New dawn delayed as opposed sides continue to argue bovine TB solution
The dust has settled on the controversy to postpone the pilot badger culls. Now Farming Editor Peter Hall reviews the situation – and admits to having mixed feelings.
It had to be the right decision, even though it caused heartbreak across the cattle-keeping community. But the farmer groups licensed to undertake the thoroughly unpleasant job of shooting badgers realised they could not complete the task in time for the cut-off date of January 1.
So it was called off for the time being, all to restart late next spring, despite the vote of censure after a highly-charged Backbencher Debate in the Commons.
In many ways it would have been good to get the whole nasty business out of the way, done and dusted so that it could be evaluated and a decision taken whether or not the culling should be rolled out over ten other districts as planned.
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It would have been a done deal, if the Olympics had not got in the way, and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and if there had not been legal challenges from environmentalists... and (at the last resort) if Defra had been able to count realistically how many badgers would be involved.
War in the woods? Almost certainly. Midnight police patrols heading off animal activists? Intimidation, one way or the other? "Accidents" with rifles? Were it not so serious it would be the stuff of popular fiction. And in years to come it probably will be.
In the meantime everything is on hold. The agony goes on for the cattle-farming families, who never know when their herds will be stricken by bovine TB. It killed 26,000 cattle last year, "tying up" thousands of herds for many months on end with movement restrictions.
Just think of the anguish that caused – the suicides, even. Ask the caring souls at the Farm Crisis Network and they will tell you.
Ask Defra and you will hear a story of a bill mounting inexorably towards £1 billion over the years because of this dreadful disease, rampant in cattle, badgers, deer and alpacas.
What about those pilot culls? Will they work and where will they get us? The arguments go round and round like some kind of delirious carousel; the claims and counter claims biffed back and forth like a tedious and never-ending ping-pong championship.
What about the vaccine? Well, it only works in 60% of cases, we are told. So why was I vaccinated, as a mewling babe back in the year dot, if they thought it wouldn't work? The gut feeling is to demand Governmental anti-digitation as soon as possible; get on with it and find one that does work 100%, toot-sweet. On the surface many feel it is got to be the best way forward.
After all, no one is going to repeal the Badger Act, an unfortunate and ill-thought-out bit of Tory legislation, designed to prevent badger baiting, a disgusting pastime which was already covered by several Acts of Parliament, some dating right back to the mid-19th century.
And the previous practice of clearing out local badger populations when there was a bovine TB outbreak is hardly likely to be re-instated now. New Labour jibbed at that when they had the chance.
In France, they do it differently. In France they kill every badger within a 20-kilometre radius when there is TB. But in France they have the same word for a badger as they have for a shaving brush – and their attitude towards animals is one that I (and I would suggest the vast majority of the British population) certainly would never espouse.
So are we stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place? The determination and fortitude of the current new-look ministerial team at Defra would suggest there will be no turning back between now and the end of May, despite the Commons debate vote. The die is cast.
Legal challenges from the Badger Trust have been defeated, in the first instance and at appeal – though they will continue to argue their case loud and long, which in a democracy is right and proper.
Farmers wait, and hope, and keep their fingers crossed that TB won't strike them down, pitilessly. At Liskeard Market, one told me that, at best, the pilots would be a beginning of the end of the long nightmare. A whole new sunrise. But at worst the scheme was a fine example of gesture politics, a placebo chucked at farmers to keep them quiet. It's hard to cavil at even so jaundiced a stance.
Somewhere, surely, there must be room for manoeuvre. What about the Badger Welfare Association, the johnny-come-lately organisation of farmers, and others, based in the Westcountry, advocating culls only where badgers are shown, for sure, to be infectious, sick and dying? That is a creed with an obvious, widespread appeal, hard to oppose.
But in a way it brings the argument full circle, back to the polymerase chain reaction test for identifying infected setts, used by Defra officials to fob off Labour ministers (who didn't want a cull anyway), and in the end found to be inaccurate.
The whole debate is still fraught with tragic doubt and conjecture.