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Private Eye

Muckspreader 21 June 2005

The great bovine TB crisis is rapidly becoming the biggest scandal in British agriculture. The number of cattle herds going down wth the disease has soared this year by a further 30 percent, Within a few years, it seems that in large parts of the west country, from Cornwall to Gloucestershire, every single herd will be under a restriction order, making it impossible for farmers to earn a living. The bill to taxpayers, for compensating those farmers whose infected animals must be slaughtered, is well on course to hit Defra’s own estimated total of £2 billion within nine years.

The evidence is now overwhelming that the cause of the TB epidemic in cattle is TB in Britain’s exploding badger population. Equally overwhelming, since the ‘Irish study’, is the evidence that the only effective way to halt the epidemic would be a cull of infectious badgers. The number of vets who have signed the famous letter to that effect, addressed to Margaret Beckett (aka Rosa Klebb), has now risen to 420, including some of the most respected veterinary scientists in the country.

The response of Beckett and her little minion Ben Bradshaw has been to give a convincing imitation of a pair of frightened jellies. They are terrified by the outcry which would follow from the animal rights lobby if they followed the vets’ advice, not least thanks to that £1million ‘bung’ the Labour Party was given by the Political Animal Lobby in 1997.

But it would be a mistake to think that Rosa and Baby Ben have done nothing in the face of this disaster. On the contrary, they have done all they can - to avoid confronting it. Even this, however, is now developing a nasty habit of rebounding in their faces. For a start they set up a committee, the so-called Pre-Movement Testing Stakeholder group, to look into pretty well everything except the possibility of culling sick badgers. The committee duly came up with the kind of blandly meaningless report Defra were looking for. What they hadn’t counted on was that one committee, member, Truro livestock auctioneer Ben Messer-Bennetts, would break cover when the farce was over and protest very loudly that the whole exercise had been a stitch up. All Defra wanted, he said, was a committee packed with ’yes’ men to sit there and rubber stamp its proposals. The result was a ‘sham’, which would be ‘hugely damaging for the livestock industry’ but ‘in the absence of a targeted cull’ would do little to stop the spread of TB. ‘I believe farmers have been let down very badly’, he stormed.

Even greater embarrassment, however, has engulfed Defra’s other attempt at displacement activity, a three-year plan to investigate the possibility of vaccinating not cattle but badgers. Apart from the tacit admission that it is badgers which are the cause of the problem, the rug has already been pulled from under this plan by none other than Defra’s favourite TB expert Professor John Bourne. There has now resurfaced a report from a committee chaired by Bourne as recently as 2003, which poured withering scorn on the value of vaccinating badgers. At best, said Bourne’s report, vaccination could only offer a 70 percent success rate, making it virtually useless. ‘Researchers’ it went on, ‘have been looking for a better vaccine since the 1920s, and failed’. The only effective strategy, Bourne advised, was a cull. ‘Dead badgers‘ he concluded, ‘don’t spread disease’. When even their most trusted ally lets them down like this, can Rosa and Ben hold out much longer?