It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for anyone even remotely connected to the vexed issue of cattle, badgers and bovine TB. Philip Bowern asks where we go from here.
Meurig Raymond knows his livestock. And as he stood in Westcountry dairy farmer Paul Gould’s yard this week, his admiration for the quality of the heifers nonchalantly chewing at the hay was clear.
The NFU president, who has his own dairy herd on the family farm back home in Pembrokshire, has the Welsh gift with words. But he was temporarily reduced to the brief but moving description that all of us gathered there could see for ourselves. “Beautiful, well-bred, well-cared for livestock.” It just about summed it up.
But the 31 British Friesian heifers, all due to give birth to their first calves in August, had the tell-tale lumps on their necks. All had tested positive for bovine TB. All will be going for slaughter on Tuesday. All, the Gould family and their vet believe, contracted the disease from infected badgers on the farm.
But if Mr Raymond kept his heartfelt praise for the quality of Mr Gould’s heifers brief and to the point, he had plenty to say about this coalition Government’s attitude towards tackling bovine TB, on the farm and in the wild.
And it was possible to detect, in some of the barely concealed bitterness about Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s failure to announce last week a roll-out of the cull to Dorset, a change in the NFU’s mood.
A month ago the stage looked set for an announcement that the badger cull would indeed be extended.
But delays in the publication of the experts’ report into the two pilot culls and suspicions that some in the coalition were getting twitchy about killing badgers, started nerves jangling among livestock farmers, desperate to get the disease under control.
Then on April 3 two things happened. The Independent Experts Panel report into the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilots was published and the Secretary of State made a statement to the House confirming the culls would continue only in those two counties. Not, at least, an abandonment of the cull policy, but far from what most farmers were hoping to hear.
Mr Raymond is pretty sure he knows where the blame lies. The Lib Dems, junior partners in the coalition have been claiming credit for what they called a “victory” in delaying the roll-out. Nick Clegg, apparently anxious to mark his party out as different from the Conservatives as we enter the last year before a general election, refused to sign off on a cull extension. The result is stalemate.
So is Mr Raymond confident the policy the NFU has successfully worked with Government to achieve, a cull of badgers in TB hotspot areas, will be carried through despite the setback? In the Goulds’ farmyard at West Stour, where the latest TB victims await their fate, he admitted to concerns.
“In politics you can never be totally confident,” he said. “No roll out of the cull is desperate news for farming families in areas where TB is endemic but keeping the plan alive is so important. I just wish the politics had not got involved.
“An election is getting closer and the Lib Dems have put out statements to the effect that they prevented the roll-out of the cull. It must be extremely worrying for their rural MPs, people who have been supportive of the policy, like David Heath [Somerton and Frome MP and former Farming Minister].” Then, looking around the Gould’s farm, with its closed herd, but badger setts in almost every field, Mr Raymond shook his head. “This disease has come from one place – and one place only.”
So what happens next? The two pilot culls will re-start, probably in the autumn, and those involved are convinced we will begin to see TB rates in both areas decline. Looking further ahead, the challenge is to develop vaccines that can be effective and in Mr Paterson’s words, develop “a targeted approach” to culling badgers. Killing healthy as well as diseased wildlife is the aspect of the cull programme that makes it hardest to sell to the public. Testing badger faeces to determine whether a sett is infected is not thought to be good enough – yet. But work is ongoing. Might all sides be able to back a policy that targeted only sick and suffering badgers? Surveying the sad scene at the Gould’s farm last week everyone who cares about livestock and wildlife must hope so.