I have consistently refused to support the proposed badger cull in England despite the fact that I can claim to have been as adversely affected by TB as any beef farmer in Britain.
Those effects have included the testing of 1,300 head of cattle every 60 days for continuous periods of up to five years, cattle movement restrictions on my farm over the same time period and scores of infected cattle removed for compulsory slaughter.
Despite these difficulties I have remained concerned about the “perturbation effect” of culling badgers – where badgers flee a culling zone and infect yet more cattle. I also resent the fact that the cost and organisational responsibility of the proposed cull in England have been foisted on cattle farmers when TB is, in reality, a public health matter and eradication of the disease should rightly fall to the government to organise and fund.
But we have to live with current political and economic realities, so perhaps the increasingly good news that is coming our way from the Republic of Ireland should persuade me to waive my objections to the terms of the proposed English badger cull due to commence next month.
The results of the Irish badger cull are certainly impressive. While the number of cattle slaughtered each year due to TB in England and Wales has sky-rocketed from 8,000 to 38,000 over the past 10 years, in Ireland the number has now fallen from 40,000 to 18,500 over the same period. And all that without any “significant” badger perturbation effect having been observed and without anything like the level of draconian cattle movement restrictions imposed on Irish cattle farmers that have been placed on their English and Welsh counterparts.
But the proposed English cull is very different to the one under way in Ireland. In Ireland, badgers on any farm with more than three cattle infected with TB are snared with wire “stop restraints” and then shot, but badgers cannot be snared in Britain as the practice was banned under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. So, in England, up to 80% of badgers living within carefully selected wider areas will be culled by shooting them in the open. What no one knows, however, is if this untried “free shooting” culling technique will perturb badgers and whether any wounded badgers will escape the cull zone and cause problems in cattle further afield.
Of course, unlike in Ireland, the English badger cull requires farmers to pay for it. Perhaps the most remarkable statistic to emerge from the Irish cull is that in 2012 the government organised and paid for 7,000 badgers to be culled on more than 5% of farmland for less than £4.25m. If English farmers turn out to be reluctant to pay for the badger cull, the government could rue its refusal to fund it. Paying for an effective cull might come to look cheap. About £500m has already been spent on controlling bTB in England over the past decade, both in testing and in compensation to farmers for the hundreds of thousands of cattle that have been slaughtered as reactors.
But the results from Ireland do provide hope that culling badgers can reduce TB in cattle and at the same time avoid badger perturbation. Unfortunately the two pilot cull areas that have been selected for this summer have “hard” physical boundaries that will prevent perturbation, even if badgers attempt to flee the cull zones, so we will be none the wiser about whether the technique passes the perturbation test.
When guns start firing in earnest in Gloucestershire and Somerset next month we will at least learn whether badgers can be culled efficiently and humanely using this method. But it will probably be many years before we learn whether “free shooting” passes the perturbation test and I will have to reserve my support for a nationwide badger cull using the technique until then.
Stephen Carr runs an 800ha sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife Fizz. One-third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.
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