Owen Paterson – I've had death threats over badger cull
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson revealed he has had more death threats since he took office last year than he ever had when he was Northern Ireland Secretary.
The reason was the proposed pilot cull of badgers in two areas of the South West, now scheduled to take place in June as part of the Government's campaign against the spread of bovine tuberculosis, Mr Paterson told an audience of 80 farmers from across the South West region.
"There is a large element of public opinion which is completely against any sort of cull," he said.
But Mr Paterson, who was speaking in Tiverton, was adamant that the six-week trial culls in West Somerset and around the Tewkesbury area would go ahead this year, having been postponed last autumn.
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Mr Paterson, who said he had once had a pet badger, said it was vital to "bear down" on TB in both cattle and wildlife. He had seen campaigns work successfully to stamp out bovine TB, by culling possums in New Zealand and White Tailed deer in Michigan – where there had been very considerable public opposition. And in Donegal in Ireland there had been a 96% reduction in TB following a vigorous campaign with badgers.
He was not a "nasty brutish Government Minister culling badgers" he stressed. "But we are heading for a bill of £1 billion for bovine TB, and we are idiots to pay for it when you look at Ireland and see what can be done. We simply cannot allow this disease to run rampant and destroy our cattle industry."
In 2011 a total of 26,000 cattle were destroyed because of TB, he stressed.
Answering questions, Mr Paterson pledged to investigate the situation where alpacas, which can catch and pass on the disease, were not subject to movement restrictions – and he pointed out that badger welfare should be stressed to members of the public concerned about the culls.
Mr Paterson said he was also very concerned about the spread of Schmallenberg Virus, carried by midges, which causes pregnant ewes and cows to abort their young or, in the case of sheep, to give birth to malformed lambs.
Only that morning he had heard "very depressing news" about its effects on cattle, but the Government was working hard with other nations to combat the virus, he said.
In a wide-ranging speech Mr Paterson focused on current moves to update the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, insisting it was the Government's wish to reduce red tape and the burden of unnecessary legislation on farmers.
He had a tranche of objectives, he said; to grow the rural economy, and in particular to help do so by upgrading broadband coverage, to improve flood defences, to boost agricultural exports, where the UK had been left behind by other EU countries, and to improve the rural environment.
The meeting, organised by the National Farmers' Union, saw delegates attend from Cornwall to Gloucestershire. Mr Paterson had earlier met farmers at nearby Holbeton, hosted by Steve Dribble.