NFU Chairman: Why the Gloucestershire badger cull must continue
The scourge of bovine tuberculosis is the dominant debate in West Country farming, and the remedy – a badger cull – has inflamed tensions between people who make a living from the countryside and those who want to protect wildlife. Here, Gloucestershire NFU chairman Charles Mann argues the case for the cull to continue:
Kathy (name changed) put her head in her hands as Roger (also name changed) explained how TB has affected their business, their life and their marriage.
Explaining how he had decided to invest half a million pounds and how excited they both were by the expansion of their herd and the promise of the future, his eyes shone. Then TB struck and his voice broke as he explained how all their plans for new housing and equipment to bring his herd forward into the 21st century will now come to nought, and, more, will jeopardise the very core of his business.
Roger is at a loss as to why the key to the future of his life's work has been hijacked by animal rights groups, and how they are undermining the future of his farm and the whole industry. If they care so much for animals, why do they not want healthy badgers? The 36,000 cows that are killed annually because they have TB, what of them? Do they not accept the science that badgers infect cattle with TB?
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He is a true countryman and enjoys, understands and protects wildlife. He explains to me that all our wildlife is managed, from bird nesting boxes and feeders in our gardens to the "wildness" of Slimbridge. Badgers were protected, not because they were rare, but to halt badger baiting. Since their protection in the 1970s and with no natural predator, the population has exploded. In addition to the problems of TB, the badger is a predatory omnivore and enjoys a varied diet of birds' eggs, hedgehogs (when did you last see one, even dead on the road?), bumble bees, worms, slugs, an occasional new-born lamb, partridge chicks, voles, fruit and maize. Nature intervenes when populations are out of control – be it animal or human – by disease, in this case TB.
Nobody wants to kill badgers. People think of them as endearing animals, like Badger in Wind in the Willows, not as a carrier of a deadly disease. By managing their population we will prevent the badger becoming, like the rat, a pest, vermin.
Farming organically in the Cotswolds, I supply Waitrose with Aberdeen Angus cattle and our wheat goes to a local mill to be made into bread. We have enthusiastically embraced the Government's environmental and renewable energy schemes, investing in solar panels and a bio-mass heating plant, along with pollen and nectar plots for birds, butterflies and bees. We run what is known as a "closed" herd. This means that we do not bring in cattle from other farms, other than buying one new bull every five years. The cattle graze the pastures all year round, only coming into the farmyard for their regular TB testing.
Over the last four years we have had three separate cases where our local vet has turned to me with the dread news that one or more of our cows has bTB. In that one sentence everything changes – plans, hopes, finance. The animals must be "culled" and all movement controls being placed on the farm, rather like being under house arrest. These outbreaks can only have come from our resident badgers, there is no other possible cause and no way to separate our grazing cattle from infected badgers.
As chairman for Gloucestershire NFU, representing the 1,000 farm businesses in the county, the story from Roger and Kathy is a snapshot of the countless visits I have made to farmers' kitchens, hearing the same tale over and over again.
During the past couple of weeks I've been saddened at the claims of secrecy that have been levelled at farmers, the NFU and the Government regarding the pilot badger culls. It was made clear from the start that those involved in the cull would not be making any comment on any operational matters while the culls were taking place.
The reasons for this – safety and security – are obvious, especially given that the NFU had to get a High Court injunction to protect farmers and their families from being harassed and intimidated by protesters. There are two very different groups of protesters, those genuinely concerned about wildlife and those committed to all-out aggressive tactics to intimidate hard- working farmers, their families and staff.
Farmers, like me, have been very open about the devastating impact bovine TB continues to have on us, our families and our businesses. We have to tackle the disease on all fronts at the same time, including the reservoir in wildlife, if we are going to be able to eradicate it. This is how New Zealand, Ireland, the States, France and Germany have managed to control bTB in their cattle, so let's not hear the hypocrisy of calling for a boycott of produce from West Gloucestershire farmers who are only trying to protect their herds from disease; you would need to boycott dairy and beef products from all of these countries as well.
The details of the pilot culls themselves are common knowledge – they are being carried out by professional marksmen, who have undergone specific training, who are employed by two private companies operating under licence from Natural England. The culls are being carried out using a mixture of shooting, cage trapping and shooting to see if this method of culling can be done humanely, effectively and safely. The result will be evaluated by an independent panel of experts.
It is estimated that as many as 50 per cent of all new farm cases of bTB in hotspot areas could be by infection from badgers to cattle. The best scientific evidence available shows that reducing the badger population can have a sustained impact on reducing bTB infection rates.
Until the disease is tackled on all fronts, including in wildlife, cattle herds will continue to get re-infected and farmers will continue to fight a costly and losing battle, regardless of what cattle testing and movement controls are in place.
We know that culling badgers alone will not control and eradicate bTB in areas where it is endemic and no one has ever said it will. We need to use every option that is available. It is equally important to remember that vaccination alone will not rid us of this terrible disease.
Vaccination of both cattle and badgers has a key role to play in controlling and eradicating this disease but we cannot simply wait around until it is available. Action must be taken now to tackle the disease reservoir in badgers through effective culling.
It has recently been announced that field trials of a cattle vaccine will start in the UK next year. These trials are an important step forward and very welcome but it doesn't change the fact that, at the moment, there is no cattle vaccine available for farmers to use and the best estimates from the European Commission suggests it will still be ten years before a workable vaccine is available, assuming the trials are successful.
The injectable badger vaccine that is available is very difficult to administer. An area must be baited, a cage-trap set and checked every morning; it is very expensive, as the vaccination trials in Wales have shown. It is also of no use if a badger already has TB because a vaccine only helps prevent disease, it doesn't cure it. Vaccination would have little impact in areas where the disease is endemic in the badger population.
These pilot culls need to go ahead without being disrupted. By disrupting them, the protesters are condemning both badgers and cattle to persistent disease. We must use these culls as an important step on the road to eradicating this terrible disease using every option available to us, so everyone can enjoy healthy cattle, healthy badgers and a healthy countryside.