DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn has dampened hopes that a widespread badger cull could be imminent, insisting that winning public acceptability is crucial to any policy to control bovine tuberculosis.

In his speech to the NFU Centenary Conference on Monday (18 February) Mr Benn said he fully understood “the difficulties, stress and financial hardship” faced by farmers whose herds had bTB.

He would therefore be taking a decision on a new policy to deal with the problem soon after the cross-party Environmental Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee concludes its report on the subject in the next few weeks.

“The decision I will take – and it will be on my watch – will be based on four things,” he said.

“One, what the science tells us, two, what impact the proposed measures would have on the disease, three, how practical it is and four, what is its public acceptability.”

Badger two

This last comment drew boos from the assembled delegates, and one NFU member heckled the secretary of state, accusing him of waffling and the Labour government of dithering over bTB for over 10 years.

Mr Benn rejected this, saying he had to take public acceptability into account alongside the other three.

He also said the government was very mindful of the findings of the Independent Scientific Group which had showed that badger culling would not meaningfully contribute to controlling the disease.

Making matters worse

It was important the government did not come up with a culling policy that made matters worse.

Elsewhere in his speech Mr Benn stressed the importance of cost and responsibility sharing and said that the new vaccination strategy for bluetongue published on Monday (18 February) showed how government and industry should be working together.

He understood why farmers felt they could not meet the cost of disease control in the current economic climate. But most other industries had to deal with costs that were not their responsibility.

“The £400m a year the government is currently spending on animal disease is simply unsustainable,” said Mr Benn.