Forestry fallout could scupper badger cull

The people of Wales have spoken and, for now, they want “brock” left alone – or at least so says newly elected Welsh Assembly Government environment minister, John Griffiths.

Labour promised a “science-led” approach towards badger culling in its manifesto for May’s Welsh Assembly election. With Labour now governing on its own, instead of a cull in Pembrokeshire they have promised a “review of the science” by yet another panel of “independent” experts, led by yet another professor, who is expected to deliver yet another report “in the autumn”.

Mr Griffiths has denied that he is kicking the issue into the long grass, which is fair enough because “hoofing the issue clear out of the stands” would be a fairer description. And one person who will not be thanking him for that – even less than Welsh cattle farmers – is his counterpart at Westminster, DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman. She must have been wondering what on earth to do with the politically toxic issue of a badger cull ever since the coalition took office. How she also must have been hoping that the Welsh Assembly would press ahead with its own cull. That would have provided a useful trial-run for the inevitable legal challenges from the legions of well-organised badger protectionist organisations. It would also have drawn much of the initial political flack and press interest before she gave the go-ahead for similar action in parts of England.

But the withdrawal of the prospect of a Welsh badger cull any time soon has thrown the spotlight firmly on Mrs Spelman. There must be times when she wished that her sidekick, farm minister Jim Paice, had not been quite so bullish in the run-up to last year’s general election. Mr Paice continually emphasised a commitment to a cull, suggesting at one point that, if elected, he would “get on with it almost immediately”.

But a key characteristic of this government has been its willingness to run away from unpopular policies that are not essential to its main priority of tackling the public spending deficit.

We have seen the coalition already abandon prison sentencing reform, NHS reform and, most spectacularly of all, the proposed forestry “sell-off”.

And it is the political fallout of the forestry debacle that surely now threatens to scupper an English badger cull.

Mrs Spelman is regarded as having been seriously damaged by what many saw as her insensitive management of that issue and, with a recent BBC poll indicating that nearly two-thirds of voters are opposed to culling badgers to control bTB, she will need all her courage to license a cull.

In an interview at the Cereals event, Mr Paice told Farmers Weekly that the Government will make an announcement in July about an English badger cull. He said: “If, and it has to be an if, there is a decision to go ahead with a badger cull, we know full well that there will be a judicial review – the Badger Trust has confirmed that – and we then need to go through some further stages.”

He was also keen to point out that because it was already past the time of year for culling this year, nothing could happen until at least the summer of 2012.

Pressed as to whether there was support in the cabinet for a cull, he said: “This would be a decision of government and cabinet. The decision has not been made yet,” adding that he was still “working through a number of the big challenges that have been laid down during the consultation period.”

It certainly sounds like enough potential delays and get out clauses to suit his boss’s requirements.

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.

Stephen Carr

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