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.