A Conservative think-tank believes vaccination could beat TB. Farming Editor Peter Hall reports.
Two bovine TB hotspot sites in the South West will be used for pilot culls of badgers this autumn, under the Government’s initial stages of a potentially ongoing campaign. Or will they? Definitely they will go ahead, says the Government, but surely there must be doubts.
Without a shadow of argument, culling healthy badgers in 70 per cent of each 150-square kilometre area is going to be very bad news, with animal rights activists whipping up public anxiety and misinformation, extra police drafted in post-Olympics (at a cost of £1 million), and everyone knowing where and when the culls will take place, thanks to an “opportunity to comment” policy for local people, and the social networking system.
Now the Conservative think-tank the Bow Group has published a report stating the cull will be bad for farmers, wildlife and taxpayers. Market research has shown the culls will be costly for the Conservatives politically – and vaccination was the best course, it said.
“A shift in focus from culling to vaccination is now essential,” said Bow Group secretary Richard Mabey.
This comes a week after the new Welsh Assembly government announced plans for a badger cull in a single area had been scrapped, in place of a vaccination system for badgers, an election pledge applauded by environmentalist organisations, not least the Badger Trust, which is challenging the English plans through a judicial review.
As matters stand, the two English pilots will take place in West Somerset and around Tewkesbury, with free-running badgers shot by marksmen from farmer groups, licensed by Natural England, irrespective of whether or not the animals are infected with TB.
Under initial plans the culls were to be carried out on badger setts shown to be infected, using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, originally developed for germ-warfare purposes. But this was shown to be seriously unreliable when the crunch came with a change of Government, and Tory ministers became a whole lot more interested about a cull, in a way their Labour predecessors never would have been.
Culling sick badgers to stop a disease causing havoc to cattle and costing the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds – surely an acceptable policy to almost everyone – was replaced by the random shooting of healthy wildlife, usually protected by law. Condemnation has not just come from the animal rights people, the Labour Party and now the Bow Group. Some farmers, too, have voiced extreme concern.
Phil Hosking, chairman of the Small Farms Association and a livestock farmer in the South Hams, has written about his opposition to culling healthy badgers, and has questioned the value of the whole operation. He wrote: “This is all for a 16 per cent drop in bovine TB after nine years in the cull areas, if all goes to plan. As the knowledge exists to differentiate between healthy and sick badger setts, should it not be a selective cull?”
And Derek Mead, leading Westcountry entrepreneur dairy farmer, commented: “The cull operation, as envisaged, is hideously costly, in all probability will not work, and will attain nothing other than blackening farmers’ public image.”
Yet industry bodies and the Government, argue the pilot culls are the only deal possible – and were arrived at after lengthy discussion and argument, and if successful will see the rolling out of a campaign in 10 areas next year.
Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said the Bow Group report was “hugely disappointing”, its reasoning based on the premise that culling badgers would be unpopular. But trials to find a solution to: “this incredibly difficult and long-term problem” should be supported. And a spokesman for the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers commented: “We are concerned that the Bow Group, which claims to represent all strands of Conservative Party opinion, has issued a document opposing the Government’s decision, which was based on scientific evidence, to make a controlled cull. We are anxious that the think-tank believes vaccination is the solution to TB eradication, when the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, stated herself that usable badger and cattle vaccines are years away and she was unable to predict, with any certainty, if or when they would be available.”
Currently there are localised schemes to vaccinate and mark badgers going ahead, carried out on selected National Trust properties and in a joint effort between the Badger Trust and the NFU in the Midlands, using human TB vaccine in a double dosage.
Bovine TB caused the destruction of 25,000 cattle last year. unchecked will cost the taxpayer £1 billion over the next decade.