4 April 2013 by Dominic Dyer
Owen Paterson’s bold plans for a national badger cull rollout are now in tatters, writes Dominic Dyer, as he stands condemned by both sides in the debate. Wales shows the real way forward, with biosecurity, cattle movement control, TB testing and vaccination. As a result of yesterday’s announcement we are now a step closer to giving them the protection from Government sanctioned killing, which they need and truly deserve. Badger culling is now seen as political poison by MPs from all parties in Westminster and this was reflected by the bitter debate in Cabinet on the badger cull extension.
The opposition was led by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who made it clear that he was even unwilling to see the badger cull extended to one new area in Dorset.
Last minute desperate efforts by Owen Paterson to create a public health scare in the media over the almost non-existent risk of badgers infecting cats with TB backfired and did not lead to a shift of opinion in the Cabinet or the wider public in favour of badger culling.
Britain’s hearts and minds are with the badgers
Vague talk by Owen Paterson in Parliament yesterday of a national cull rollout being back on the agenda at some point in the future, is not worth the paper it is written on. Talking to a number of influential MP’s, Peers and former Ministers at the Royal Society on Wednesday evening, all agreed that the huge badger army campaign across the country had won the hearts and minds of the nation against badger culling. Moreover, the public at large had piled intense pressure on politicians to withdraw any support for a national badger cull roll out.
Gassing – it’s not going to happen
It will also take more than an interview by Princess Anne on Countryfile calling for gassing to be considered as a culling method, to persuade MPs to go down this dangerous path. Many of the former Ministers at the Royal Society debate remembered only too well the huge public outcry over the use of cyanide gas to kill badgers in the 1970’s. Nor have they forgotten the hugely controversial trials of gassing techniques using ferrets and badgers at Porton Down in 1982, which led Tory Agriculture Ministers to demand an immediate stop to all gassing research.
NFU in a pickle of its own making
The newly elected President of the National Famers Union Meurig Raymond has called the decision not to roll out the badger cull “bitterly disappointing” – but now serious questions need to be asked in the leadership of the NFU about the mess they find themselves in. Owen Paterson has put the NFU in the worse possible situation on the issue of badger culling. He has now left the NFU carrying the can for two highly unpopular, inefficient and expensive badger cull pilots in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
Now we know – these are culls that MPs and the public no longer want, farmers no longer believe in, and which will not as the NFU hoped, pave the way for a national cull roll out.
Vaccination – soon all the farmers will want it
The NFU also faces another dilemma in terms of the vaccination of badgers. A very positive development in Owen Paterson’s speech was the commitment to put more government funding into badger vaccination in the boundary areas of TB hotspots. However, farmers in the middle of TB hot spot areas will not sit back quietly and see their neighbours farms being included in a government funded badger vaccination programme, whilst they are left with no chance of a badger cull. Increasingly they will demand government supported badger vaccination on their land too, which will lead to a huge shift in the focus of the Governments TB eradication programme away from culling to vaccination.
Huge challenges ahead for the cull
In the months ahead the focus will now return to badger culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire, but even here the Government and the NFU face some huge challenges.
Firstly the Badger Trust is now considering options for a Judicial Review to stop the continuation of the pilot culls. Any legal action taken will not be about the badger cull policy, but will focus on the process of the licence extensions.
The Independent Expert Panel report which has now finally been released for public scrutiny, remains a ticking time bomb under the badger cull policy. The many recommendations of the IEP will lead to significant changes in the way the pilot culls are carried out in Somerset and Gloucestershire this year.
A completely new approach is needed
These will include new training and monitoring requirements for the NFU contractors, new standards on calibre of rifles, ammunition and shooting distances, changes to culling zone areas and a more significant shift in favour of trap and shoot techniques over free shooting. Serious concerns also have to be addressed about how the Government intends to estimate the number of badgers remaining in the pilot cull zones, not least after the impact of the terrible floods in Somerset this winter.
All of these changes throw up a serious case to not just to alter the licence conditions, but to reissue completely new licences following a wide public consultation process.
Any legal action taken on this front would command huge public and most importantly political support from MP’s of all parties, many of whom remain very angry that Owen Paterson refuses to bring the badger cull issue back to the House for a full debate and vote, before any further culling takes place in the pilot zones.
So as the dust settles on the announcement, its clear that huge progress has been made in bringing the culling of badgers to an end. Public, political and scientific opinion is now moving in favour of finding alternatives to badger culling.
Wales shows the way
The Welsh TB eradication programme is now seen as a good example of how TB in cattle can be significantly lowered using a combination of tighter biosecurity measures, cattle control movements and TB testing, backed up by a highly popular badger vaccination programme.
Owen Paterson had his chance to prove his alternative approach of culling badgers could work and it has proved a disastrous failure. The future of this policy might now play out in his absence, as he pays the political price for his arrogance and incompetence in his handling of the issue. The battle to protect badgers goes on, but as a result of yesterday’s announcement we are now a step closer to giving them the protection from Government sanctioned killing, which they need and truly deserve.
Dominic Dyer is CEO of the Badger Trust and Policy Advisor at Care for the Wild.