All organisations involved in the badgers and bovine TB saga must work together to find a solution – and should tolerate and support each other's systems.
That was the view of the National Beef Association's John Vanstone, its South West regional chairman, who poured oil on troubled waters after a lengthy and sometimes fractious second inaugural meeting of the Badger Welfare Association (BWA).
"We have to work together and not fall out with each other," he counselled the 60 farmers and environmentalists who attended the two-hour meeting at Zeal Monachorum, near Crediton. "It's important that we work as one force in our different methods."
His intervention, greeted with applause, came after three separate schemes had been highlighted – the BWA's system of culling only infected badger setts, identified using the methods and expertise of Okehampton farmer Bryan Hill; the Government's controversial pilot cull of 70 per cent of all badgers in the two trial areas of the South West, currently the subject of legal appeal by the Badger Trust; and a badger vaccination scheme outlined by Badger Group member Vanessa Mason.
Two meetings were held last week to launch the BWA, the first at Sedgemoor Auction Centre, near Bridgwater attracted an audience of 150.
The aim was to gain support and explain the strategy of identifying setts containing sick animals before applying for licenses to cull them. It was also a recruiting drive for "surveyors" to chart the location and number of setts, and assessors to identify TB.
"What we want to do is record accurately what is happening," said Richard Gard, of the Healthy Badgers – Healthy Cattle Group. He said farmers formed into local groups would pool information to establish the location of sick animals for removal.
Derek Mead, the entrepreneur dairy farmer behind the formation of the BWA, said the TB situation had grown increasingly worse over the past 20 years and was now completely intolerable. He felt the Bryan Hill system for culling would prove more acceptable to everyone – and the BWA would be applying to Defra for two or three demonstration areas where Mr Hill's system could be tested.
The legal aspects of the scheme were outlined by the BWA's solicitor Sheree-Ann Virgin, who said counsel had advised that applications should be made to Defra for trial cull areas, using carbon monoxide as the method. Defra experts should be there to observe the cull. It was incumbent on the Government to consider applications – and if they were not allowed, there was the option of a judicial review.
"A better, quicker and faster way" was how Mr Hill described his system. He had proved it was not criminal to kill a sick badger, but an act of welfare, he asserted. Carbon monoxide poisoning was the most welfare friendly way to cull badgers, because they just went to sleep and it was painless.
He added: "We are not trying to destroy a species, quite the opposite. We are trying to help a species survive in a healthy way. With proper mapping you can identify exactly where the problem lies." Up to 300 farms a month could be assessed, he claimed.
To put a sick animal out of its misery was a moral duty, said Edmund Marriage, of British Wildlife Management. But a culture of wanting to protect wild animals and not manage them had been a complete and utter disaster.
"Wild animals on your farm should be just as important to you as your own livestock," he said. Then, in a swingeing attack, he alleged Defra was an "incompetent organisation", still staffed by New Labour appointees, who blocked any good ideas.
Bill Harper, of the NBA, who served on the Government's TB Advisory Group, said it was important not to incite others – principally contractors – to break the law, or take legal risks. And he warned that carbon monoxide trials had failed to work satisfactorily.
But development of a PCR testing system to identify diseased setts was possible, given sufficient development investment, he insisted.
Meanwhile Mrs Mason spoke of the badger vaccination programme on three farms covering nearly 1,000 acres of Exmoor.
"All three farmers there say they don't want their badgers killed, because it will only make the situation worse," she said. "If you took out all of the badgers you would still have a TB problem in this country."
BWA membership is £30 a year. More details are available from Ebdon Court Farm, Wick St Lawrence, Weston-super-Mare BS22 7YU. 01934 520016.