By Matthew Barrett
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Owen Paterson, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has announced in the House of Commons his department's decision to postpone its planned badger cull until next summer. This morning, the Guardian reported that he would "return from an official trip abroad to oversee the U-turn", and said that the delay "represents another setback for the government… the latest in a string of embarrassments for No 10".
The reality is quite different. Far from being cancelled or disorganised, the delay is the result of a proper and thorough process. As Mr Paterson has just noted in the House, a letter from the National Farmers Union confirms that because of factors including unusually disruptive weather conditions, clashes with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, legal challenges by outside groups, and most importantly, surveys showing a higher than expected badger population, the optimum time for a badger cull to take place this year has passed, and the NFU has requested that Mr Paterson proceed with the policy next summer.
The arguments in favour of a badger cull are clear. The farming industry suffers badly from the spread of bovine TB, which is carried by badgers. The cost of dealing with bovine TB is projected to total £1billion over the next ten years – but the argument is not simply an economic one: farmers' lives and livelihoods are devastated by the impact of TB, and more than 26,000 cattle were slaughtered last year. Farmers not only have to take on the economic burden of dealing with the immediate impact of TB, but the farming industry also takes on other badger-related costs, through, for example, research into the badger population.
It's also worth noting that the Government is not simply resorting to a cull as a first port of call – it is only one tool being using to help tackle TB. Millions of pounds have been spent on research and development of vaccines, and on bio-engineering technology. There are certain technical limitations to non-cull options, however. It would be impractical to catch and vaccinate every single badger, and there are years left before an effective vaccine is available to use.
Clearly a policy of this kind, provoking strong emotions, is not one the Government would wish to hang over it for several months. However, the advice of the farming industry is that it would incur risk for the cull to go ahead now, and so Mr Paterson is following expert advice and postponing the cull. Sources close to the Secretary of State said reports calling the decision a "u-turn" are "nonsense". One particularly facile accusation came from the Labour shadow Minister, Mary Creagh, who said: "The badger cull showed how out of touch the government is and this delay shows ministers are too weak and incompetent to deliver it."
Mr Paterson is doing the right thing by taking advice from the experts in the farming industry, and should be supported, and the misjudged accusations of u-turns should be rejected.