“As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of Bovine Tuberculosis” - The Coalition: Our programme for Government (page 18)
The Government is now consulting on its proposal to introduce badger culling as part of its approach to tackle Bovine TB. This part of the Government’s policy is bound to generate both controversy and impassioned debate.
Last year the Government slaughtered over 25,000 cattle because of TB. The control programme costs £63 million. Yet the situation is getting worse.
There is little doubt – and the scientific evidence proves – that badger culling does have, an albeit modest, benefit in Bovine TB control. However, the science also suggests that it is only effective when conducted across very large areas, sustained over many years and implemented by trained staff in a thorough, co-ordinated and synchronous manner.
Against that, any benefits achieved inside the culled areas are partially offset by increased cattle TB in adjoining lands. The independent Scientific Group Study carried out following recommendations by the previous Conservative Government (the proposed Krebs trials) and carried out under the last Labour Government, show that the modest overall benefits of this policy would be likely to be dwarfed by the financial costs (about 3 times greater than the financial benefits) and likely to be exceeded only if post-culling benefits were to persist for long periods of time which the science suggests would be improbable.
Defra estimate that the cost of cage-trapping badgers is £3,800 per square kilometre per annum, therefore culling a typical 150sq km area for five years would cost about £2.14 million (assuming 75% of the land was accessible for culling).
However, the Government proposes to reduce the cost of culling by enabling farmers to either do it themselves or employ trained operators to do it for them – therefore taking on the costs themselves.
In the meantime, the Government has decided to disband five of the six injectable badger vaccine trials which had previously been put in place.
The Liberal Democrats have always taken a pragmatic and evidence based science approach to these very difficult matters. As the Lead for the Party in the House of Commons on Defra matters, I support the Coalition Agreement that any response to this ongoing and worsening problem is science-led and not based on sentimentality towards either cattle or badgers. Whatever decisions are ultimately taken, both in terms of the tools available to the Government and the individual decisions to grant licences for either the use of vaccine or, if it is approved, badger control, the Government must not make the situation worse.
I am no less sentimental about cattle than I am about badgers. An effective TB control policy will be good news for both. Failure to control this will continue to result in a growing and avoidable cattle and wildlife body count in our countryside. It is having a disastrous impact on many livestock farms.
The largest wildlife experiment conducted by a UK Government (i.e. the Krebs Trials) recently concluded that licensing farmers to cull badgers “would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease”. At the same time, the remaining trail of a new badger vaccine continues.
Bovine TB is a massive challenge for Government and for the farming community. Above all, we must not make matters worse.
Andrew George is Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives