David Cameron came out fighting for the farming industry on his visit to the North Devon Show last week, but the badger cull policy threatens lasting damage to the reputation of the government and farmers in the South West, not least when it comes to animal welfare.
Within hours of the Prime Minister telling BBC Radio 4's Farming Today that only he has the political courage to deliver a cull, Defra officials confirmed to Care for the Wild International and Pauline Latham MP that out of 5,500 badgers to be shot during the pilot culls, only 120 will be independently monitored for 'humaneness'.
This, combined with confirmation from Natural England that they will have only four shoot monitors to cover the whole of West Gloucestershire and West Somerset during the pilot culls, leaves David Cameron in the unenviable position of defending a policy which a majority of the public believe will result in unnecessary pain and suffering for thousands of badgers.
Any reassurance from Natural England that it will make up for the lack of monitors on the ground by undertaking follow-up phone calls with the marksmen to check what happened on shoots the previous night, is unlikely to reduce the public pressure on the Prime Minister or MPs in the cull zones in the weeks ahead. None of the shooters to be used for the cull will have any previous experience of shooting badgers and by Defra's own estimate, free shooting at night will result in many badgers suffering non-fatal wounds and a long painful death from organ failure, secondary infection and starvation.
The Prime Minister might try to justify the cull as being good for the welfare of badgers which carry TB, but the vast majority of badgers live their natural lives without showing any clinical signs of the disease. In a large sample only around 1% had extensive signs of TB. It's now clear to all that the pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire are simply an exercise in discovering if the free shooting of badgers at night will allow a sufficient number to be killed in a limited time span, to enable a national roll-out of the cull programme next year.
Any attempt by the government to reassure the public that measures will be put in place to gauge humaneness is little more than window dressing – over 95% of the badgers to be killed in the weeks ahead will not be independently monitored and might well die long painful deaths as a result. Not only is this unjustifiably cruel, but it also significantly increases the risk of disrupting badger populations, causing many to move between setts and increasing the risk of disease spread, which is the exact opposite to what the cull is setting out to achieve.
Despite the fighting talk from David Cameron on the need to show courage to see the badger cull through, many in his cabinet have serious misgivings about the policy and Lynton Crosby, his election strategist, has no doubt been ringing alarm bells that Twitter and You Tube images of thousands of dead and injured badgers this summer will not be a vote winner in Middle England.
The damage to the reputation of hard-pressed livestock farmers in the South West could be even worse. At a time when they are seeking public support for higher milk prices and looking to convince a new generation to come into the farming industry, they cannot afford to alienate the public by backing a cull policy, which many see as having no scientific, economic or animal welfare justification.
It often takes more courage for a politician to admit they are wrong than to plough ahead with a failed policy despite the consequences – food for thought for the Prime Minister when it comes to the badger cull in the weeks ahead.