The proposed badger cull has been put off for a year. Simon Parker wonders whether Tory election agents really have the appetite for mass slaughter.
A temporary suspension of the proposed badger cull should be a cause for celebration on several counts. The breathing space provided ought to give both sides a chance to take stock and not only look at any alternatives to their entrenched positions but to consider the other party's point of view.
The vast majority of people in this country are unsure of the rights or wrongs of either argument. Like poor old Brock himself, it's not a black and white issue – more muddy brown. Similarly, most people have no vested interest in either the farmers' camp or that of the conservation lobby. Indeed, they sensibly believe that equal weight should be given to both beleaguered and misunderstood species: farmers and badgers.
All sorts of reasons have been given for the postponement of the cull, from unreliable badger numbers in the proposed pilot areas to there being too few police officers available to steward the predicted mass demonstrations. Neither excuse cuts much ice because if the Government was truly committed to the strategy it would be getting on with it.
The truth is there's little appetite in either Tory or Liberal Democrat ranks for such a high-profile slaughter in the countryside. Whichever way you view it – and regardless of the arguments for or against – in the public mind this Coalition's coats would forever be stained with badger blood if it were to go ahead. The economy might be shaky, the war in Afghanistan might be bleeding the Treasury's coffers, welfare cuts and NHS privatisation might be hurting the poorest in society, but all of these woes would pale in the public consciousness against bloody pyres of one our most loved wild creatures.
And far be it from me to help the Tories win another term in government, but the sight of thousands of badger carcasses on our TV screens night after night seems a very odd way to fight an election campaign.
So what are the facts? The British herd has been plagued with Bovine TB for decades. The disease plays havoc with agricultural livelihoods and the health of livestock. Wild badgers are "reservoirs" of Bovine TB and therefore theoretically capable of transmitting the disease to cattle. Neither of these points are in dispute. The argument pivots on whether a controlled and limited cull of badgers would be enough to cure the national herd.
Advocates of a cull insist selective slaughter would make a significant contribution to reducing incidence of the disease. But the science disagrees. Professor Lord John Krebs, the scientist who instigated the 10-year Randomised Badger Culling Trials, concluded that a selective cull simply would not work.
So what's to be done? The non-scientists among us might conclude that the only way to stop the transmission of Bovine TB from badgers to cattle is to exterminate all badgers. But such a policy is unthinkable – even to pro-cull farmers. And in addition to this strategy being unacceptable, there's no telling what other environmental disasters such action could unleash.
History is littered with the ill effects of Man's meddling with Nature, perhaps the most famous and devastating being Chairman Mao's policy of sparrow eradication. The almost total extermination of the birds – ordered because they were eating grain – upset China's ecological balance to such a degree that crop-eating insects proliferated. This imbalance is credited with exacerbating a subsequent famine in which some 30 million people died of starvation. What unforeseen consequences could the eradication of badgers lead to?
So we're all agreed – farmers, conservationists, public – that a "final solution" policy is not the way to go. And if total extermination is not an option, the only other course must be to provide proper funding to develop a one hundred per cent effective vaccine. The argument against inoculation is that British beef would become unsaleable to current markets in France and elsewhere. But surely an increasingly diseased herd could be seen as equally unpalatable.
Ultimately, what farmers and governments fail to grasp is that, rightly or wrongly, the British public don't "love" cattle – otherwise they wouldn't eat them. On the other hand they do "love" badgers. It may well be the fault of reading The Wind In The Willows when young, but a failure to acknowledge this emotional dimension to the debate is folly. And while it has no basis in fact, it remains a potent – and perhaps decisive – factor.
Everyone wants to see healthy badgers, healthy cattle and happy, prosperous farmers – but sadly the battle lines were drawn long ago and what ought to have been an informed scientific debate degenerated into an either/or situation, with unhelpful slanging from both sides.
Like so many issues, the only road to a successful solution lies in sticking strictly to scientifically gathered data. Nowhere does the science point the finger conclusively at badgers infecting cattle. It is a matter of belief on both sides. And belief is not enough. It is time for both sides to take off the gloves, put down the guns, and work together.