This is probably the last word on this blog on badgers for a while – but who knows?
Today the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman made the long-awaited announcement on badger culling in a House of Commons more interested in what was about to happen across the road in Portcullis House where phone-hacking would be the subject of discussion.
But this announcement was an important one, dealing as it does with the lives and emotions of many farmers and the lives and well-being of many badgers. It was also an important announcement for Mrs Spelman as it is clearly one where it is impossible to please everyone. And it is important in terms of how much weight we should give to the Tory Party’s Election Manifesto pledge to adopt a science-led approach to badger culling.
The government has said ‘yes’ to culling but only under licence in two pilot areas which have not yet been agreed. Further consultation on safety, practicality and humaneness are to be undertaken. Details from the Defra website – click here.
Here are some important words: ‘The Government will not attempt to eradicate the disease nationally by culling, and there would be no culling over the whole endemic area at the same time.‘.
The two pilot areas, if they go ahead, will have to be at least 150 square kilometres in size and farmers will have to be trained (at night school?) to carry out shooting in the dark. Given that bTB is a problem, and a serious problem, in much of western England the area affected by bTB is huge. The combined area of just four affected counties, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire, is over 17,000 square kilometres (not all of that land is farmed of course). Let’s say that about half of that land is farmed and has cattle on it – is that a reasonable guess? And let’s say that the other affected counties in England double the area affected so that we could say, ballpark only, that 17,000 square kilometres of farmland are affected by bTB. If the pilot areas for culling are much bigger than the minimum needed, let’s say three times as big, then about 900 square kilometres will enter a pilot cull area. So, 900 out of 17,000 square kilometres will have some legal, licenced culling introduced. This is as close to a no-cull policy as Defra could possibly have come before Ministers were drummed out of the NFU and CLA without ceremony.
And given that culling may well make things worse for farmers in the pilot areas if their efforts are not effective, and may well make things worse for fellow farmers on the edge of the pilot areas anyway, because of perturbation effects, many a farmer should welcome this announcement of an almost no-cull way forward. If badger culling, in the dark, goes well, the existing science suggests a possible reduction in bTB of about 16% in hot-spots. That’s by one sixth. So in about 6% of the area affected by bTB badger-shooting may reduce bTB by about one sixth, so Defra has agreed to culling that might be expected to reduce the national incidence of bTB by about 1% (maybe a bit more because culling will be aimed at hot-spots). And so we need measures to reduce the other 99%.
I am glad to see the emphasis being on strengthening cattle control measures thus ‘Measures to address bovine TB in cattle remain the cornerstone of efforts to control the disease right across the country, and existing measures will be strengthened.’.
And I’m also glad to see this statement: ‘Ultimately, we want to be able to vaccinate both cattle and badgers, and we’re investing in research – but there are serious practical difficulties with the injectable badger vaccine, which is the only available option. We are working hard to develop a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine, but a usable and approved cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine are much further away than we thought and we can’t say with any certainty if and when they will be ready. We simply can’t afford to keep waiting.‘.
Mrs Spelman also correctly judged, I believe, her words of sympathy for farmers and regret for having (in her mind) to cull any badgers at all.
All in all, this is clearly not the worst possible outcome for England’s badgers – although thousands face death because of it. And, all in all, it does add up to a more potentially effective control strategy because of the strengthening of cattle and biosecurity measures envisaged and planned – and the continuing development of vaccines for cattle and badgers – and despite the totemic but essentially irrelevant (as far as national bTB levels are concerned) partial agreement to future pilot culling.
The NFU and CLA seem to be putting a brave face on what is as close to a no-cull policy as could be expected given the Tory Party Manifesto commitment (As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully-managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bTB .) and the strength of feeling of the farming community with which all four Defra Ministers have strong links.
The Tories had stuck their necks out before the election in promising a cull and Jim Paice stoked the fires of expectation after the election (and cancelled vaccine trials which was a silly thing to do). Given all that, there should be quite a lot of badgers breathing a small sigh of relief tonight although thousands of them may still be killed because Defra couldn’t quite stick to the science when it came down to it.
Now, I expect, the lawyers will have a field day – which rarely does any farmer, taxpayer or wildlife that much good.
That’s my last word on this subject for a while – but you have your say in comments. But please, keep your comments short-ish, on topic and polite (or at least not close to libellous).