Licensed to kill?



2 August 2013

Two months into the licensing window for two pilot culls of badgers to tackle bovine TB, there’s no confirmation yet that any animals have been killed. Andy Greenwood reports on the frustrations of farmers and the continued anger of opponents. After decades of inaction by successive governments, West Country farmers living with the daily reality of bovine TB believed help was finally at hand.

Brian May with Badger poster

Queen guitarist and wildlife campaigner Brian May has been an outspoken critic of the badger cull. He has twice spoken in Taunton against the cull and has fronted the Team Badger campaign

After a long and bitter argument – and in the face of staunch opposition from many conservation groups – the Government finally gave the go-ahead for pilot badger-culling schemes in England in July 2011.
It took more than a year for Natural England, the Government’s environmental watchdog, to issues licences for pilots on Exmoor and in Gloucestershire, which run from June 1 to December 1. Farmers hope that the schemes, which will see badgers culled over a continuous six-week period, will turn the corner in the fight against the disease.

Last year bovine TB led to the slaughter of 28,000 cattle last year – more than 20,000 of them in the South West – at a cost of £100 million to the taxpayer. But a third of the way through the licensed period, not a single badger is believed to have been killed.

For their part, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Natural England deny that any delay is down to them saying the start date was “down to the culling companies”.

“The licence applies for quite a long period and there is no requirement on the companies to act on that straight away,” a spokesman for Natural England said. “If they want to leave it until later in the licence period then they are entitled to do that.”

All indications suggest the culling may begin in the next two to three weeks. But rumours abound that the culls have been dogged by excessive bureaucracy – exacerbating concerns that reams of paperwork which are already the bane of farmers’ working lives could jeopardise the rapid roll out of culling next year. Farmers’ concerns have also been heightened by the Government suggested “TB strategy” which they fear will leave them facing the costs of tackling a disease which is not their fault.

Amid growing mistrust of the Government, the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) is currently staging a series of meetings on the strategy which is currently out to consultation. Andy Foot, the NFU’s regional livestock board chairman, said any future strategy must mean a long-term commitment by Government with no scope for politically-motivated “tinkering”. As regards to the cull, he added: “I’m sure the bureaucracy for the pilots has been tremendous. But it is not about whether badgers should be culled or not, it is about whether free-shooting is humane and safe. Once that has been proved there is no need for so much bureaucracy. I certainly believe that everyone involved, Defra, Animal Health, the NFU and others, realise that it needs to be rolled out as quickly as possible, over as large an area as possible and with the least bureaucracy possible.

Mr Foot has already warned that farmers in the South West are “very uneasy about being made the fall guys when it comes to carrying the can for this disease” which had been “allowed to run rampant by years of political fudging over tackling the wildlife reservoir of infection, principally badgers”.

“With the disastrous outcome Defra came back with from the recent EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform negotiations, which could well see English farmers severely financially disadvantaged compared with their continental competitors, getting the right outcome from this consultation has to be our number one priority,” he said. “Because, mark my words, combined with this CAP slap in the face, if we don’t get fair play on TB it could be the straw which breaks the livestock industry’s back in the South West with all the negative implications that could have for jobs and the wider rural economy.”
Despite Government, legal and scientific backing for the pilot schemes, opposition to the cull remains steadfast.

Conservation groups said they were unaware of the exact reasons for the delay in starting the cull but pledged that protests would intensify when shooting begins.

“The Badger Trust is pleased that the continuing delay to the coalition’s killing programme means a stay of execution for thousands of the so-called protected species in the cull areas,” a spokesman for the trust said. “The period during which culling must take place began two months ago on June 1, but nothing has happened, adding to the muddle and secrecy of the policy. If agricultural considerations such as the harvest are involved the date for the killing season could have been set as August 1 or Sept 1 for clarity.” He added: “The trust is maintaining its vigilance on legal issues and, with and many other wildlife organisations, is working to develop public awareness. We have been pleased to see an ever-increasing depth of general knowledge about the key issues to complement the widespread emotional response. It is clear from reaction we receive that the public understands that badger culling will not achieve what the coalition and the industry wish and that a wide range of businesses and public activities in culling areas will be affected.”

Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, told the Western Morning News: “We do not know the reason why the cull hasn’t yet started, however, the Government and farmers would have to be naive in the extreme if they thought it wouldn’t affect tourism. We can only guess and hope that common sense is beginning to prevail with the realisation that the cull is bad for badgers and bad for business. Opposition to the cull will only be increased further if one of our black and white friends is harmed. If a badger is killed there will be protests. We support any peaceful and lawful resistance as we continue to keep up the pressure amongst those in the Government and NFU who understand the science and therefore the reasons why a cull is not the way forward in eradicating bovine TB.”

The RSPCA said it “sympathised” with farmers and was ready to “work alongside them in finding a solution”. But it said shooting badgers, which could prove inhumane, was not the answer. RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant said: “We care equally about the cows and the badgers but the imminent killings could mark the start of more than 70% of badgers being wiped out over half the country. In some areas we could see badgers disappear altogether. These widespread killings will simply not solve the problems of bovine TB in cattle. The only real answer is vaccination for them both, better biosecurity and control of cattle movements.”

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