I suppose I am naive. I thought that considering the badger cull last summer was, to be polite, not very effective, that that would be an end to it. Other methods of controlling bovine TB would be explored, like vaccination. A trial is, after all, a process of seeing if something works and then rolling it out only when you have the data to prove that it’s been successful. So I almost missed the fact that the Badger Army were meeting in Exeter to protest against the re-starting of the cull - surely no one in government was going to pick up such a political hot potato and run with it.
I imagine that the reason the government feels the need to press forward with the cull is that they can’t be seen to lose, especially with an general election maybe 12 months away. Last summer, battle lines were drawn and the badger army mobilised. Two sides took to the countryside. Clear objectives had been set, the government were aiming to kill 4000 badgers in 6 weeks, the badger army to stop them.
Grace in victory and grace in defeat are things most warring parties should learn across the world and the same is so here. The government were unable at the end of the cull to come forward and say; “Hey, you know what, we tried culling, and the trial proved that shooting badgers wasn’t the most efficient way of controlling TB.” If they had, perhaps they could have then worked with farmers and the anti-cull groups to explore vaccination options.
With the decision regarding the re-starting of the cull this summer in the balance, and the battle of words heating up in the press with leaks from the independent badger cull enquiry and stories about TB infecting cats and passing it to humans, the badger army came to Exeter yesterday. People from across the country met in Belmont Park to air their views about the badger cull and to peacefully march through the city centre in demonstration of their opposition to the government’s policy.
All those speaking yesterday were, as always, passionate about stopping the cull and were intent on disputing government claims while making their own about farming methods being the cause of the spread of TB, rather than the badgers. Pete Martin, from Gloucestershire Against Badger Shooting (GABS), explained to the gathered crowd that farmers spray unpasteurised milk on their fields which is ingested by earthworms and then, ‘who eats the worms? The badgers.’ . Mr Martin went on to suggest that the transportation of cattle between farms is possibly another way TB can be spread. It seems that it is possible for a farmer to own two farms, one in, say, Somerset and one in, maybe, Yorkshire. The two farms are technically classed as one, allowing cattle to be moved between the two areas without restriction, even when a transportation ban is in place.
Now while the two sides fight this out, it is easy to forget the people stuck in the middle - the farmers. I can hear fuses being blown, angry shouts at screens and my name being turned to mud as some of you read that but stay with me. I have grown up around farmers, not the big super farms that to me are not farms but factories, but the farms which are small, family owned affairs. These are the farms I know, and these are the farms that worry about the countryside and manage it well. I spent some time on a farm in Devon a couple of years ago during haymaking. The farmer had contractors in to make the hay and while I was riding in his tractor he became very angry when talking to the other drivers over the radio. I won’t write the exact words here as this is a family blog, but suffice to say he wasn’t very happy that they were driving repeatedly over the same tracks. This compresses the earth, affecting the drainage and can cause problems with erosion. On another farm I saw a farmer nearing tears as a ewe gave birth right at the end of the lambing season. This wasn’t to do with profit, it was because that ewe had lost lambs earlier in the year and the farmer was genuinely happy she’d finally got her own lamb.
Farming is a hard business, and not just in terms of making money from it. It’s a hard business because crops and grazing land can be destroyed by mother nature, as we have seen in Somerset with the recent floods. Animals are vulnerable, not only to diseases like TB and natural predators like foxes, but also to us, well meaning human beings. While lambing, I heard a story last year about a couple of walkers who turned up at a farm proudly carrying a lamb wrapped in a coat. “We found this poor lamb under a hedge, all alone, so we brought it here” they said. I am sure they thought they were helping a small lamb survive but their well meaning actions meant that the lamb became an orphan and needed to be hand reared by the farmer, as the ewe rejected the lamb when the farmer tried to reunite them.
Last year I visited Richard Reed on his farm in Devon. He’d recently lost 80 cattle to TB and his obvious sadness at this loss was evident when talking to him. But it went beyond the loss of income; his family had taken years to build up a herd and although many protestors would have people believe that farmers only see cattle as inventory to be bought and sold, my experience, and my knowledge from talking to Richard, is that farmers do care for and look after their animals very well. To them, yes, the cull requires the killing of some animals, but it means the saving of some as well.
I am not a vet or a countryside expert at all but to me vaccination seems a good starting point for peace talks between the opposing sides. @spartacus303, a regular commentator on the cull, tweeted earlier this week that: ‘If I had my way every Farmer would have to train someone on Farm to vaccinate Badgers on and around his own farm’ and this seems to me like an idea worth looking into. Perhaps this training could even be linked into agricultural apprenticeships in some way, along with instruction on traditional rural skills such as hedge laying and river management.
A vaccination plan of this type would help the farmers, protect the badgers and give the government a face-saving way out, particularly as if the cull starts up again this summer, there are the practicalities of carrying it out to consider too. Speaking to police officers on the ground last year, patrolling the cull areas was an obvious strain on their resources. Will they be able to maintain the level of presence in the cull zones this year?
The march yesterday was policed by Police Liaison officers rather than regular police and one explained to me that this is their new approach to policing this type of demonstration. On the run up to the march the liaison officers build up relationships with the event organisers and then help to marshal the crowd. Yesterday there were just six officers present to help direct the hundreds of protesters. So if the cull starts up again it is very likely that it won’t be regular officers patrolling the cull zones, and while the Liaison Officers are very capable and will have backup available, as they did yesterday, the cull zones will be undoubtedly much harder to police with fewer officers to call on.
But in the end, whether you believe that the cull’s apparent lack of success was down to the dedication of anti-cull protesters and the interference tactics they carried out last summer, or whether it was because you simply can’t hide in the woods and shoot badgers on the scale that the government thought you could, it seems clear from the leaked information reaching the press from the Independent Expert Panel’s report that ‘the culls were not effective and that they failed to meet the humaneness criteria’.
It is clear too from the march in Exeter yesterday, that supporters of the many anti-cull protest groups are 100% determined to stop any attempts by the British government to restart the cull in the South West this year. Emotions were running high as the lead speaker, Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, joined in with the crowd’s chant of ‘Paterson, out, out, out’.
So given the strength of the opposition, and the mounting evidence of previous failure, the likelihood of the cull starting up again this summer doesn’t seem high. Owen Paterson, (Secretary of State for Environment and the Exeter protesters’ least favourite person) is said to be considering his options, and it’s thought that David Cameron is also thinking of ending the cull. With an election only about 12 months away you can understand why the PM might not be keen on re-implementing such an unpopular policy. And if the cull is abandoned, its hard to see how Owen Paterson can keep his job in the upcoming government reshuffle.