The statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, confirming the postponement of the proposed badger cull was an example of another shambolic policy failure. It contained a shameful series of evasions and errors in seeking to justify the killing of badgers and the impractical methods the that Tory-Lib Dem Coalition proposes to use.
What I found particularly worrying was that he was arrogant and out of touch with reality. He tempestuously thumped the despatch box in response to my question about earmarking £250,000 for post mortems on badgers and dismissed it as a “ludicrous question”. He quoted Greek mythological figures at other Labour MPs who were challenging his approach to this issue. And in response to my Labour colleague, Simon Danczuk, who asked how much public money had been spent so far on the misguided cull, Paterson suggested that unless the cull went ahead it would “look like a round of drinks”!
It was significant that of the large number of Tory and Lib Dem MPs who responded to Paterson’s statement, only one Tory and two Lib Dems expressed opposition to the cull, the rest wanted a clear commitment to press ahead with the cull next year. By contrast, the last Labour government established six trials where a badger ‘Bacille Calmette Guérin’ (BCG) vaccine was used test its effectiveness in tackling TB. But when the Tory-Lib Dem Government came to power they cancelled the trials.
Labour MPs have been joined by the Badger Trust in calling for an open and transparent public review of all the issues surrounding the cull. This includes the costs, public safety, practicability, science, animal welfare and the emergence of alternatives to culling. Owen Paterson was also pressed in the House of Commons today on whether he had any contact with EU ministers about vaccinating cattle and what steps he was going to take to improve biosecurity on farms.
Owen Paterson’s claims that he is basing his stance on “scientific opinion”, but that is nonsense. The truth is informed scientific opinion wants a national bTB eradication strategy, which would make clear the miniscule contribution and considerable dangers to be expected from culling.
Owen Paterson should use this pause to reflect on the fact that:
• There is no evidence that the badger population has increased since the last estimate in 1997.
• His so-called effective culling method has never been tried and requires pilot culls to test it.
• Britain enjoyed 20 years with about 1,000 cattle slaughtered annually. The number only rose when testing was disrupted by BSE and foot and mouth, but for 16 years the industry stood out against pre-movement testing.
• Ten times as many cattle are killed for diseases other than bovine TB. Compensation is paid for the TB-infected cattle, but not for the others.
• In saying no other country had tackled bTB without addressing wildlife Mr Paterson seems to have forgotten that the United Kingdom did so after World War II. The cattle toll was reduced from 47,476 to a low point of 628 in 1979, without killing badgers.
• Bovine TB is not currently spreading. In fact the number of cattle lost – and compensated for – has been falling from 2008 up to last year.
• The disease is not being “left unchecked”. A new range of long-awaited and overdue farm-based measures have finally been announced for next year.
• Marksmen shooting badgers at night will have to kill at least seven out of ten – but the government has no idea how many badgers there are in the first place.
Regrettably, farmers and landowners have been sadly deluded into believing in - and paying for - the proposed unholy mess based on a 40-year-old prejudice that disregards scientific evidence.