What next for the badger cull? Philip Bowern assesses new developments on a vexed issue.
The badger cull has taken another lurch sideways with the news that when – or should that be if – the culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire continue, there will be no independent monitoring of the operation.
To cynics who believe that politics has firmly taken over from science as the driving force behind the battle against bovine TB, that will look like another measure that can only make the continuation of the culls unlikely, at least before the General Election in May 2015.
To those still clinging to the hope that it won’t change the general principle, regularly espoused by Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, that culling must remain a major weapon in the armoury, it might look like a positive move.
After all, the Independent Experts Panel (IEP), which collated evidence from on-the-ground observers, was hardly helpful to the cause of those backing the cull. You only have to look at how often one little phrase “ineffective and inhumane” is repeated by opponents to understand how useful they found the IEP report. The National Farmers’ Union was so incensed by the findings it was seriously considering a challenge.
There was, in principle, no reason for the furious indignation we heard from the Badger Trust and Labour’s shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle at the announcement from Farming Minister George Eustice on Tuesday that the IEP won’t be carrying out any monitoring of future culls. Natural England, certainly no pushover when it comes to animal welfare, will retain overall responsibility for keeping the cull companies and their contractors in order.
But since when has common sense or reasoned logic had any bearing on this debate? Mrs Eagle talks about “badger vaccination and enhanced cattle measures” as the way to tackle bovine TB. Yet both are already being used, extensively, as two of the measures to create a TB-free Britain.
She has nothing to say, however, about diseased badgers. Vaccination won’t help them. Does she want them to die slowly and painfully, infecting other wildlife and domestic stock as they do so? Dominic Dyer, chairman of the Badger Trust, meanwhile used Mr Eustice’s announcement to suggest the Government “needed these culls to be carried out with as little publicity, as little scrutiny and as little expertise as possible.”
What would the cull companies set up to carry out the culls, whose leaders have been subject to appalling intimidation from the most militant of the cull protesters, say to that?
One key factor now must be the way influential bodies like the British Veterinary Association react to the announcement on monitors. The BVA will almost certainly withdraw its support for the cull if there is no independent monitoring. Although a majority of vets, certainly in bovine TB hotspot areas like the South West, understand and support the need for culling, the lack of backing from the BVA would be a blow.
Would this, as some have suggested, be just the kind of excuse ministers need to announce, almost certainly “with regret” that they cannot go ahead with a continuation of the cull this autumn and winter? Listening to Mr Paterson, who recently reiterated his pledge to re-start the culls as soon as possible in an interview with the farming press, you would have to say no. He appears as committed as ever to the policy. But politics is a tricky business and badger culling a very hard sell to a majority of electors.
With every hiccup in the cull programme it becomes clearer that a targeted cull is needed. If some badgers have to be killed in order to clear the scourge of bovine TB from the countryside, it would be far better that they were diseased badgers.
The sooner an effective way of identifying diseased setts can be found, the closer we can get to that situation. Some people, including the joint founder of the Badger Welfare Association Bryan Hill, claim to already be able to do just that. He has long been shunned by the mainstream involved in this grisly and divisive business. Maybe he deserves to be given another hearing.
In the end, however, it won’t be advice from either Bryan Hill or Brian May, anti-badger cull campaigner-in-chief, that will be the deciding factor. It will be wrangling in the Coalition, political pressure and what is least likely to cost those in power votes. What’s best for farmers, cattle and badgers will be well down the list.