England against the badger cull
The last time that I joined a public protest march was in 1969 when I was a newly hatched degree student of Zoology and Botany. That was until noon Saturday June 1st when I walked with thousands in the London Against The Cull from Millbank to The Sanctuary. With people attending from all over the country, is was more like England against the badger cull. Indeed, even the NFU’s imbalanced opinion poll has confirmed their view.
The objects of my two protest marches were very different, but the reason that I marched was the same: I object profoundly to government policies that ignore the most informed experts in the subject and snub the will of the majority of the people.
An editorial in The Independent newspaper described the badger culls, now licensed by Natural England, in two pilot areas in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset, as a ‘triumph of politics over science’. I am a scientist, I have done my time in the lab and in the field. Like many other scientists, many far more expert, I object to the dissembling public servants and the blatant cherry-picking by ministers of ‘selected’ results from peer-reviewed publications to support this flawed policy.
The London march, unlike my 1969 Swansea experience, was an example of hugely professional policing. The atmosphere was family friendly, deeply passionate and a clear public statement against badger culling as a sensible and acceptable policy.
Now it will be very tempting (and no doubt some of the less thoughtful observers will fall to the temptation) to dismiss the thousands of people in masks and costumes walking in London as being uninformed about bovine TB, unaffected by its impact and unimportant to the future of farming. They would be wrong to fall into this trap; the marchers are constituents and consumers. Their votes, in the ballot box and at the supermarket till, dictate future polities and thereby the vibrancy of British agriculture.
A badger cull would not solve the problem of bTB but could create three divides:
- A larger cultural barrier between town and countryside
- A sharpening of the debate whose wildlife and countryside is it?
- A greater resentment that public money is being wasted for tactical advantage and not public good
In support of a wide spread badger cull, government ministers refer to its potential 12 to 16% benefit; that is the rate at which bovine TB would increase as a disease of cattle would occur more slowly. Even if this mystical benefit were to be achieved, it would leave the great mass of the bTB untouched; an 84% hole in their thinking. As the current Defra policy is clearly failing to tackle the disease and a badger cull isn’t going to do the whole trick either by ministers’ own admission – something is clearly missing from the recipe.
What is needed to sort out this bovine TB mess?
The answer must include some of the tough remedies that the farming industry will find unpleasant. These must form the centerpiece of the new bTB strategy ‘due for publication soon’. (quote).
- Divert the public money that is being wasted on the flawed badger cull pilots into a coherent strategy using all the other tools in the box. The badgercull is the lump hammer; blunt, clumsy, unselective, damaging and crude.
- Vaccinate badgers; government figures show this could give a 4-8% benefit without perturbation, without public protest and with immediate effect. We don’t need to wait for an oral badger vaccine, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust is now in year three of its own programme using BadgerBCG. That is three years of the positive action that has been missed from a full national badger vaccine roll out because of fudge and fluster by government and the NFU. The £4m policing costs for the two pilots alone would pay for 1800km2 of vaccination using Defra’s own figure of £2250 per km2. The Welsh Assembly government is already using badger vaccine as the central plank in its bTB strategy, there is much that England could learn from theis work.
- Tighten the cattle bTB testing processes and procedures. The BVA needs to support professional standards rather than getting distracted with controversial and muddled policy statements.
- Keep badgers out of farm buildings; the Northern Ireland Assembly has supported improved bio-security on farms but in England it is often paid for at the farmer’s own expense. When applied correctly (barriers, gates, fencing) it can be 100% efficient. If farmers are so keen on a badger cull to reduce badger-cattle interactions why not apply the same enthusiasm to keeping badgers away from cattle?
- Reduce cattle movements; Bernard van Goethem in the EU evidence to the EFRA select committee, flagged this as the single biggest difference between the UK and the rest of Europe. 14 million cattle movements are made each year.
- Make data about bTB herd breakdowns publicly available. At present data protection laws prevent even the most finicky neighbours and stock buyers knowing what is going on just down the road.
- Throw EVERY resource at following the clear plan for a useable cattle vaccine set out by EU Commissioner Tonio Borg in his letter to Environment Secretary of State Owen Paterson. There is no evidence that Defra has yet pulled out all the stops.
The thousands who marched in London clearly ‘Value Nature’. That value does not appear on the nation’s balance sheet; but it is a real value and it is high. The cash value of Nature, through the ecosystem services that it provides, is now better understood. That worth must not be ignored, yet the removal of 70% of a mammal high in the food chain would have a significant but unknown ecological impact.
Brock has also been a valued part of culture and folklore for hundreds of years. The badger’s recent recovery, following legal protection of badgers and their setts, has allowed strong populations to become established in many parts of England, especially the South West.
In parts of England the badger almost became extinct. The Cornwall Trust for Nature Conservation was one of the first organisations to push for legal protection of the badger page 594.
If a badger cull were to be rolled out in 10 new zones each year for four years, as envisioned by Owen Paterson and the NFU, there is a real risk of local badger extinction. Three future cull zones are proposed for Cornwall. I am not a betting man but if culling were to proceed the odds against the Cornish Brock look scary to me.
Parliamentary Debate – June 5th 2013
Parliament will vote on the badger cull on June 5th. I met my MP Neil Carmichael as I got off the train in Stroud on the way back from the march on Saturday. He knows my views make sure that your MP knows yours too.
I am glad that I marched today. I am sorry that I had to. Get your MP to vote down the badger cull; we have a strong democracy – lets use!