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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Will a dead badger become the new symbol of devolution in Wales?

On Friday I was circulated the copy of a stock letter to be sent out by Welsh Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians with regards to the Labour-Plaid Cymru's proposed attempt to control bovine TB by culling badgers.

The letter stressed that, 'the Welsh Liberal Democrats support an integrated approach to tackling TB which involves the identification, containment and eradication of this disease, with the long term aim of eradicating Bovine TB through the use of vaccines. In light of this I welcome the commitment by the Welsh Assembly Government to pursue a programme for the eradication of TB in Wales.'

It then goes on to set out a number of reasons why the author of that letter believes that a cull is necessary concluding:

While thousands of cattle are killed each year due to TB, the control of badgers has so far remained unchecked and the spread of this disease is currently rising at a rate of 18% per annum. An integrated approach is therefore crucial to facilitate the eventual eradication of this devastating disease. The Assembly Government programme will commence with a one-off test of all herds in Wales to identify and remove all infected cattle. This will take place in line with the establishment of a single pilot area which has been identified as a TB hotspot for a targeted cull of badgers.

I understand that culling wild animals is a deeply emotive topic, however I do not see that my support for this programme compromises my passion for the environment or for Welsh wildlife. Over 23,000 cattle were slaughtered last year across the UK due to TB and infected badgers suffer a slow and painful death due to the insidious and chronic inflammatory nature of this disease. My compassion for our environment must also be balanced with my compassion for people and for farmers in Wales who have suffered deeply when the disease has touched them.

Let us be clear on this and I am going to shout it just to make sure people hear me, IT IS NOT THE POLICY OF THE WELSH LIBERAL DEMOCRATS TO SUPPORT A CULL OF BADGERS SO AS TO PREVENT THE SPREAD OF BOVINE TB. That is because we have not debated it, we have not voted on it and because such a policy is utter nonsense. I will not be using this stock letter.

Up until now I have let those who have been advocating such a policy have their say without publicly seeking to contradict them. I have done so because I believed that they were letting off steam, representing the views of a significant minority of their constituents but that no rational government would take them seriously and give into their demands. I realise now that this was a mistake and although I expressed my dissent privately I regret not opposing their view publicly as well.

On Tuesday we will be voting on an incredible proposal put forward by the Rural Affairs Minister that there should be a trial cull of badgers in an area of Wales yet to be determined so as to evidence its effect on bovine TB. I will be voting against that motion.

My reasons for doing so are many but chiefly it is because such a trial is contrary to the weight of the scientific evidence, which suggests that its impact will be limited at best and that it will make things worse in other areas of Wales. The Badger Trust have produced a useful document on this which can be found here.

They say that Northern Ireland had a similar rate of bovine TB to Wales just four years ago, but has virtually halved it without killing a single badger. In contrast, over the same period, the Republic of Ireland has exterminated thousands of badgers and failed to dent its massive bovine TB problem, even though badgers are now virtually extinct in livestock areas.

The Independent Scientific Group in England carried out a ten year study, which included trials of badger culling. They concluded that culling could make no meaningful contribution to bovine TB control. Their research has been published in international, peer-reviewed journals and the authors had analysed in detail, every possible culling option before reaching their conclusion.

The Badger Trust say that 'the Randomised Badger Culling Trial in England took ten years, cost at least £50 million, was statistically robust and provides every possible piece of scientific evidence that might be obtained by killing badgers. Killing badgers in Wales will make no contribution to the body of scientific knowledge that already exists. Indeed, the (Assembly) Sub-Committee did not even bother to state what questions it thought more badger killing might answer.'

A word on terminology here. The dictionary definition of cull indicates that it refers to killing animals so as to reduce or limit their number. In this case what is being proposed is not a cull at all but a mass extermination of a protected species across a designated area, forcing badgers into other areas even though they do not tend to roam about much by nature, and as such causing any disease in those animals to spread to the 'non-cull area'.

The Badger Trust say that the current high incidence of bovine TB in Wales can largely be attributed to the lack of controls when farmers restocked after the last foot and mouth outbreak. They say that bovine TB had actually stabilised in 2000, prior to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease a year later. Since then, the number of reactors has fluctuated dramatically but increased steadily:

After foot and mouth disease, bovine TB went through the roof. The increase of 144% between 2001 and 2002 is immense. But in 2001 foot and mouth restrictions greatly reduced the number of TB tests, so the colossal increase of 177% between 2000 and 2002 is more accurate. This increase occurred because the Government caved into farming union pressure and allowed farmers to move untested cattle all over the country. This spectacularly stupid concession has cost tax payers millions in compensation payments to farmers who bought the disease onto their own farms. The NFU claimed the decision by the Government as a 'victory’. Badger populations did not increase by 177% at that time. Nor did they increase by 19% between 2006 and 2007.

We are now faced with a proposal from the One Wales Government that has been cobbled together so as to appease the farming lobby by trying to show that the politicians are doing something, even if that is ineffective. And yet as the Badger Trust point out there are examples of good practice elsewhere that may have a significant impact on this disease and ironically it is set out in the Rural Affairs Sub Committee's own report as well:

Northern Ireland has virtually halved its TB problem through better testing and monitoring of the disease:

• ‘The ability of farmers, vets and officials to access the information on individual animals in real time appears to have contributed greatly to identifying the type and location of the disease quickly and putting in measures to prevent its spread.’

• ‘The evidence we heard from Northern Ireland led us to the opinion that a regime of annual testing, funded by the government could significantly contribute to the control of TB.’

• ‘We also believe that, as in Northern Ireland, there have to be stringent controls to ensure that the annual testing regime is adhered to throughout the industry.’

There is a lot more but I want to conclude by returning to the Welsh Liberal Democrats' own 'stock letter'. That letter says that the Welsh Liberal Democrats support an integrated approach to tackling TB which involves the identification, containment and eradication of this disease, with the long term aim of eradicating Bovine TB through the use of vaccines.

That is at least a sensible way forward. Let us not ruin that approach by succumbing to the pressure of rural lobby groups. Let us reject as a way forward the barbaric destruction of protected wildlife against all the evidence in the hope of winning a few votes from beseiged farmers. We are in danger of bringing devolution into disrepute unless we vote against the motion on Tuesday.
I was brought up on a smallholding. My wife was born and bred on a large dairy farm. Many in her family were real farmers. Most of my closest personal friends are serious farmers. Their holdings are assets worth millions of £ pounds. A large new single tractor today can today cost £60,000. Many of the younger farmers go to college after leaving school. So these people are serious professional business operators who are food producers not hobbyists or dreaming politicians. This week I have made it my business to talk to many real farmers I know about this sad badger cull. None of the farmers have a lot of sympathy with the poor old badgers, as they say that cross infection with TB amongst Cattle ; wild deer and badgers is a fact. They talk frequently to highly qualified veterinary surgeons. They and the Vets do not blame the poor old badgers. They blame the politicians for a number of reasons. (a) Not running full screening until recently; (b) allowing restocking after foot & mouth decimation by allowing mass movements of cattle around the nation to restock the emptied culled farms; (c) the closure of all the small local slaughter houses that has led to mass animal movements and (d) the immense trade in moving live "store" cattle from poorer pasture areas to finish off fattening to kill in richer pasture areas. The fault they say is the Screening Failures of the recent past and especially the Mass Movement contiinuously of live stock on the hoof carrying infections. Another Foot & mouth epidemic could occurany time. They say there is no doubt it is aggravated and continued by badgers (and wild deer even starlings are accused). They say that the mass killing of badgers will lower the TB statistics a bit, but by no significant levels. The problem is the culture of mass movement. They also say screening is so expensive because it is done by very costly Veterinary Surgeons and is really a simple job that could be done by specially trained and far cheaper Laboratory Tecnichians thus extending screening to a better maximum. In the meantime poor old Brock Badger has little sympathy but also not much blame attached to him.
Please, please do not let there be a badger cull in Wales. The overwhelming majority of people here are against it. It will come to blows if it goes ahead. The farming community seem unaware of the huge opposition that is building up. If badger removal cannot be proven to have a major effect on the incidence of bTB, then it is a "senseless slaughter" and cannot be justified. As the previous comment says, the problem has been increased by the many failures of politicians and farming policies.
The Welsh Assembly Government's recent decision to slaughter badgers and give their representatives unprecedented powers of entry onto private property to carry this out against the will of the landowner may be the start of the end for the Welsh Assembly. Until now I have not had an opinion for or against the assembly but their handling of the TB fiasco is naive to say the least. Their actions will do nothing to appease farmers but I believe it will set the mind of the nation against the Assembly for not listening to the majority as a true democratic government should do.
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