Managing wildlife

Badger, wild boar and roe deer, copyright Andrew Parkinson/Bernard Castlein/TJ Park/Naturepl.com

Pilot badger culls are expected to begin in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset from 1 June in an effort to combat the spread of an infectious disease in cattle - bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

Opponents to the cull dispute that these measures will have a significant impact on preventing the spread of bovine TB.

It's a controversial debate.

But what is culling? And when do people use it as a way of managing wildlife?

Culling involves a policy decision being made to "reduce" a species of animal for a specific reason.

The decision to cull animals comes when they are deemed to cause significant problems such as coming into conflict with people, causing a great deal of damage to forests and the countryside or, as in the case of badgers, are believed to spread disease.

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Culling is a contentious and emotive issue and each case presents unique complexities. In a statement the RSPCA says: "Any decision to carry out a cull must be taken on a case by case basis based on the specific issues which impact a specific area.... It is certainly not a case of one size fits all."

The organisation says it is "opposed in principle" to killing wild animals, unless there is "strong science to support it, or evidence that alternatives are not appropriate." It also urges that any cull must be carried out in a "humane and controlled way."

While the impending badger cull aims to control a disease, the main reason deer and wild boar are culled is to prevent significant damage to trees and woodlands.

Forestry Commission wildlife management officer Norman Healy believes controlling deer in this way is "essential". He says: "The only other control that will limit deer numbers is disease and their teeth wearing out."

"Deer's teeth wear down over age and if they're not controlled by top predators - we have none [in the UK] - they will die of starvation. And if the population gets too high, that can increase the risk of disease."

Researchers have suggested half of the UK's deer population needs to be shot each year

Deer can be culled under certain conditions within a given "open season". However, with more of the animals than at any other time since the last Ice Age, out-of-season shooting is also permitted in some exceptional circumstances.

Earlier this year, a group of scientists suggested around half of the UK's growing deer population need to be culled to protect the countryside.

Feral wild boar have only in recent years returned to English woodlands after disappearing around 300 years ago. But a Defra consultation raised concerns that the few populations currently living in the wild could rapidly grow and cause problems to agricultural sites and present risk of disease to livestock.

The Forestry Commission is due to carry out what is expected to be the biggest cull of wild boar in the Forest of Dean later this year. The annual cull of the boars was put on hold last year over concerns the population could be wiped out.

Responsibility for managing feral wild boar lies primarily with local communities and landowners. And according to the Forestry Commission, decisions are made each year about how, and if, boar and deer should be culled.

Non-native grey squirrels have spread rapidly in Britain over the last century, causing damage to woodlands by stripping bark from trees. They also carry the squirrel pox virus, which can be deadly to our native red squirrels.

BBC's Tim Muffett has been examining the debate over whether the cull is the right thing to do

Culling these animals usually involves trapping and killing them quickly with a blow to the head or by shooting them. Once trapped, it is illegal to release a grey squirrel into the wild without a licence.

Some animals can be controlled and sometimes culled under a "General Licence". These licenses are only issued for specific reasons, including preventing serious crop damage and disease and conserving native species, and are only issued after non-lethal control methods have failed to solve the problem.

The nests and eggs of birds including Canada geese and parakeets can be destroyed as a way of managing the species. Crows, collared doves, jackdaws, feral pigeons, woodpigeons and magpies are all on the list of birds that can be killed or taken by authorised people with a general licence.

Foxes only have limited protection under legislation and can be controlled without a licence, although Natural England advise this requires an expert. After a fox was reported to have attacked a baby in February, Mayor of London Boris Johnson described the the incident as a "wake up call" to the problem of foxes.

But some experts said a cull of the animals would not address the problem of foxes coming into conflict with people.

The trial badger culls will allow licensed people to kill the animals within an "open season". Minimum and maximum numbers of badgers to be culled have been set, in an effort to control the spread of bovine TB while preventing local extinctions of badger populations. Read more: Q&A: The badger cull

However the move has sparked some strong opposition, with some conservationists and campaigners arguing that research shows culling badgers will have too little effect on preventing the disease spreading to cattle, and voicing concern about how humane the methods that will be used actually are. Read more: Badger pilot culls due to start

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