The new Conservative Government intends to push on with rolling out badger culls across England using controlled shooting, despite the concerns of the veterinary profession, according to Farming Minister George Eustice.
In an interview with Farmers Guardian, Mr Eustice confirmed the four-year pilot culls would continue in Gloucestershire and Somerset this year but said no decisions had been taken yet on the timing or possible locations for wider roll out.
Mr Eustice, who has returned to Defra in good spirits on the back of an increased majority in his Cornwall constituency and a new title of Minister of State, said the Somerset pilot had so far ‘proved this approach can work and can be a success’.
“We have been very clear wider roll out is part of our 25-year TB eradication strategy and we do need to tackle the reservoir of disease in the wildlife population if we are serious about eradicating this disease,” he said.
The support of vets is seen as important as the Government sets about implementing its TB strategy. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) recently reiterated its support for further badger culling but only on the condition it was done using caged traps only.
It said the first two years of culling had not demonstrated conclusively controlled shooting can be carried out effectively and humanely, based on the criteria that were set for the pilots.
Mr Eustice said he did not agree with the BVA’s position. “The Independent Expert Panel (IEP) did conclude humane shooting could be a humane way for killing badgers. It is also used as a method of controlling all sorts of wildlife, such as foxes and deer.
“I am interested in what they say and welcome they support culling as part of a coherent strategy but I am not persuaded on what they had to say on controlled shooting.”
The NFU has asked Defra to look at simplifying some of the conditions around the badger cull to make it more viable for farmers in new areas. Mr Eustice said: “If we are going to roll this out, as part of a 25-year strategy, we are going look seriously if there are improvement to be made.
Any proposed rule changes are likely to require consultation, raising further questions about the prospect of new licences being issued this year.
“You have got to keep your eye on the consequences of any changes you could make. The NFU has made some suggestions and these will all be weighed in the normal way but it is too early make any clear decisions,” Mr Eustice said.
Mr Eustice said the Government would work with the industry as an ‘early priority’ to develop a ‘long-term coherent strategy to grow and expand a profitable British food farming industry’.
This will cover areas like developing the Agri-tech strategy, looking at new markets, import substitution, developing more processing capacity in this country.
“This is something the NFU has been calling for and we will work with them, and other organisations, like the Food and Drink Federation, to implement that strategy,” he said.
He insisted while many of the issues covered by the strategy would be ‘industry-led’ the Government could play a major in coordinating it and through smart use of rural development funds, supporting skills and training and the Food Enterprise Zones (FEZ) currently being piloted in England.
The Cornish MP said he hoped farmers would also see the benefit ‘early in this Parliament’ of another key election pledge, the introduction of a single farm inspection body and a more risk-based approach to inspections.
“We have already done quite a lot of detailed work on this before the election, looking at inspection regimes and including local authorities and Government agencies.
“We want to remove some of the duplication so farmers don’t get repeated inspections from different agencies by joining the inspections up. We want to make sure we are targeting inspections where the greatest risk exists but also, where possible, do several inspections simultaneously on one day rather than repeatedly.
He said Defra was already developing a tool internally to support the risk-based inspection approach.
One of the big uncertainties associated with the election of a Conservative Government is the UK’s future in Europe, with a referendum looming possibly as early as 2016.
Mr Eustice said he said he was confident Prime Minister David Cameron would successfully negotiate a better deal for the UK and the public would vote to stay in Europe. He refuted the suggestion the referendum posed a threat to the stability of the farming industry.
“I want to stay in a reformed Europe. As politicians we all have to face elections every five years. You have to be confident in elections in having open debate. I don’t accept the arguments some people force forward that there is a danger we might get an outcome we don’t like and it is therefore better to stifle any democratic discussion,” he said.
“You have got to ultimately put your confidence in the public to make the right decision on this.
“My person view I am very confident we can get a successful re-negotiation with powers returned to the UK and new direction for the EU in other areas.”
He stressed the importance of access to the single market and customs union for British business, especially agriculture, but said farmers would also welcome greater flexibility in key areas like the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
But, pressed on the very real prospect that it could all result in the UK leaving the EU, he pointed out there were ‘lots of countries around the world with successful agricultural policies not in the EU’. “So it is possible but my preference is to stay in the EU but a reformed one.”
In parallel with the negotiations on Europe he said another priority for Defra would be to negotiate a ‘far simpler and more flexible’ CAP. Even though the current is only just bedding in, he said it would not be long until negotiations on the post 2020 CAP were underway.
“It is a real opportunity for us to reform the CAP in a positive way for farmers and come up with a simpler policy, rather than the incomprehensible list of rules and regulations we have now which farmers find very hard to cope with,” he said.
A much more immediate priority for the new Defra Ministerial team, however, will be trying to ensure the smooth delivery of the Basic Payment scheme in England in the wake of the troubled application process.
For a start, the NFU is urging Defra to ensure sufficient resources are in place to cope with the extra burdens on the Rural Payments Agency, including inputting mapping data.
Mr Eustice said Defra had already made additional staff available ‘to help RPA cope with the workload the largely paper-based system entails’.
But he turned the issue around, saying the ‘ball is now in farmers’ court’ and urged farmers to get their applications in ‘as soon as possible’ ahead of the June 15 deadline. “If you don’t get them in time, you won’t be paid. We will be providing as much support as we can. Anyone who has not got the paperwork they need should contact RPA as a matter of urgency," he said.