By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday afternoon, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, announced her Department's plans to control the badger population, through culling, in two pilot areas in the South West next summer, following a public consultation.
The Secretary of State explained why the plan is necessary: "Nearly 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2010 because of bovine TB, which cost the country £90 million last year. The problem is particularly bad in west and south-west England, where 23 per cent of cattle farms were unable to move stock off their premises at some point in 2010 due to being affected by the disease."
Culling is not going to be the main method of controlling TB, others are currently in force: "Cattle measures, including routine testing and surveillance, pre-movement testing, movement restrictions and removal and slaughter of infected animals will remain the foundation of the TB eradication programme. 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. Measures already introduced include a significant expansion of the areas on more frequent routine TB testing and the DNA tagging of cattle to prevent TB reactor fraud."
The cost of bovine TB to the economy: "This terrible disease is getting worse and we’ve got to deal with the devastating impact it has on farmers and rural communities. There’s also the effect on the farming economy and taxpayers. Bovine TB will cost us £1 billion over the next decade in England alone if we don’t take more action."
The disease cannot be allowed to spread further: "Many farmers are desperate and feel unable to control the disease in their herds. If you have repeatedly had to send your cows to be slaughtered you can understand the desperation that they feel. We know that unless we tackle the disease in badgers we will never be able to eradicate it in cattle. We also know that there is no country in the world which has successfully controlled TB in cattle without addressing its presence in the wildlife population. 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 right now is the only available option. Badgers have to be trapped and caged in order to dispense it."
Vaccines are currently being developed, but progress is slow: "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."
Taking the anti-culling views into consideration: "There is great strength of feeling on this issue, which is why I have carefully considered the scientific evidence and the large number of responses to our public consultation. I know that a large section of the public is opposed to culling, and that many people are particularly concerned about whether it will actually be effective in reducing TB in cattle and about whether it will be humane. I wish there was some other practical way of dealing with this, but we can’t escape the fact that the evidence supports the case for a controlled reduction of the badger population in areas worst affected by bovine TB."
How controlling would work: "With the problem of TB spreading and no usable vaccine on the horizon, I’m strongly minded to allow controlled culling, carried out by groups of farmers and landowners, as part of a science-led and carefully managed policy of badger control. Badger control licences would be issued by Natural England under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to enable groups of farmers and landowners to reduce badger populations at their own expense."
The trial controlling would be bound by strict guidelines and limited to two areas: "The draft guidance to Natural England sets out strict criteria that applicants for a licence to cull badgers would have to meet to ensure that any culling is carried out safely, effectively and humanely. Initially in the first year, the culling method would be piloted in two areas, to confirm the effectiveness and humaneness of controlled shooting. An independent panel of scientific experts will be asked to evaluate the pilots. … In the event of a decision to permit culling following the consultation, any culling licences granted by Natural England would be subject to strict conditions, based on evidence from the RBCT, designed to ensure that culling results in an overall decrease in the disease in the areas where it takes place. Applications for licences would only be considered for a cull area of at least 150 square kilometre, and with culling to be conducted by trained and proficient experts and paid for by groups of farmers and landowners over a minimum of four years."
What results could be expected: "Scientists agree that if culling is conducted in line with the strict criteria identified from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), we would expect it to reduce TB in cattle over a 150 square kilometre area, plus a 2 km surrounding ring, by an average of 16 per cent over nine years."
Why this is the correct decision: "If culling is ultimately authorised, we will look to the farmers involved to show that they take their responsibility very seriously, and that they are committed to delivering culling effectively and humanely. I can assure the House that I have not reached this decision lightly. I am very aware of the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate. But having now considered all the evidence and all the views I believe that this is the right way forward."