DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman must be congratulating herself. She’s met the coalition governments’s pre-election commitment to “carry out” a badger cull in England but foisted the cost and – more significantly – the public relations disaster of doing so onto farmers.
Now it won’t be DEFRA officials who are filmed scurrying about the woods with rifles dragging “badger body bags” behind them, but balaclava-clad farmers and their paid contractors.
How much harassment farmers are likely to experience in the two pilot cull zones next autumn only time will tell. But the government is taking no chances, with the Home Office insisting that any cull be delayed until after the London Olympics, should large numbers of police be required to protect those carrying out the cull.
The Association of Chief Police Officers estimates the cost of policing each cull zone will be £500,000 a year and our farming minsiter Jim Paice has helpfully announced that it will not be possible to keep culling zones a secret.
In the early 1980s, I lived next door to a camp of 100 badger cull saboteurs for a year during the infamous so-called “Battle of Folkington”. MAFF (now DEFRA) was attempting to conduct a bTB badger cull in my parish, and experienced the destruction of its liveried Land Rovers, verbal intimidation of its staff and the theft of most of its traps to the point where the cull was eventually abandoned.
At the same time, although my farm machinery, hay and straw stacks were all vulnerable to vandalism or arson, they suffered no damage and I stayed on civil terms with the saboteurs. When they stopped me in my tractor or Land Rover, I never varied from the mantra: “Nothing to do with me, guv, this is a public health matter and it’s MAFF’s duty to implement it.”
BTB has dominated my farming life. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and, rather than waste time counting sheep, try to count up how much bTB has cost me over the 30 years I’ve been farming.
At points, I’ve had 1,300 head of cattle under bTB movement restrictions and 60-day rolling testing for continuous periods of up to five years. So am I being lily-livered when I say that I have no intention of taking part? I hope I’d be the first to stand firm in the face of any degree of intimidation from animal rights campaigners if I thought this cull would do any good. I’d put up with neighbours’ disapproval who, of course, won’t resort to torching my barn or sending me excrement through the letter box but might think twice about exchanging a friendly word in the pub.
But if I’m going to be a social pariah I’ll have to be convinced that the cull amounts to something more than a token gesture on the part of cynical politicians who have thrown this sop to desperate English cattle farmers who wish to see “something done”.
Even if the culling reduces cattle bTB infections in cull zones more than the pathetic 16% over nine years that is predicted, the government has stated that it has no plans to roll the cull out over England’s bTB-infected badger area. Instead we are offered culls in up to 40 zones, if enough farmers come forward to pay for them – a drop in the ocean of infectivity that now stretches across the whole of the South West and much of the West of England.
Thanks, Ms Spelman, but desperate as I am to see the back of bTB, I certainly won’t be signing up to this one.
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.
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