By Steve Bird for the Telegraph
The personal details of farmers carrying out the controversial badger cull have been leaked to animal rights activists in a major data breach.
In a security failing hailed a victory by hunt saboteurs and already linked to a rise in rural crime, more than 7,000 names and addresses, including those of bosses of companies specialising in killing badgers, have been posted online and emailed to activists throughout the country.
Old Mill Accountancy, which has offices in Exeter, Yeovil, Wells and Melksham, last night apologised after “human error” led to its mailing list being harvested from its website in July.
Many farmers who have created companies to carry out the cull often ensure personal details are not lodged on official documents in an attempt to prevent hunt saboteurs identifying where they live.
However, the Innocent Badger website linked to the Stop the Cull group has listed what it claims are the details of 29 cull companies from the accountancy firm’s leaked files, adding that names and addresses have been sent to supporters throughout the country.
The site, which has a map pinpointing ‘cull companies’, urges activists to use direct action and “make cullers lives particularly hard”.
The website claims the details were sent to them anonymously, adding: “If you are involved in the killing of badgers, in any way, shape or form, your involvement could become public at any point.”
The data breach has been linked to an increase in cases of vandalised badger cages, particularly in dairy farm areas.
Jay Tiernan, of Stop The Cull, told The Sunday Telegraph the leak was a major breakthrough.
Speaking while out targeting badger cages in the West Country, he said: “This breach has led to an increase in activity from animal rights activists and boosted the number of badgers being saved.
“Because cull companies usually operate locally, knowing where their directors live means we know what farms are part of the cull. More and more badger cages are being ‘crunched’.”
A Devon and Cornwall Police spokesman said it had assigned extra patrols in the worst affected areas after a “rise in reports of damage to cages”.
Duncan Parkes, Old Mill’s data protection officer, confirmed 7,363 names and addresses from its mailing list were “accidentally” placed on its website and although not immediately visible could be accessed through a link.
He said as soon as the error was spotted the list was removed, their policies updated and the police and later the Information Commissioner Officer contacted.
“It did not include telephone numbers, email addresses, financial information or any other sensitive data,” he continued. “Every person on this list is being personally contacted by us with an apology for this error.”
A Devon farmer who runs a cull company and was named on the website said he had seen an increase in sabotage of traps since the leak.
The farmer, who did not want to be named, said: “It is very worrying. We are not even clients of Old Mill, but simply on their mailing list. We’ve seen an increase in animal rights activism, including criminal damage, trespass and traps being smashed and stolen. We get reports every night now.
“While activists knew the cull was happening in certain counties, they did now know on which farms. Now, they can work it out. The cull is a very emotive subject. But we are doing work that is part of Government policy There will be thousands of farmers affected by this leak.”
An NFU spokesman said it was offering “advice and guidance” to those affected.
“So far as we are aware, this is simply a list of the firm’s clients and activists are speculating about the people on the list to further their attempts to intimidate and harass farmers.”
An ICO spokesperson said: “Old Mill Accountancy have made us aware of this incident and we will assess the information provided.”
The leak comes weeks after Michael Gove, the environment secretary, announced more than 40,000 badgers could be shot, more than double the number last year, to try to protect cattle from tuberculosis. Culls taking place in 32 regions.