To dismiss any doubt from the outset I want to reiterate, the NFU remains committed to delivering the two pilot badger culls as part of this government's programme to eradicate the devastating effects of TB in cattle. The farmer-led companies tasked with carrying out these culls remain committed to delivering next year. I also know from listening to government ministers last week they remain absolutely committed to this policy.
Deciding to delay was one of the most difficult decisions we at the NFU, working with those farmers in Somerset and Gloucestershire, have had to face – but all things considered it was the right decision to make.
These past few months, and indeed years, working with members and staff on TB has given me a real insight into what it must mean to a farmer who hears the vet say, 'I'm sorry, this one's a reactor'. Farmers tell me of their shock, their disbelief and horror the first time they hear the news and those in the hotspot areas tell me of their sheer frustration, anger and desperation for a solution – not tomorrow, not next year, but now. I know how devastated farmers are to hear once again there is delay. That is why last week's postponement was such a hard decision to make.
There have been a series of stumbling blocks, all of which have pushed back the start date. We faced a delay when policing issues were raised during the Olympics and Paralympics. There have been two legal challenges that had to be fought and won at the High Court and then at the Court of Appeal. And you don't need me to tell you we have had appalling weather resulting in flooded land.
And it's already the end of October. The clocks have gone back. Winter and the short days are here.
And there wasn't just this year to consider. Let's not forget, these two pilots are the first areas to go. We have to demonstrate farmers can carry out a cull of badgers safely, effectively and humanely. No ifs or buts. We had to be sure we could get it right.
It is no big secret that we have been frustrated by the delays but the main hurdle has been the sheer number of badgers that had to be culled – science tells us that we have to take out 70 per cent in each area to achieve meaningful disease reduction in cattle. Because Defra wanted to be absolutely sure that the policy could withstand any legal challenge, they carried out this most recent sett survey. The numbers that came back surprised us all. Everyone knew the badger population had grown in the interim years since the last survey in the 90s but no one expected the sheer volumes revealed by the survey. This meant that the targets had increased substantially, in Gloucester from 1,729 to 3,074 and in Somerset from 1,824 to 3,560.
I have heard reports that this year's delay is now down to costs. That is simply not the case. The increase in badger numbers is huge but only added marginal costs to the overall cull. No, the delay has been based on the fact that we could no longer be absolutely sure we could achieve the desired targets and in doing so meet the approval from the independent panel that will assess the two pilots, before other areas can be rolled out.
If there is one criticism I will take on the chin it was that we didn't delay earlier. We went to the wire because we know how much this means to everyone involved. We threw the 'kitchen sink' at trying to get the right resources in place so that these pilots could be delivered successfully. We focused our efforts on confirming additional resources, training and assessing those that came forward – in days rather than weeks – in order to have gun licences amended in time. In the end it became clear to all it simply couldn't go ahead successfully this year in the time left. For everyone looking at these pilots and hoping their area was next, for those battling with TB on their farms, and for those farming in clear areas who wanted to stay that way, the risk of failure was too high. We owed it to them all to make the right decision.
The Government and the Secretary of State have been very clear. There has been no change in policy. Despite arguments to the contrary, the science remains the clear. Culling badgers will lead to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time. With TB cases currently doubling every nine years, with 34,000 diseased cattle being slaughtered in Great Britain last year, we remain steadfast in our goal.
This has never been about killing badgers, this has been about stamping out a disease. For those that have suggested that this cull is irresponsible, I think the decision we have made shows this is simply not the case. We want to see healthy cattle, healthy badgers and a healthy countryside. That is why the decision to delay was extremely difficult to make but, on balance, it was the right one.