the government dutifully backed down and produced the lower figures demanded by the NFU. No culling took place in 2012. In 2013, they had to extend the six-week cull period by a further three weeks as they had fallen below target. Somerset eventually achieved their target by cage-trapping and shooting badgers (they could have been vaccinated just as easily) whilst Gloucestershire still fell dramatically short.
In 2014, with targets reduced still further, the company in Somerset achieved the target by using cage trap and shoot, almost exclusively, raising the costs of every badger killed to around £5500. Once again Gloucestershire missed its target. It is a matter of researched scientific fact, that if you don't reduce the badger population in the agreed cull zones by 70% within the time period, note the RBCT trials, which are still the most recent data available on culling badgers recommended 2 weeks maximum, but the government, in their wisdom (or perhaps weakness in front of the NFU) extended that period to 6 weeks with some back of a fag packet type workings out.
After all these failings, Natural England still decided that the cull companies could have their licences reissued for 2015. How many companies would reward that level of incompetence and failure with a new contract?
In 2015, the targets set by Natural England are low, very low. In Somerset, less than 10 badgers a week, yet already, the chief protagonist and cull tsar - Owen Paterson has made outrageous claims of the success of the trials in previous years, whilst Farming Minister George Eustace appears to be lead, like a bull with a ring through its nose by the NFU. If they say jump, it appears he simply asks how high?
This suggests to most people that the badger culls are not justified on the scientific evidence or animal welfare. They are not helping farmers who have their herds ravaged by disease and are being denied available options.
Could political power be the main driver? The culls are demanded and organised by a small group of large landowners, collectively known as the National Farmers Union (NFU), a body that represents less than 20% of the farming industry, and yet, it appears gets to dictate government policy. The government's failure to stand up to the NFU's demands is perhaps explained by the "countryside vote" that had just enough sway to get a conservative coalition elected at the 2010 election. To put it simply, the NFU want paying back for that and a badger cull seems to be the agreed currency.