In a perfect world nobody would want to kill badgers. In that same perfect world there would be no disease. But as we all know real life is just not like that.
Disease, in the form of bovine TB, is ravaging cattle herds across the country but especially here in the South West. The financial costs of the cull – in lost animals and slaughter compensation – runs into millions. The human cost to farmers and their families who may have to have whole herds slaughtered are incalculable.
It took political courage to launch the pilot cull of badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The Conservatives pledged before the last election to take such action and, having come to power – with coalition partners – they kept their promise. Their determination to tackle the problem was welcomed by farmers and supported by this newspaper.
The execution of the cull has been little short of a disaster.
Cull marksmen missed the 70 percent targets in both West Somerset and West Gloucestershire – even after lengthy extensions to the cull period.
Confusion over badger numbers, vagueness around success rates, and a indefensibly feeble communications strategy left many wondering what, if anything, has been achieved. Today we report that the cross-party Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee of MPs is raising questions over the Government’s plan – highlighting that the failure to accurately calculate badger numbers had “undermined confidence”. There is no doubt that many Tory MPs, traditional supporters of farming and the countryside and allies of farmers, are beginning to lose faith. It is still possible that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson will sanction an extension of the cull in new areas in February or March. If they go ahead, logistical execution will have to be radically improved. But there are increasing numbers of people who think that the free shooting of badgers will never be the answer – and that if the culls have proved anything it is that. There are alternatives. More cage trapping, vaccination, even gassing, and the Government must now find a solution. With the early salvoes already being fired before next year’s general election the danger is that this uncomfortable issue will be parked again behind a wall of science. Bovine TB is an epidemic wreaking havoc in British agriculture. It has to be tackled now.