Thursday, 8 May 2014

Basil Fawlty and the badger cull crisis

The announcement on 3 April that badger cull pilots across England were being abandoned really should have come two days earlier as environment secretary Owen Paterson is fast becoming a joke. Certainly he appears to have no idea how to tackle the tuberculosis crisis in cattle. 

The North Shropshire MP, who during the fox hunting debates likened those who supported a ban to Nazis, was appointed environment secretary in September 2012. He quickly mishandled the horsemeat scandal, during which his performance in Parliament saw him likened by Independent columnist Donald Macintyre to Basil Fawlty from the 1970s iconic British comedy classic, Fawlty Towers. Paterson also wants Britain to go it alone on GM Foods even though it will mean isolation from Europe, which has chosen to remain GM free. 

Paterson is also a climate sceptic. He has refused an offer for a briefing on climate change science by David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser to the department for energy and climate change.

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is, of course, a highly infectious fatal disease that can be passed from animal to animal, but which mainly affects cows. Diary herds require testing regularly and infected animals are killed. The numbers of cattle infected by bTB has risen dramatically in the last two decades. In 2013 over 26,000 cattle were slaughtered across England as a result of the disease. The cost to farming is estimated annually at £100 million. 

Some farmers believe badgers – through contaminating feeding and watering sites - are mainly to blame for cattle contracting bTB. 

The previous Labour government sought to discover the truth when it spent £50 million on a 10-year study organised by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) on Cattle. This concluded in 2007 that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.’ Even worse the scientists believed culling had the potential to spread the disease by forcing infected badgers to flee. 

Owen Paterson isn’t though a man to be bothered by facts even when supplied by those who know a lot more than him. Consequently, last year he introduced a trial cull in Gloucestershire and Somerset. The plan was to shoot 5,000 badgers at night over a six week period. According to the coalition government, 70% of badgers in the two counties would have to be killed over four years in order to reduce bTB by 16 per cent. 

If the pilot culls were deemed successful they were to be rolled out across the rest of England with 130,000 badgers, a third of the badger population, shot.

The Independent Expert Panel (IEP) was appointed by Defra to evaluate the pilots. Paterson initially attempted to keep their report hidden. There were even newspaper reports that he was going to ignore huge public opposition and a Parliamentary vote, in which MPs voted 219 to one, against rolling out the cull nationwide. 

However, when much of the details, like Britain’s much reduced flood defences under this government, leaked, Paterson was forced to reveal just how wrong he was in ordering the cull. 

In the event ‘just’ 1,861 badgers were shot at a cost calculated by the wildlife charity Care for the Wild at £7.3 million including £2.6 million for policing.  The cost per dead badger was £4,121. The government had claimed that shooting free-running badgers was a lot less than the £700 it costs such as the Welsh government for a trapping and vaccination programme.

Defra’s standard for declaring the culls humane had been that 95 per cent of shot badgers would die within five minutes. The figure was that between 7.4 and 18 per cent took longer to die. 

According to the IEP report the three week extension that Paterson granted to the original cull made little difference to the numbers killed. Paterson has therefore agreed to continue the killing in Gloucestershire and Somerset by employing better-trained marksmen! Professor Rosie Woodroffe, who was a member of the ISG, criticised the move saying: “I would stop and invest in something more promising.” 

Paterson may therefore want to consider crossing over the border to Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government abandoned plans to cull badgers in March 2012. It adopted a £4.7 million five year plan to vaccinate badgers. In the first year 472 landowners allowed access onto their land and to 313 badger setts, approximately a third of the numbers currently active. 1,424 badgers were trapped and vaccinated. 

Statistics show that in the 12 months till December 2013, there were 880 new bTB herd incidents in Wales, down by 23 per cent from 1,145 in the previous year.  The figures had fallen in 2011-12 by 15 per cent and between 2011-2013 the cattle slaughtered dropped a third to 6,275. 

With the programme of vaccination appearing to be working, Alun Davies, natural resources minister and Labour member for Blaenau Gwent, told the Welsh Assembly: “I think there are many aspects where the UK government should look across the border. On every measure available to us, the Government is delivering reductions in bovine TB at twice the rate of the Government in England. I would invite Owen Paterson to come here to learn how it is done.”

The approach of the Welsh Government is mirrored by the Sharpham Trust, an educational charity running a 550-acre south Devon estate. They are implementing a 3-year badger vaccination project and a trust spokesperson called on “the government to implement a science based, cost effective response to the badger/cattle/TB issue.”  

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