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Western Morning News

JOB AXE LOOMS OVER DEFRA WILDLIFE STAFF

11:00 - 22 April 2006

Government wildlife officers who could have been used in any future cull of badgers have been put on "gardening leave" ahead of predicted redundancies at the end of next month. Nearly 100 staff - including 50 based at Polwhele, near Truro - were told shortly before Christmas that their contracts would not be renewed or that they were facing redundancy.

They had all been involved in the 39 million Krebs trials, which were designed to assess badgers' involvement in the spread of bovine tuberculosis through targeted culling.

The statutory three-month consultation on their jobs ended on March 10 and employees were clinging to the hope that they may have a future with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

But shocked staff, few of whom have found alternative posts in the department, were then told they would be offered up to 12 months' salary, in addition to redundancy packages, to leave early.

The move further signals the Government's intent to have no direct involvement in the future control of badgers despite the worsening bovine TB crisis. An announcement on the way forward may be made next month.

"People had been hoping there was a solution which meant they could have kept their jobs, and this came as a real bolt from the blue," one Defra worker told the Western Morning News.

"Almost all of the staff have been on gardening leave for two weeks already and the target date for them to leave is May 31. They are paying for a resource they are not going to use. It is a complete waste of money."

The cost of sacking the wildlife officers, some of whom have been with the department for more than 20 years, has been put at between 2 million and 3 million.

A consultation on the issue of badger culling closed last month. Defra received more than 25,000 responses - four times the number during the debate on hunting with dogs.

Opposition to a cull of badgers to control bovine TB has been building with high-profile campaigns from groups such as the RSPCA, Badger Trust and national networks of wildlife trusts.

The Government's own environment watchdog, English Nature, also cast "serious doubts" about whether a cull of badgers would limit the spread of bovine TB.

The National Trust has also come out against Defra's proposals, saying that "sound scientific evidence" for the move had not been provided by the much-criticised Krebs trials.

Their stance is a blow for Westcountry farmers who have backed a cull, given the mounting pressure on Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw.

Whatever Mr Bradshaw decides, the Defra employee claimed, the Government had set out its stall.

He said: "It seems they have already made up their minds and that means the Government is not going have its own people directly dealing with what is a growing problem.

"We were hoping that common sense would prevail."

The redundancies have been attacked as an attempt by ministers to shift responsibility for the handling of the bovine TB crisis on to farmers while allowing Defra to meet Treasury budget targets.

Concerns were also raised that Defra was "compromising" its ability to tackle any bird flu outbreak with the disease on the country's doorstep.

Defra has described the staff as "contractors" who had been "employed specifically" to work on the Krebs trials, which had now been completed.

It said there were "enough qualified contractors" to carry out necessary work in the event of a bird flu outbreak