How much longer can ministers bat away the increasingly strident requests for information about the pilot badger culls with the assertion that the report from the independent experts has “yet to be published?” Not very much longer, in our view. While the Western Morning News has consistently backed the coalition Government’s courage and commitment in pressing ahead with a cull policy to beat bovine TB – as part of an overall strategy including vaccination and cattle movement restrictions – we do now need some clarity on the next stage of the culling process.
It is clear that the culls carried out in Somerset and Gloucestershire were not meant to test whether or not the practice of removing badgers to try to break the cycle of TB infection should be pursued. Rather they were meant, as pilots, to trial the method of shooting badgers, free running and in cages, in order to establish methods that are both efficient and humane. Government ministers have repeatedly said no country in the world has brought bovine TB under control without tackling it in the wild. Neither Owen Paterson, George Eustice nor the Prime Minister himself could have been clearer on their commitment to maintain a culling policy as one of the weapons in the armoury. To make a U-turn now would be political suicide.
But how they proceed must, surely, be informed by the independent expert panel’s report. It was due in February and while it may be reasonable, as Farming Minister Mr Eustice, told the WMN this week, not to press the experts to come up with their conclusions, we cannot wait for ever. If the report indicates some badgers took longer than would be acceptable to die or if it highlights other shortcomings, the Government is going to have to take on board those points and answer them. It may be worried about releasing the report, given the already heightened emotions on this issue, but it cannot suppress it.
Labour’s Shadow environment secretary Huw Irranca-Davies told the House of Commons he understood the report had arrived on the Secretary of State’s desk yesterday. Once it has been read by ministers it must be published. Farmers – and indeed animal welfare campaigners – should not be made to wait to know precisely what can be learnt from the pilot culls and how that might change future culling strategy. The speculation filling this vacuum is helping no one.