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Fractious badger cull debate yields few answers

Cheshire farmer Phil Latham and Shropshire vet Den Leonard metaphorically entered the lion’s den as they tried to explain why badgers should be culled to control bovine TB (bTB) in front of a hostile audience at the Labour Party Conference.

They were frequently heckled and shouted down with cries of ‘shame’ as they refused to take a backward step in explaining why a cull should be part of a wider strategy to control the disease.

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Labour MP, Dawn Primarolo, even with her experience as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, was unable to keep any semblance of control on the debate, frequently having to halt it to implore audience members to stop shouting and give the speakers some respect.


But she also reprimanded Mr Latham and Mr Leonard for provoking the audience with the strength of their own feelings on the subject.


All smiles after a tense debate on the badger cull. L to r: Den Leonard, Tim Coulson, Phil Latham, Dawn Primaralo, Dominic Dyer, Angela Smith.


The ill-tempered debate, organised by Care for the Wild, the Badger Trust and Fox in Parliament, was, kicked off by Labour’s Shadow Animal Welfare Minister Angela Smith, who said there was ‘no evidence the initial cause of spread of disease was the badger’.


She said Labour would stand by the findings of the £50m Randomised Badger Culling Trial and confirmed it would scrap the two current pilot badger culls ‘immediately’, half way through their intended four year span, if it wins next year’s election.


The Independent Expert Panel had shown the pilots had failed on two of their three criteria in Year One and they were not even being independently monitored in Year Two, she said.


Ms Smith insisted there was ‘an alternative way’ of dealing with the problem, including vaccination and tighter cattle controls.


To rapturous applause, she concluded: “I make one final plea to the Tory Government: Stop now, abandon this policy and do the right thing.”


Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, told the audience, which included a number of people who have joined the ‘badger patrols’ in the cull areas, that the issue was being driven by politics, not science. “We are killing these animals for purely political reasons. It is absolute, utter madness,” he said.


He claimed the policy had ‘severely damaged’ the reputation of the livestock industry, the NFU, the British Veterinary Association and Defra, which he described as a ‘laughing stock’.


Mr Dyer said the pilot cull cost £10m last year but did not work. He reiterated claims by Ms Smith that vaccination and cattle controls offered a viable alternative and said evidence from Wales showed tightening cattle controls can make a big difference to bTB levels in cattle.


He said the cull had galvanised to ‘get off their backsides and protest’, many of which had ‘never seen a badger but know its value’.


Tim Coulson, a former member of the IEP, outlined the panel’s work and suggested it would have been almost impossible for the cull companies to achieve their target of removing 70 per cent of badgers as they only had 70 per cent of the land covered.


When his turn came, Mr Latham began by insisting he was ‘not anti-badger’ to laughs of derision from the audience.


He then showed the audience a moving video from spring 2012 of the day he lost the first chunk of his Cheshire dairy herd to bTB to highlight the ‘devastating’ impact the disease can have on farmers and cattle. Having been clear since 1960, the farm subsequently lost 89 cows in 12 months.


“I cannot emphasise enough how seriously that affected me. The impacts of TB are devastating on our business and emotionally and financially,” he said.


He said his was a ‘closed herd’, at which point Ms Primarolo intervened for the first time as comments were shouted from the floor, and that, looking at all the available data, it was concluded ‘badgers were the most likely suspect for bringing TB into my herd’.


He then showed a slide depicting AHVLA’s home range data, which show how M Bovis genetic spoligotypes of cattle and badgers tend to exist in local clusters.


Snake oil salesmen

Snake oil salesmen

While acknowledging the role played by cattle he said the data showed the ‘cycle of infection’ between cattle and badgers.


In between further interruptions, Mr Latham made it clear he supported tougher cattle controls.


But, citing results from the Cheshire badger survey showing 21 out of 51 badgers tested had TB, he said: “Is it any wonder farmers want the wildlife spread of Tb brought under control. Two species sharing one environment but control measures only in one. You couldn’t make it up.”


He attacked the ‘snake oil salesmen selling the illusion of solutions to the public and selling them as viable alternatives’ to culling, a reference to vaccination. He said the policy’s benefits in badgers are unknown and its cost often prohibitive, while vaccinating in the High Risk Area was a ‘waste of resource’ as it cannot protect badgers that are already infected.


He insisted the science from the RBCT, despite the ‘pathetic attempt at culling’ in the trials, showed culling badgers can reduce bTB levels in cattle, if carried out under certain conditions.


“I believe it is a national disgrace that we are where we are with TB. If you want badgers across the country to have TB then let’s carry on as we are. But if we use culling where appropriate and in a proportionate manner we can get a better and reduce the disease burden,” he said.


After Mr Latham sat down to mix of applause and boos, Mr Leonard took up the case, going through the history and pathology of the disease in a series of slides.


These included maps intended to show how previous culling polices had helped reduce bTB levels and how stopping these policies or reducing their effectiveness had appeared to allow the disease to spread more widely.


He was also heavily critical of the ‘flawed’ RBCT, citing restrictions put on culling and the low number of badgers trapped and suggesting this had subsequently made it harder to implement an effective policy today.


Mr Leonard then provoked the biggest uproar of the day by suggesting opponents of the cull were making the situation worse.


“This bacteria can be controlled relatively well with population controls permitted in the infected species,” he said.


“It is my belief that those people that create and encourage this situation should be held to account for the outcomes of their policies and their advice and opinions.


He added: “They have created a dreadful mess in our wildlife…” at which point he was shouted down with cries of ‘shame on you’, before continuing “… and now those who are going to clear it up for them are being subjected to vitriol and blame for something that could and should have been preventable.”


Cue even louder boos as Mr Leonard retreated to his chair.


From that point on, as the debate moved to contributions from the floor, the biggest challenge for Mr Latham and Mr Leonard was making their voices heard.


At times contributors from the floor were even being heckled as the debate descended into farce and became reminiscent of an unruly early year’s classroom.


One audience member held up a poster of a picture, posted on his Twitter site of Mr Leonard holding a bagged dead badger collected for the Cheshire badger survey.


Others kept calling out the name of a farmer prosecuted for TB rule breaches and a member of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust loudly and repeatedly branded the badger survey ‘flawed’.


The panelists continued to make their respective cases, with the pro-cull speakers, if anything at times appearing to be spurred on by the hostility they were receiving, prompting the warnings from Ms Primarolo, whose imploring for respect from the audience were increasingly being ignored.


It is a shame because the debate was, on the face of it, a good idea. Credit should go to the organisers for trying to bring the two sides together - and to Mr Latham and Mr Leonard for putting their necks on the line on behalf of the industry for a cause they passionately believe in.


But such were the equally strong passions on the other side and the febrile atmosphere in the room that ultimately the debate achieved very little. If anything the two sides left the central Manchester venue, more divided, more hostile to each other and more convinced that their way is the only way.


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