I find it hard to imagine that the government really believes that its current proposals for a badger cull in England will have much effect on the level of bovine TB in English cattle.
It is equally hard to accept that, in order to sort out what is at least in part a public health matter, it is fair for the government to confine its role to merely ‘licensing and monitoring’, while lumping all the cost and responsibility for the cull onto hard-pressed cattle farmers.
The plan, of course, is to invite farmers in up to 40 TB areas to set up limited badger culling companies and open a joint bank account into which they will deposit enough money to pay for four years’ culling with a ‘contingency sum’ on top. But whether these ‘limited’ companies will enjoy limited liabilities is open to doubt, because it is proposed that farmers will be required by Defra to sign a Section 7 NERC agreement (under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006). Should farmers subsequently drop out of the cull, this agreement will allow Defra to access farmers’ land to complete the cull and then, possibly, access their finances to pay for it.
This thought is disturbing enough, but becomes positively alarming given the difference in what Defra and the NFU estimate it will cost to carry out a cull. The NFU suggests that a 150sq km cull spread over four years could be carried out for as little as £40,000-£50,000. Defra estimates that £1.4 million will be needed to carry out culling/vaccination over 350 sq km.
But who is to say what criteria Natural England will use to judge whether a cull is being carried out effectively or humanely? Who is to say how DEFRA, if called in by Natural England to take over a cull, might choose to conduct that cull or vaccination programme? What might it charge farmers signed up to the culling company that is deemed to have ‘failed’? Who will be the arbiter in such disputes? Will there be a right to a judicial review, or is the signing of the Section 7 NERC by a farmer equivalent to signing an open cheque to DEFRA?
For farmers, all this organisational effort combined with a potentially unknown level of cost might be worth the hassle if the cull offered some realistic hope of halting the spread of the disease across England or significantly reducing the number of cattle becoming infected with TB. Instead, DEFRA suggests that over nine years there will be a paltry 16% decline in the incidence of the disease in cattle within the cull zones.
And, by limiting the cull to a maximum of 40 zones over the next four years, DEFRA will ensure that many zones are likely to be surrounded by areas containing infected badgers where nothing in the way of culling is being done. Unless each cull zone has boundaries that consist of geographic features impregnable to badgers they are likely to be repopulated from non-culled areas.
Two ‘pilot’ culling zones are now proposed for next year, with 38 more to follow, provided there is no successful legal challenge from badger preservationists. I doubt if there is a farmer in England who has been more adversely affected by bovine TB than myself over the past 20 years. But, with eight weeks of stakeholder consultation remaining, Caroline Spelman and Jim Paice still have a lot of questions to answer before I will be interested in taking the unknown level of risk of funding their badger cull as it is currently proposed.
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Stephen Carr runs an 800ha (1,950-acre) sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife, Fizz. A third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.