Farmers have lost a challenge to the government’s cancellation of the badger cull in Derbyshire in a high court ruling that has been welcomed by wildlife groups.

A judicial review of the environment secretary’s decision to halt a planned expansion of the cull to Derbyshire last September brought by the National Farmers’ Union was dismissed on all grounds.

The NFU said the cancellation of the Derbyshire cull came after the intervention of Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s partner and a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, who was briefed by Dominic Dyer, head of the Badger Trust, three weeks before the government U-turn.

The extension of the cull to Derbyshire was widely opposed by wildlife groups including the Badger Trust and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, which is running the largest badger vaccination programme in the country. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust argued that a cull would jeopardise its work with 52 landowners and farmers, in which 221 badgers were vaccinated in 2019.

The government licensed the killing of 35,034 badgers in 2019 in 40 culling zones from Cornwall to Cumbria, its seventh successive year of badger culling, a controversial destruction of a legally protected wild species which has done little to slow the spread of TB in cattle.

While pro-cull farmers, supported by figures from the Animal and Plant Health Agency, claimed that 77% of new cases of bovine TB in Derbyshire were caused by badgers, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust used freedom of information requests to reveal that this figure was based on the personal judgment of vets called to new outbreaks.

Peer-reviewed scientific literature estimates that badgers contribute 5%-36% of outbreaks in cattle. Most bovine TB within herds is transmitted by other cows who are not diagnosed with the disease by the notoriously unreliable cattle tuberculin skin test.

The National Farmers’ Union said it was “shocked and dismayed” by the high court decision. Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the NFU, said: “The 11th-hour direction by the secretary of state was made against absolutely all the scientific and veterinary advice and left farmers in the Derbyshire area, who met all the licence criteria, completely devastated. Many of them had seen this cull as their last hope at dealing with this awful disease which has been devastating their cattle herds and crippling their business for years.

“It remains our view that it simply cannot be lawful for the government to make policy up on the hoof.”

After an independent review by Sir Charles Godfray into bovine TB policies, the government recently conceded that the mass culling of badgers was not a long-term solution to reducing bovine TB. It announced a new emphasis on vaccinating cattle as well as badgers against the disease, which scientists hailed as “a seismic shift”.

Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, said: “The Badger Trust is delighted to see the prime minister took note of the concerns we raised in our open letter to him on why a badger cull licence should not be issued in Derbyshire in 2019.

“The high court judgment shows he was highly engaged in the decision-making process to withhold a cull licence in Derbyshire and we are pleased to see that the judge accepted his intervention in this case was both legitimate and lawful.

“In its verdict on the Godfray review, the government has made it clear that it wants to find an exit strategy to badger culling based on badgers and cattle vaccination combined with improved TB testing in cattle and tighter biosecurity and movement controls. The Badger Trust fully supports this change of policy.”

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