Bovine TB is no longer the real problem for farmers – says Derek Mead, chairman of the Badger Welfare Association – it’s the scientific community.
It's often been said that if you pose a question to a group of 100 scientists 20 per cent will give you one answer, 20 per cent an answer which contradicts it and the remaining 60 per cent will tell you they need more funding before they can give you an answer at all.
This sadly, encapsulates all that has been happening over the last 20 years in the issue of badgers and bovine TB.
Farmers have endured two decades of acrimonious debate, of claim and counter-claim. Theories as to how the epidemic may be brought under control have been advanced and immediately shot down.
All the while the government has continued to shovel out money for research: an estimated £300 million to date.
And what progress can we see for our – the taxpayers' – money? An epidemic which continues to steadily engulf the country, forcing the unnecessary destruction of thousands of head of pedigree cattle, infecting other wildlife, and pushing hard-working farmers to the brink of suicide (and in some instances beyond) all because one single-issue group wants to protect the animal that is spreading the disease.
For a time of course, even the badger's role as a vector for TB was being challenged. There was no 'science' to support the belief, the pro-badger lobby claimed. Happily we have got over that hurdle. It is now an accepted fact that badgers do spread TB.
The latest government-backed study even identifies those patterns of badger behaviour which are most likely to take the infection into new territory. But what does the report conclude? That more research should be undertaken.
The argument has now moved on from the disease itself to the methodology of killing the badgers, but the TB issue is turning into a multi-million pound job creation scheme for scientists who I believe have no real interest in wiping out TB at all while the grant cheques continue to roll in.
Scientists have failed, failed and failed again. And they are about to chalk up another failure with the proposed trial badger culls.
The trials are going to lead to healthy badgers being shot and diseased ones driven out into currently TB-free areas, handing a propaganda victory on a plate to the pro-badger groups
My organisation is proposing a simple and, we believe, workable alternative. We have the expertise to identify those setts which are most likely to be hosting infected badgers. We want to create an official demonstration area where we can target those setts and eradicate the badgers painlessly as they sleep during the daytime with the use of carbon monoxide gas. No shooting. No disturbance. Few, if any, healthy badgers needlessly killed.
We know carbon monoxide gas kills particularly because it is the method which tragically, so many farmers have resorted to when they could no longer cope. We do not need five or six years of scientific trials to assess its effectiveness – but perhaps that is the very reason why neither the scientific community nor the government which employs such a large segment of it have been willing to sanction any operation of the kind we are proposing.
Instead the scientists – or at least 20 per cent of them – are sticking out for the cull, which has already cost well over £1 million: £750,000 for identifying the setts, £300,000 to Natural England for its work in designing it and £95,000 to five scientists for monitoring it.
The TB epidemic is about to evolve into a full-blown crisis. The disastrous weather of the last few months has created ideal, damp conditions below ground for TB to thrive and spread. At the same time stocks of many of the badgers' food sources, such as maize, have become depleted because of harvest failures. Badgers are therefore going to emerge from their sodden setts this spring, desperate for food and will have to range further and wider in search of it.
It is almost inevitable that we shall see a significant rise in the number of farms with TB, from the current 20 per cent level in the South West.
More farmers will be faced with clearing up the carcasses of the animals the pro-badger lobby holds in such high regard: carcasses which are so dangerous that the government advice is to handle them only when wearing rubber gloves, overalls and a face mask, which should be placed in double-sealed plastic bags and disposed of as highly infectious material.
They will then have to go back to coping with yet more stringent controls and regulations issued by the government to segregate cattle, all because the pro-badger movement continues to argue that cattle-to-cattle transmission is the real cause of TB's spread.
Yet despite repeated requests for the 'science' which supports this assertion none has ever been produced.