Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Badger culls: action for actions sake?

Depending on how you see it Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman either condemned 'innocent' badgers to a death sentence or she took decisive action against an escalating and very real rural problem. Whatever you make of today's announcement, the chances are you're probably wondering what (if any) difference it can make.

As it's milk that puts bread on my table I have something of a vested interest and although I am not supportive of a cull, I am desperate for something to be done to bring this disease under control. Bovine TB causes a real sense of exasperation, urgency and fear within the farming community and farmers need a real solution- measures to combat bTB need to be based on solid scientific foundations.

I have already discussed my concerns about the use of a badger cull as a way of controlling the spread of bTB but that's not to say I am some sort of new-age tree-hugging farmer... I am not. I want a productive and profitable farm. I just can't help feeling that trial culls in distant pockets of the UK will do little to prevent our herd from contracting TB  and certainly not in the foreseeable future. Oral vaccines may be "years away" but so is the control of bTB through widespread badger culling.

The other factor we cannot overlook is how all this affects the already fragile relationship between the farmer and the person on the street. I have discussed before how farmers are perceived and it must be considered. Whilst I don't believe farming should bow to pressure groups and I am infuriated by the tone sometimes used towards 'farmers'. I do think we must consider how we engage and interact with the public. Any wildlife cull will alienate many people and when, as Spelman suggests, it's the farmers being asked to do the shooting how will the media portray farmers then?

The feeling within the farming community (or at least those not actively opposed to a cull) is that at least something is being done to tackle bTB. When it's taken so long for the problem to even be addressed at higher levels anything seems like progress- and perhaps that's the point of today's announcement. Politicians have largely buried their heads in the sand while the issue escalated and now they've opened their eyes and lurched towards a possible solution that appears most proactive.

Whilst many people are sceptical about what a cull can really achieve for those whose very livelihoods are on the line it seems that someone, somewhere is listening to them. Spelman may want to appear to be taking the bull by the horns, but I can't help feeling she's got the wrong bull.. and they aren't it's horns.

You see, doing something for the sake of doing something is rarely a productive exercise. It's a knee-jerk reaction and in the short term there is little to gain (a 16% reduction in bTB at best) but a lot to loose. If (and it's a big if) the cull is successful in a 'disease reservoir'  area- can it really be a workable and long lasting solution to a countrywide problem. Are we just going to spend 10 years playing with guns until either a workable solution is found or the Conservatives leave office.

My concern is that we're going to be so distracted by years of secret shooting, opposition lobbying, public protest and farmer-hating that we'll all be distracted from the fact that no-one in government is even seriously considering a Plan B (or V), and when you're not sure if Plan A will even work, you really need a Plan B.

When you're dealing with what may turn into a £1 billion problem within a decade- is £250,000 annually on vaccination research enough? When even the Badger Trust and the NFU can bury the hatchet and begin working together on vaccination trials shouldn't the government be giving it a bit more thought?

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