“Farmers intimidated by badger cull opponents” reads a newspaper headline. What has happened to the rule of law in this country when a programme authorised by an elected government, after extensive consultation with experts, can be stopped by threats of violence?
Bambi has a lot to answer for. A generation has grown up believing that wild animals are cuddly little chaps — they’re really just like us, except that they live in pretty, furry coats.
But they’re not human beings in costume. Some — foxes and badgers for example — are aggressive, verminous and vicious. Don’t offer them a tit-bit — they’re just as likely to take your fingers as well. So let’s just have a rational discussion without the ghost of Walt Disney looking over our shoulders.
Bovine TB is a horrible disease. It resulted in the slaughter of 26,000 infected cattle in the UK in 2011. Nearly a quarter of dairy herds in the South West were under movement restrictions last year. There were 3,741 new TB incidents in the year. And it has cost the taxpayer — you and me — half a billion pounds in the last decade. That could rise to one billion in the next decade, without radical action.
Bovine TB is an appalling disaster for individual dairy farmers. A farmer may spend decades building a prize-winning herd, only to see it destroyed by TB. His life’s work and his business destroyed in one fell swoop. The typical outbreak costs £30,000. And even before the disease strikes, dairy farmers (with all their other problems) face the weight of anxiety every time they get a test result in. They live under a Sword of Damocles.
But if the disease is a disaster for cattle and farmers, think of the impact on badgers. A cow struck down with TB is at least put down humanely. Not so for a badger. Thousands die a horrible and painful death. This is happening now, and it’s what the RSPCA is celebrating as “Badger friendly milk”.
The RSPCA’s approach is thoroughly reprehensible. They’re arbitrarily concerning themselves with what they wrongly see as the welfare of badgers, and ignoring the welfare of the National Dairy Herd. They’re also ignoring the suffering of badgers with TB. Indeed they seem to be more concerned with cynical populism than with animal welfare.
They’ve taken a biased, one-sided, simplistic, facile and emotive approach to a complex and technical debate. They call for “Badger-Friendly Milk” labels on milk from non-cull areas. They might just as well label it “Cow-Unfriendly Milk”. Or “This milk promotes bovine TB”. Or “Love Badgers — Hate Cows”.
Last week I debated the issue with the RSPCA on BBC’s Farming Today programme. The RSPCA (and the interviewer) made much of the public’s “right to know”. But given the RSPCA’s biased, propagandist approach to the issue, it’s more about the public’s right to be misled. You can’t summarise this very complex debate in a three-word slogan — and if you could, it certainly wouldn’t be “Badger-Friendly Milk”.
Surely all decent people agree that the objective is a healthy National Dairy Herd, and a healthy wild population of badgers. The question is how we get there, and the RSPCA isn’t helping. Some argue for vaccination, either oral or injectable. This may indeed offer an eventual solution — though how we reach and vaccinate a critical mass of badgers remains problematic. But an infected badger remains infectious, so even if we could achieve mass vaccination overnight, there would still be an urgent need for immediate transitional measures in hot-spot areas.
I return to my starting point: we live in a (more or less) free and democratic country under the rule of law. The government, after many delays and legal actions, and extensive consultation, has come up with a programme which I believe is in the best interests not only of cows and farmers, but also of the wild badger population. We must let the culling test run, and we should take robust action against the simplistic fools who threaten farmers and supermarkets.