TB or not TB
By Melissa Kite
This is the story of a political row arousing terrible passions on all sides. It involves parliamentary dirty tricks and claims of lobbying behind closed doors. It will cost the taxpayer £90 million this year and hundreds of hours of government time.
But this is not about Iraq, the state of the National Health Service or the asylum system. This is about badgers.
To wildlife lovers, badgers are adorable creatures to be protected at all costs. To farmers, they are a dangerous menace, responsible for transmitting bovine tuberculosis through cattle herds. In the middle, the Government stands accused of failing to halt the disease by ordering a cull, raising suspicions among farmers that New Labour is in league with the animal rights groups which gave the party a £1 million donation before it came to power in 1997.
For badger novices, a brief history: until Labour came to power farmers were allowed to cull them, under licences issued in line with the 1973 Badgers Act. The Protection of Badgers Act in 1992 outlawed badger-baiting, but allowed the licence scheme to continue. Farmers claim that during this time TB in Britain's dairy herds was almost nonexistent. When Labour came to power, farmers reported a drying up of licences, an effective policy change undertaken without legislation.
Since then the creatures have tripled in number to well over half a million. Badger TB is rife, and in some areas of the country the disease has reached critical proportions in cattle. Since 1999 more than 44,000 cattle have been slaughtered, while the incidence is rising by 20 per cent a year, with four per cent of the national herd affected. Compensation and testing this year will cost £90 million. Farmers say the solution is to cull the badgers again.
But badger lovers pick over acres of disputed tests to cast doubt on the farmers' claim that culling badgers ever did, or ever will, bring TB under control.
In 1997 Professor John Krebs, a government scientist, said there seemed to be a strong link between TB in badgers and cattle. Ministers commissioned him to set up a series of trials, including a random culling. Unfortunately, in one of the trials 57 per cent of the traps were tampered with and 12 per cent stolen. In some trials, only 30 per cent of badgers were killed.
Not surprisingly, then, there is evidence from the trials that partial culling led to a wider spread of TB as badgers who escaped the cull relocated elsewhere. But when badgers were completely eliminated from a hotspot area, in the Thornbury experiment in Avon in the 1970s, TB disappeared for 10 years.
The Godfray report, published last month by the eminent scientist Professor Charles Godfray, recommended "that policy is based on the assumption that badgers are involved in disease transmission". In recent Commons answers, Government scientists calculate that cattle would need to inhale less than 0.03ml of badger urine on grass to become infected. Yet ministers refuse to use the provision in the Tories' 1992 Act to issue the culling licences to farmers.
Last week Ben Bradshaw, the animal health minister, appeared before a committee of MPs and said the policy was to wait for more research. But farmers say they cannot wait; many are leaving the dairy industry and there is anecdotal evidence of desperate farmers taking the law into their own hands. Sales of paracetamol have soared in the South-West, with some farmers claiming it is common practice to stuff the tablets into doughnuts or apples before rolling them down into badger setts.
Any badgers that eat the bait can be left dying in agony for hours. There are also reports of shootings in the night. One farmer who refuses to resort to such drastic measures is Tony Yewdall, who has lost 75 Guernsey milking cows to TB - a quarter of the herd that he has been breeding for 20 years. "Some farmers are doing something about it, but I feel it's wrong that we are having to break the law to solve our problem when the law is an ass in this case," Mr Yewdall said.
Instead he must sit and watch as diseased badgers forage on his land. He has applied twice for a licence to cull them but has been refused. In a letter earlier this year Mr Bradshaw told him: "I am unable to depart from the policy for any cases except in truly exceptional circumstances."
But Mr Yewdall asks what constitutes an exceptional case, if not his? "Our livelihood is at stake," he said. "Farmers are in a despair that they don't know how to get out of. It is a helpless feeling. There is talk of whole herds being slaughtered. But we are not going to agree to it. If we could be allowed to keep the badgers away, I feel we might survive."
The Devon farmer believes that ministers are too frightened of a sentimental public backlash to take action. "When I sent my cows away for slaughter there was no fuss," he said. "Two of them were in calf. If it had been 75 badgers being killed, I would have had half the population of Devon and Cornwall down here. But this is because people aren't being given the facts. The British public are more sensible than ministers give them credit for."
He points out that there is no shortage of badgers and that culls in hotspots would hardly make them an endangered species.
The badger groups say culling is unnecessary, accusing the farmers of bad husbandry and failing to use proper fencing to keep the creatures out. "It is not a case of us being the fluffy bunny brigade," Elaine King, the chairman of the National Federation of Badger Groups, insists. "The scientific evidence has tended to show that culling badgers will not control TB in cattle. Even if it does have some effect, it is probably not cost-effective."
Dr King, who has a PhD in bovine TB, said: "Badgers are a symbol of the British countryside. We have had them since the Ice Age."
The row has given rise to two competing visions of rural Britain - with farmers wanting to protect their livestock as they see fit, and wildlife lovers staking their claim to the creatures who roam our countryside. "I think badgers are a pawn," said Dr King.
"This is a row about farming economics. I think a lot of farmers have been threatened by the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] and other European reforms designed to protect the environment. The TB issue is a convenient outlet. There is a wider campaign being waged by intensive rural industries."
The sense of conspiracy has made ministers cagey. When this newspaper rang Mr Bradshaw for comment, the line echoed strangely. "You're on speakerphone. I've got my advisers listening in," he said.
Mr Bradshaw admitted that the debate was hopelessly polarised. "As far as farmers are concerned the argument symbolises a kind of townie anthropomorphism by animal welfare organisations and the wider public towards some wild animals," he said. "On the other side the badger protection groups see the farmers attitude as primitive and unscientific."
Does the Government share this view? "I think the vast majority of farmers welcome wildlife protection. They accept that, given that there is such a large public subsidy, the public have a right to a say in how wildlife is managed."
Does he share the views of the wildlife groups that badgers are adorable? "They are our biggest mammal. They are a much-loved part of nature and they have been killed and persecuted in the past. But I'm not an anthropomorphist. I'm not squeamish about killing anything, but I would only want to go down that route if it was based on science. The difficulty with TB and the role of badgers is that there has been an assumption that they are to blame. I suspect cattle-to-cattle transmission is more significant."
Still, is it not at least a coincidence that Mr Bradshaw has come down in favour of all the snags in the testing that bear out the views of the animal rights lobby and not the clear statements by experts which incriminate the badger? The mere suggestion that Mr Bradshaw may have been unduly influenced by the animal rights lobby provokes a strong reaction. "I entirely refute that accusation and I would be grateful if anyone could provide any evidence that I have been biased in one way or another since I have been in this job," he said.
The suspicions may have been fuelled by Mr Bradshaw's appearances at League Against Cruel Sports events. He spoke at its fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in 2003 and posed with members at their stands. When the League was banned from taking a stall at the Devon County Show in 1998, Mr Bradshaw, who is MP for Exeter, boycotted the event, telling the organisers: "You are preventing free speech. As a matter of principle it would be inappropriate for me to attend this year's show."
Then there is that £1 million donation from the Political Animal Lobby (PAL) to Labour before the 1997 election. The group donated a further £100,000 after the election and £47,000 during the 2001 campaign.
Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, and Elliot Morley, the agriculture minister, have also met animal rights campaigners at Labour conference events. Mr Morley hosted a Commons reception for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, which set up PAL.
Farmers claim that there is a catastrophic cosiness between ministers and badger campaigners. It is certainly true that when Mr Bradshaw left the committee last week after giving evidence, he nodded at the badger protection groups at the back of the room. One of the badger group members remarked to another: "That was good for us, wasn't it? He was as clear as mud."
Also at the session, perched in a discreet alcove, was Owen Paterson, the Conservative agriculture spokesman, who has tabled 500 parliamentary questions on bovine TB, making himself about as welcome in a roomful of ministers as a badger in a cattlefield. Ministers complain that he is wasting their time, but his questions have turned up much of the information about the scale and nature of the current problem.
When he attempted to table 328 questions in one day, he was blocked by the Speaker, sparking a row that ended with them being accepted in four batches. Mr Paterson, who points out that he is the only person in the debate to have kept pet badgers as a child, said: "We are heading towards spending £2 billion not curing TB over the next 10 years. Unless they get a grip on this disease, we won't have a dairy industry, we won't have a beef industry.
"Since 1997 the Labour government has adopted a new policy of refusing to issue licences, effectively repealing key sections of legislation without consulting parliament. It is also a fact that Labour has received more than £1 million from PAL.
"I have asked the government for scientific justification for this change in policy, which they have so far not given. Until I get that evidence I find it hard to believe that there is not a connection between the donation and the change in policy."
He said Mr Bradshaw's evidence to the committee bore out suspicions of a link. "It was anti-farmer. The whole session was focused on getting farmers to increase their security. There was no serious discussion of badgers. There is this feeling that 'we are not going to talk about the badgers'."
Austin Mitchell, a Labour member on the committee, made a similar observation after listening to two hours of evidence. "What happens to the accused, who seems to have left the court without a stain on his character? I'm talking of the badgers."
As James Herriot would have said, if only they could talk.
7 April 2004: £25m badger cull study 'too slow' 5 November 2003: Badger cull halted over spread of TB 19 February 2003: Badgers face cull in attempt to halt bovine TB crisis