Opinion: Badger cull delay is good news for Liberal Democrats

Owen Paterson’s announcement on the delay of the badger cull is good news for badgers and for the Liberal Democrats.

The ill-conceived policy may have had the backing of significant interest groups such as the NFU – Paterson repeatedly acknowledged their efforts in his speech – but it was always going to be difficult to present and ‘sell’ this policy to a nation with a strong affection to its environment and wildlife, especially after the debacle of the proposal to sell off the country’s forests.Combine public opinion with the collected wisdom of some of the country’s leading scientists, including experts on bovine TB such as Bristol University’s Professor John Bourne who chaired the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, opposition became very difficult for the Government to ignore. The cull was described as ‘mindless’ and the science simply made no sense said 31 eminent scientists in an open letter to The Observer. Defra, it appeared, was pursuing a policy in a bid to be doing something, regardless of efficacy or effectiveness.

With a host of celebrities and animal welfare and wildlife charities such as the RSPCA and RSPB opposing the policy, coupled with a survey of Daily Telegraph readers showing 83% opposition among its readers), it was clear the Government had no option than to consider other alternatives.

It is, however, a delay and the Government is likely to pursue alternative strategies which target badgers – as opposed to focus on improving bio-security or pushing forward a cattle TB vaccine. There is, no doubt, that the Secretary of State intends to cull, and cull harder than originally planned when it is re-scheduled for next summer. Let’s not doubt Owen Paterson’s commitment to culling. Remember it was he, in opposition, who tabled 600 PQs on the subject. Given yesterday’s announcement, it is all the more important that the House expresses its view on badger culling in Parliament at the debate on Thursday.

As Liberal Democrats, there is very good reason for us to continue our opposition to the culling of badgers in whatever guise it takes. Following the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilots, it was planned that the cull would have been rolled-out to other areas of the West Country, and that means many Lib Dem constituencies. While we do not know the specifics for a cull next summer, that is surely the model. However you look at it, this was and remains a policy which cannot sit comfortably for many Liberal Democrats and our voters. Moreover, in government Liberal Democrats should be advocating progressive, more sustainable policies such as improved animal husbandry, improved bio-security and vaccination.

Finally, we should recognise the task ahead for incoming Agriculture Minister David Heath who has spent much of the past month familiarising himself with the brief and getting to grips with this and many other thorny issues.  David has inherited a confused policy and stepped into an overstretched government department. The challenge of CAP negotiations and battling bovine TB is not for the faint-hearted. At least there is a reprieve for badgers in the short-term.

* Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He previously managed community and public affairs for an oil company with facilities near In Amenas.

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18 Comments

  • John Leston 24th Oct '12 - 8:58pm

    That will be the David Heath who is a hard-line supporter of the cull, won’t it? He is as culpable as Paterson on this and so, therefore, are the Lib Dems. Continue your opposition? Priceless. Is that how you oppose things, by having one of your Ministers implementing it? Actually, come to think of it there does seem to be a bit of a trend in that direction. Come back and talk about opposing the cull when you’ve got your own leaders sorted out. I am ashamed now ever to have been a member of the Lib Dems.

  • “Combine public opinion with the collected wisdom of some of the country’s leading scientists, including experts on bovine TB such as Bristol University’s Professor John Bourne who chaired the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, opposition became very difficult for the Government to ignore. The cull was described as ‘mindless’ and the science simply made no sense said 31 eminent scientists in an open letter to The Observer. Defra, it appeared, was pursuing a policy in a bid to be doing something, regardless of efficacy or effectiveness.
    With a host of celebrities and animal welfare and wildlife charities such as the RSPCA and RSPB opposing the policy, coupled with a survey of Daily Telegraph readers showing 83% opposition among its readers), it was clear the Government had no option than to consider other alternatives.”

    It’s probably not intentional, but that reads as though it was the celebrities, charities and Daily Telegraph poll that forced the government’s hand, rather than the scientific consensus.

    As there does seem to be a pretty solid scientific consensus against culling, why should the government want to ignore it? Fears of unpopularity?

  • Christopher Shelton 24th Oct '12 - 10:10pm

    John Leston: David Heath, who is a minister, and the author of the above piece, who is not a minister, appear to disagree. What is the problem here? Members of the same party are allowed to disagree, and to try to persuade one another to change their minds, without anyone being a hypocrite.

    The author doesn’t need to “come back and talk about opposing the cull when you’ve got your own leaders sorted out,” because this is Liberal Democrat Voice, a perfectly proper forum for internal debate.

  • Christopher – fair enough. Of course, you are entitled to internal debate. I over-reacted because I stumbled on this piece as a result of a public link and so reacted to it as a communication aimed at people at large. However, even in that context I find two things rather depressing. The first is the positioning of David Heath – the piece implies that he is a poor innocent who has only just taken over minding the shop and so cannot be blamed for the pursuit of this totally mad policy. But he is, I believe, a long-standing supporter of a cull and an enthusiastic accomplice of this botched exercise; it is disingenuous tosuggest that he would oppose it which the piece comes close to doing. Secondly, the suggestion that Lib Dems should be concerned about this policy because it is going to spread into Lib Dem constituencies. No, Lib Dems should be concerned because this is a disgraceful policy. I doubt there was any way back for me to supporting the Lib Dems – sad personally as I spent 30+ years of my life as an activist – but given Heath’s and Clegg’s strong support for this policy I am now certain there is not. I shall be working for safe setts rather than safe seats in the West Country.

  • Will the cull prove conclusively one way or the other whether badgers spread bovine TB?

  • “You may well be right that he is instinctively pro-cull …”

    From what I saw earlier after reading the first comment – with the help of Google – he is very vocally and explicitly pro-cull. What I don’t understand is how, when there is a clear scientific consensus as there seems to be in this case, a poltician feels qualified to defy it.

  • Martin Pierce 25th Oct '12 - 7:52am

    I’m interested to read the comments as I found this article a bit odd when posted. I should start with my own position – which is I will try to view the science objectively, but my default is to give the badgers the benefit of the doubt, I haven’t seen any scientific evidence that proves beyond reasonable doubt that we should kill them. The bit I found a bit odd is that this is in some way a victory for the Lib Dems. Two points – (a) the Lib Dems have managed to be completely unassociated with the announcement this week, so the public would not be able to take from this that it is a Lib Dem policy victory, and (b) what is Lib Dem policy anyway? As a candidate in 2010, we got briefings from Policy Unit about which pledges to sign – some were ‘yes yes yes’ (e.g. er, tuition fees), some were ‘no no no’, some were ‘it’s party policy to agree/disagree but you can go with your conscience’ and others were ‘it’s all very difficult and up to you’. The badger cull one was in the last category. I was quite surprised at the time. Over the last 2 years it hasn’t been a very high profile issue but when it has come up I’ve never seen a Lib Dem position being taken. So whilst this week is definitely a great result for the badgers, it’s not entirely clear how it is one for the Liberal Democrats

  • Nuala Bugeye 25th Oct '12 - 9:50am

    Reply to Alistair

    Will the cull prove badgers spread bTB?

    No, the cull will only prove that at least 70% (and up to 95%) of badgers in a given area can be free-shot within 6 weeks. This is all the pilot was ever intended to prove. The fact the farmers have pulled the cull when the number of badgers became clearer suggests that they know they cannot – and certainly not in a finacially viable way.

    A 10 year culling trial has already proved that killing badgers will not make any meaningful contribution to the fight against bTB. The author of this research Lord Krebs reiterated this point in the Lords on Tuesday, saying that the government had been cherry-picking data and twisting its conclusions to back up their own fatally flawed policy.

  • Alex Matthews 25th Oct '12 - 10:07am

    This is not good news; this is an issue where the truth is that our party has no ground and it is a completely free vote at the moment, with MP’s completely divided over what they think, depending upon their constituency. However, as one of the pro-cull MP’s is a minster and another is the D-PM, the public has decided that the Lib-Dem’s are pro-cull as a party (as shown by John’s outburst) and seeing as 90% of our soft voters are badgers lovers this is, in the words of Mr Blackadder, “A right old mess.” We have made no friends here, and even more unhappy voters.

  • Andrew, I think you are the one being naive here, by suggesting David Heath (albeit a new minister in DEFRA) is naive and new to the issues of badger culling. David has been an MP for I think 15 years, and prior to that a senior County Councillor, including Council Leader, in Somerset. He is perfectly well aware of most , if not all of the issues surrounding bovine TB and possible methods of dealing with it. His area will have suffered and he will have discussed with local farmers, and animal protection people.

  • The evidence was always pretty clear – as regards the cattle bTB problem, badgers are largely irrelevant .

    For proof of this statement all you need do is look at one of the maps of the UK showing the distribution of cattle and badgers (both found almost everywhere), then one showing cattle bTB infected areas (a very few concentrated areas with large swathes of the country untouched).

    A farmer debating with me said most of the cattle bTB problems were re-infections of the same herds; he attributed the problem to badgers but the more likely explanation is that skin tests on those herds did not pick up all the bTB infected cattle, leaving the missed animals to continue spreading infection to other cattle.

    What interests me is:-
    - WHY the badger was targeted for destruction when its role in cattle bTB is both unknown and most probably insignificant; and
    -WH AT are the hidden agendas moti vating the scapegoating of badgers?

    There’s evidence to suggest the main advocates for slaughtering badgers are people with strong pro-hunting, pro-shooting and Countryside Alliance backgrounds (eg Owen Paterson is an ex Master of Foxhounds; Charles Mann master-minding the Gloucestershire cull campaign is / was involved in running the Countryside Alliance and has represented the pro-hunting viewpoint in many press articles).

    There are suggestions (no proof) that one aspect ofany hidden agenda was to gradually remove the legal protection of protected animals. Success in achieving such an agenda would free shooting estates from the increasing probability of prosecution for the unlawful killing of badgers, hawks and even golden eagles (all species deemed to be a threat to the gamebirds raised for shooting).

  • Mr Leston and others, judge us on our principles, and by all means point the finger and/or resign your membership of the party when our policies/actions depart from our principles.

  • My opinion is that it is good news, for the coalition – even though the coalition has ended up with egg on it’s collective face, because effectively egg on the face is probably the end of the bad news. Hopefully now all sides will quietly go away and conduct some real and practical research before re-visiting this matter.

    What is concerning is that there is obviously sufficient food available to support this ‘larger’ than expected badger population, which begs the question as what would be the ‘unforeseen’ side effects of rapidly removing most of the badger population from our countryside…

  • Peter Watson 25th Oct '12 - 5:55pm

    It appears that the party has become closely associated with yet another policy with which members disagree, and the author is suggesting that it is therefore good news for Lib Dems that we are associated with what is now a botched policy with which we disagree. Two wrongs making a right, perhaps?

  • John Leston 25th Oct '12 - 7:42pm

    Peter. You are now in government and I will judge you on your actions not on theoretical principles . Especially if you are saying our Minister is acting in one way but please treat us as if we were doing the complete opposite. I resigned my membership and my Focus delivery round the moment the Special conference overwhelmingly endorsed the coalition . Adrian, thank you for your actions on this. They are much appreciated. However, among those who are most involved in campaigning against the cull I can assure you the view is that the Lib Dems are in favour and so they want nothing to do with the Party. And with the Party Leader and relevant Minister so vehemently supportive of the policy you can hardly blame them. If the Lib Dems want to change perceptions then you need to work to get this nonsense policy abandoned.

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