Time to grasp the nettle now in the fight against bovine TB
Shooting badgers is the only current option to curb disease, says farmer Richard Haddock.
Now let's get on with it. That can be the only thought in livestock farmers' minds after Owen Paterson made it clear at the NFU conference that his determination to proceed with the pilot badger culls remains undented.
Even by the RSPCA. Even by Labour politicians' shrieking attacks. Even by the petition bearing the signatures of 150,000 British citizens. Behind his announcement, is the fact that Westminster is coming under increasing pressure from the EU to grasp the nettle and make a serious attack on the TB reservoir which still undermines all the new cattle controls and will undermine each new one, as long as it lasts.
Underlying that pressure is the fact that unless action comes soon the EU may start to withdraw the contribution it makes to the horrific costs of dealing with the current crisis, in terms of which the £4 million the culls are estimated to cost looks a very reasonable bill indeed.
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The signs are, with the third cull already pencilled in for Dorset, that the trials in West Somerset and Gloucestershire will simply be a prelude to rolling out a badger control operation for the whole country, a measure likely to be announced once the results are in from the latest survey of badger numbers in July or August.
A lot of us don't accept that wholesale shooting of badgers is the answer to TB. It is only part of the answer. It is only one tool in the box. But it is the only one which is available at the moment.
The RSPCA's Gavin Grant, on the day the cull was confirmed, offered to raise funds for badger vaccination. But badger vaccination is happening, in Wales, where it is already being written off as a monumental mess.
Badgers which have already been vaccinated are returning to the traps for the bait, which they rather like. Without a live, on-the-spot test for TB trappers have no way of telling whether the animals they catch and inject already have the disease – and if they do the vaccine will be useless. Of course, there is no guarantee that all the TB-free badgers will be caught and protected.
Labour's shadow environment secretary, Mary Creagh, plucked the latest convenient bit of science out of the air to quote some unnamed scientists saying the cull is an "untested and risky approach". The fact is, the last people we want to hear from on the question of science are Labour politicians. Under the Labour government a succession of Defra ministers refused to do anything about the badger problem for fear of upsetting the animal welfare lobby.
For years, while badger numbers ballooned and cattle slaughterings soared, they selectively quoted only those bits of science that supported their political stance. Which, bluntly, is why we are in such an almighty mess now.
If Ms Creagh had any decency she would stop trying to make political capital out of a disease which is dealing daily destruction and misery to farmers, reflect on 12 years of Labour inactivity and hold her tongue. The 150,000 voters who signed a petition against culling is hardly significant against a population of 60 million. It is on the other hand, around the figure you would expect to see resulting from a popular campaign which has had huge amounts of money thrown at it. How many of those, I wonder, were farmers? How many fully understand the complexities of TB, the mechanisms involved in cattle movement controls, and the reality of what happens when TB strikes a farm?
I am grateful to those 150,000 for taking time to participate in a democratic process but they have wasted the ink. Between them left-wing politicians and their allies, the celebrity animal rights supporters, have allowed TB to unleash an epidemic of unimaginable horror on our livestock farms. No big deal if you're a vegan, I suppose, but most the public still want to eat meat.
In the wake of the horsemeat scandal they have clearly shown they want to eat safe, British meat, too. Only if we control badgers can we ensure there is enough of that commodity to go round in future.
Livestock farming doesn't just put meat on our plates. It helps generate income from exports abroad – despite previously being stigmatised British beef and lamb is still the most highly sought-after in the world.
It's livestock farming, rather than the growing of cereals, or peas or sugar beet, which shapes and maintains that great economic asset the British countryside. We cannot allow it to decline just for the sake of protecting an animal which has no predators, spreads TB wherever it goes – and whose numbers suggest it no longer needs protected status.
We don't want to see healthy badgers killed but we do have to get badger numbers down. As we move towards bringing TB under control other solutions, such as targeted culling, may become available to us. In due course we shall have an effective cattle vaccine – as long as the EU allows us to dispense it.
But at the moment shooting the badgers represents the only remedy within our grasp.