THE charity Humane Society International (HSI) has said it has been told the pilot badger cull in Gloucestershire has fallen short of its minimum target by “a Natural England source”.

This has angered farmers and brings the impartiality of the licensing agency into question.

However, the NFU has insisted the culls have been “effective” where they were allowed to go ahead without interruption.

The figures relating to the six-week badger culls in Somerset and Gloucester-shire were not meant to be released for a fortnight until all the pilots had finished. According to HSI, the figures show 253 badgers have been killed in Gloucestershire, where contractors were set a target of removing between 615 and 1,091 badgers over six weeks, based on the latest population estimates.

The leaked figures show the Somerset cull was more successful, with 315 badgers removed. Contractors had been set a target of removing between 316 and 785 badgers.

A spokesman for the charity said: “The figures were revealed by a source at Natural England to Team Badger, of which HSI is a member.

A Defra spokesman said: “The figures still need to be independently audited. The humaneness of the culls will also be reviewed.”

But Wendy Higgins, HSI communications director, said: “For the second year in a row the badger cull has been a miserable failure, not simply because it’s proved ineffective but because it remains scientifically discredited and ethically unsupportable.”

Gloucestershire, as was the case last year, again bore the brunt of the attention of activists, with hundreds of them flooding the cull area in a co-ordinated campaign to disrupt the operation.

NFU president Meurig Raymond said: “I believe that, where it has been possible to carry out the work without interruption, they have been effective as part of a four-year culling strategy.

“Although the policy is clearly controversial, I am absolutely convinced these culls will make a meaningful contribution to the eradication of TB.”

The Defra spokesperson added: “The fact remains that England has the highest incidence of bovine TB in Europe and doing nothing is not an option. We need to protect our beef and dairy industries and our nation’s food security.

“That is why we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy to deal with the disease, supported by leading vets, which includes cattle movement controls, vaccinating badgers in edge areas and culling badgers where bTB is rife.”

It is understood only a handful of people are likely to have had access to information on the numbers.

HSI’s claim that the figures were leaked by someone with Natural England will prompt some uncomfortable questions for the agency.

It is well-documented that the agency’s board has been split about the merits of culling in the past.

A Natural England spokesman said he had no comment to make on either the numbers nor the speculation about the leak.