Farmers Weekly quizzes Brian May on bovine TB

As one of the fiercest critics of the pilot badger cull Queen guitarist Brian May won’t win a popularity contest with farmers.


He has had plenty of publicity on TV and in the newspapers over the past few days, to the frustration of many farmers.


So why would Farmers Weekly, a magazine that has backed badger culling as part of a package of measures to tackle TB for many years, be interested in hearing his views?


The truth is that there have been many times when we have read articles featuring the Queen guitarist and felt claims have been made which needed challenging.


FW also believes that the industry is at its strongest when it is prepared to listen, learn and confront opponents like Mr May. We may not agree with his views, but he is someone with the profile and financial clout to make his voice heard. Named as a vice-president of the RSPCA only last week, his influence is growing.


Farmers Weekly editor Jane King invited Mr May to meet to explore his views further and to challenge some of his assumptions.


The answers below are the highlights of the interview.The short video accompanying it gives a flavour of what turned out to be a robust exchange of views during the 45-minute conversation.



 



Why did you first get involved in action to block badger culling?


I think discussion is great – even in the direst of circumstances people should talk. I don’t like this business of campaigning but feel that animals are not correctly treated. Our attitude is wrong in the way we treat the rest of the creatures on this planet. We have the assumption that human beings are the only important species. We have more or less eradicated most of the other creatures. The only ones we have kept on are the ones we can exploit for food and amusement. We are covering more and more of this planet with concrete. The part that isn’t is farming and there is very little room left for wildlife. There is nobody in government who speaks on behalf of wildlife.


There is compelling evidence that badgers transmit infection to cattle. Do you accept we do have a problem with bovine TB and that badgers are part of the problem?


Badgers are part of the problem and cows are part of the problem but the problem stems from farming and spills over into wildlife. Bovine TB has been endemic in cows for hundreds of years. Most of the transport of the disease is still cow to cow. Badgers may play a small part but they are an innocent party, because it came from cows in the first place.


Last year we saw more than 26,000 cows slaughtered due to bovine TB alone. Why are you happy to accept the culling of cattle and not the culling of badgers?


I am not accepting the culling of cattle. I would be vaccinating badgers and cows given the choice. Vaccination is the only long term cure, culling is not a short or long term cure. We should be putting all our resources into vaccination. We are not allowed to because of European regulations. Yet we vaccinate our children.


When a badger contracts bovine TB it suffers weakness, fever, loss of appetite and lesions to its organs. Surely it is more humane to end its suffering rather than leave it to spread the disease to other badgers and cattle?


Don’t pretend that this cull is about being nice to badgers. Give me a break. This cull is not good for badgers – very few badgers were infected to begin with. If badgers have the disease, it’s impossible to tell they have it. They have a certain amount of natural immunity and they function normally. You guys wouldn’t care if every badger was suffering and sick. This is about cows, money and industry. Badgers left alone would deal with this. We are talking about cows and people’s livelihoods. We have a terrible problem and something has to be done but the something is not culling. All the scientific evidence will tell you that.


We accept that the ISG report concludes that “culling badgers would have no meaningful effect on bovine TB”. But the same report also admits the results could be far better when culling in a co-ordinated and sustained way for a minimum of four years in an area protected by suitable boundaries. Why aren’t you prepared to see if it will work?


I do not accept it will work. You portray it as some kind of experiment and that’s not the case. What do you think you will prove by doing this? You will wait 10 years and hopefully, possibly by putting boundaries on the cull zone, you might achieve a 16% (reduction). This is not science. The experiments have been done. 11,000 badgers died in the ISG experiment, which was an impartial experiment.


To put this into perspective, we have something like over 50,000 badgers killed on Britain’s roads each year. Why is a targeted cull not seen as a fair and reasonable given the scale of the problem?


Do you really want to talk about this? Do you really think all those badgers on the road are killed by cars? A lot of people in the West Country, who rescue animals, tell me nine out of 10 of those badgers have been shot, poisoned or snared and they have been killed and thrown on the road. Culling is going on autonomously by farmers.


We don’t have any evidence to support that.


I can probably gather the evidence. Culling is going on autonomously by farmers. Not all farmers but certain farmers are taking the law into their own hands.


No farmer in Britain wants to slaughter healthy badgers. They care about British wildlife. Why do you have such a negative view?


Some farmers care. What we are saying is this cull is a wrong turn and will damage badgers and the relationship of the farming community with Britain It will not solve your problem.


But why are you so anti-farming?


I am not anti-farming. Of course I sympathise. I don’t think you realise how much time I spent with farmers. We had a working group with farmers and got together and met for months tot try to find common ground. Ultimately we failed. Steve Jones, a dairy farmer, spoke at our rally and he is vehemently against the cull. He believes it’s a problem that starts at the birth of the cows and they become vulnerable to TB because they are stressed and their immune system is suppressed.


Do you honestly think government and leading scientists would support a pilot cull if they didn’t genuinely believe infected badgers were part of the problem?


It’s one of my ethical problems. We have a bunch of people in DEFRA who have been told to find evidence to support a cull. The people who are in power decided they were going to cull long before any of this happened. Before they were in power they did a public consultation in which they discovered most of the public were against it. They completely ignored that.


MAY IN A MINUTE


Brian May CBE may be well known as a musician but he is also an astrophysicist, activist and charity worker.

He has set up a lobby group Save Me (named after a song he wrote with Queen), which campaigns for the protection of all animals. He is also involved with the Team Badger coalition.


Mr May says he would rather be remembered for his animal rights work than for his music or science. He believes in discussion and says he is keen to engage with the farming industry on these issues.


If we do nothing about this and don’t try and tackle infected badgers, it could cost the British taxpayer as much as £1bn in the next 10 years. Is that acceptable given the state of the economy?


I am a taxpayer and concerned at the cost. The cull cannot wipe out TB. The best it can possibly do even on these absurdly optimistic estimates is it could make the situation worse because of perturbation.


Have you been on a farm affected by bovine TB and what was your impression?


Yes, I have been on Jan Rowe’s farm [Gloucestershire farmer and NFU TB spokesman] and I have the greatest respect for him and sympathy for what he’s going through. His basic tenet is he watched his farm and he watched infection coming up the valley and striking. It is an assumption. It is not proved. Even if it were true, all the science tells you that culling will not work.


TB is being seen in other species, including deer and alpacas, which have no contact with cattle. How do you explain that?


They have all been infected by cows.


It feels like you are in denial about the scale of the problem for British agriculture. Your view is as though farming is set in aspic – an old fashioned view.


There’s an old saying: what’s the definition of an idiot. It is the person who keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different result. You are trying to find more and more ways to carry on doing what you have been doing for a long time. If I was a farmer in a known TB hotspot, why would I bring cows into the world knowing they are going to get sick? And why ask the taxpayer to fund it. Do your cow farming where there is no danger to cows. Farming is resistant to change.


It sounds like you are guilty of what you accuse farmers of. You don’t seem very receptive to change or willing to compromise to try a small-scale pilot. Isn’t that unreasonable of you?


I don’t want a single badger to be killed. We have already tried this; 11,000 already killed. Culling on random scales has not worked.


What next for your campaign given that the Badger Trust trial to continue to oppose the cull got rejected yet again?


I kind of expected to lose it because it was a procedural appeal. If you look at websites and national polls 95% of the public are against the cull. You have an enormous backlash from the general public who won’t stand for this bloodshed. We will continue to speak and publicise there will be a pretty massive campaign in the next few weeks. I am changing. I have been a peacemaker. I have resisted the calls from people to ban milk etc. But I tell you I am changing in the end you run out of peaceful weapons. I will always take a peaceful approach but the day that first shot is fired legally against the badger I will never drink another drop of milk again unless I know that milk comes from a farm that treats animals humanely. You guys have done a great job at getting your point across and you have government on your side. We are a very small voice. We have to get every man, woman and child on to know what’s going on.


As a celebrity you value your privacy. How then can you justify supporting organisations that list the names and home address of employees involved through their job in organizing the pilot cull? Aren’t you putting people’s safety at risk?


I am against that and I have said so. It was irresponsible and wasn’t done with my approval.


We have world-class farmers in Britain. You are inferring the majority of livestock producers do not operate humanely with their animals. Why do you have such a poor view of farming welfare and environmental practices?


No, I will be supporting humane farmers in the future. I have been trying to support the whole farming community. You don’t think so but I have. Some take a responsible view and those are the farmers I will support. People will not want to drink milk if the price of it is killing off our wildlife. I will stop drinking milk until I think I am drinking it from a humanely farmed source and that’s a big step for me. If the price of my bottle of milk, is the death of thousands of innocent wild creatures, it will not be done in my name. I believe you are condoning cruelty and backing out of your responsibilities to get your house in order. Badgers are part of the problem but this is not their fault. Killing them is not going to solve your problem. You can kill every badger in this country, and you may end up doing that and you will still have a problem with bovine TB in this country. I believe you will be damaging British farming


You said you would rather be remembered for your work with animals than your music or achievements in science. Tell us about that?


It’s a calling and so central to the core of what being a human being is. We have already exterminated almost all the rest of the creatures on this planet and the cost to us as well as to them is enormous. We have created a sterile, horrible environment. We have covered our cities in concrete. The little bits that are green we are going to cover with plastic. We have no respect or understanding for the fact we are gradually taking away every means that wildlife has to exist. We are destroying our environment and eating away at the branch we are sitting on. In the end, we will have no wild animals. Only animals in cages that are being bred for food. It is a pitiful situation to look at.


The majority of people in Britain still eat meat and farmers have a crucial role in feeding the public. Do you want us to end up importing food – that could be the end result if we end up with a reduced national herd?


I don’t think its right to eat animals. I want to see farmers producing vegetables because I eat vegetables. That’s my personal view. What will kill farming is not moving forward and not being responsible. Forget culling because it is going to lead you down a terribly destructive road.


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