The process that DAERA undertook when deciding to include a badger cull in a new bovine TB strategy has been challenged in the High Court in Belfast.
A lawyer representing wildlife campaigners, David Wolfe KC, argued that “insufficient material” was made available to the public as part of DAERA’s consultation on the new TB strategy.
The consultation document, which was published in July 2021, stated that DAERA’s preferred option for wildlife intervention was a non-selective cull in TB hotspot areas, mainly using controlled shooting.
Wolfe argued that the exact information that led DAERA to arrive at its preferred method of wildlife intervention was not published with the consultation.
“There is an expressed reference to veterinary and scientific advice, but no indication as to what that is,” he told the High Court on Monday.
Crucially, the legal case does not challenge DAERA’s decision to proceed with a cull. Instead, it questions whether enough background information was made available when the decision was subject to public consultation.
“The question for the court is simply whether the consultation was so unfair as to be unlawful,” Wolfe said.
The judicial review was jointly taken forward by wildlife campaigners from the NI Badger Group and Northamptonshire-based organisation Wild Justice.
Another strand of the case surrounds the information that former Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots was briefed on when he was making a final decision after the public consultation closed.
For example, Wolfe suggested the minister was not made aware of concerns raised by the NI Badger Group about “unnecessary suffering” of badgers when a cull is carried out by controlled shooting.
“The minister was not appraised of, and therefore could not take into account, submissions made in the consultation process by the applicant,” Wolfe maintained.
In response, the lawyer representing DAERA, Tony McGleenan KC, pointed out that the process of introducing wildlife intervention in NI has been ongoing since at least 2014.
At that time, the then Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill established an independent group of experts, known as the TB Strategic Partnership Group, to review options for a new TB policy in NI.
McGleenan argued that since then there has been ongoing engagement with wildlife campaigners, as well as thorough scrutiny by MLAs at Stormont, and several expert reports and consultations where all relevant information has been publicly laid out.
He urged the court to take a “longitudinal view” by looking at the whole process that DAERA has been engaged in over the past eight years.
“If the court only takes the 2021 forward view, then you miss all of this and we say it is significant,” McGleenan said.
Various documents were laid before the court which McGleenan said were evidence that DAERA had been actively engaged with wildlife campaigners, including the NI Badger Group.
He said it also showed that concerns about the “humaneness” of a free shooting badger cull had been raised at the highest levels within DAERA. “That information was properly before the minister,” the court was told.
The High Court judge, Mr Justice Scoffield, granted McGleenan a further two weeks to submit additional evidence. The legal team representing the wildlife campaigners will then have a further week to respond and the final ruling on the case will be given at a later date.
“There are some further materials that need to be provided. I reserve my decision and will give it in due course,” said Mr Justice Scoffield.