With Labour making it clear it would abandon the policy if it won the General Election next year, Farming Minister George Eustice insisted the Government’s commitment to the policy had not wavered following Owen Paterson’s sacking as Defra Secretary.
“There is no change of policy whatsoever with the new Secretary of State (Elizabeth Truss) coming in,” he said.
“She is as clear as Owen was that, if we want to tackle the disease, we have got to have a cull policy as part of a broader strategy that also includes improving cattle movements and vaccination.
“This is the clear advice we got from leading vets and our chief scientist.”
But in an interview with Farmers Guardian, he acknowledged next year’s General Election did create uncertainty over the policy – and hinted there was unlikely to be any firm decision on the cull roll out until the May 7 election was over.
“There is a General Election next year and who knows what could come after that. There is nothing the current Government could do to bind the hands of a successor Government.
“We disagree with the Labour Party about the long-term solution. But I hope between now and the election they give this issue more consideration so we can have cross-party consensus and sustain the policy over a sufficient period.”
Mr Eustice was talking primarily about Labour’s position, but there is also ongoing discussion within his own party about the policy. He was unable to guarantee the badger cull will be in the Conservative manifesto.
The Cornish MP said improvements had been put in place in Somerset and Gloucestershire in terms of how contractors were trained, ensuring wider coverage in the cull areas, and, following discussions with police, how the presence of protestors is addressed.
This followed the recommendations of the Independent Panel of Experts, which concluded the pilots had failed to meet their criteria for humaneness and effectiveness last year.
Mr Eustice said the impact of thees changes made to the pilots this year would have to be assessed first.
“We have to take one step at a time. At the end of these culls we will publish the data related to them and at that point will announce our point of view on what the next steps should be,” he said.
He added, had the first year of the policy ‘gone well’, the Government would have liked to have rolled the policy out to new areas this year.
“We thought the right thing to do, given the concerns raised by the independent expert panel, was to get the two existing culls right and improve the methodology before we rolled it out into new areas.”
Asked if he expected to see badger culling in the Conservative manifesto, NFU president Meurig Raymond said the NFU ‘would like to see’ the TB Eradication Strategy, which includes badger culling in heavily infected areas, ‘cemented into Government policy’ before the election.
But he said even if there was no firm decision on roll out before the election, there would still be time to commence culls in the autumn of 2015 if they were subsequently given the green light.
The areas in question would be able to prepare for the policy while final the decision was under consideration, he said.
Shadow Farming Minister Huw Irranca-Davies told opponents of the badger cull in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on Monday, his party would ‘defeat TB without mass culling’.
His speech did not go into detail about Labour’s plans for the pilot culls, which are licensed to run for four years in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
But asked on Twitter if this meant cancelling the pilots, he said simply: “Yes.”
Mr Irranca-Davies said the pilots were a ‘precursor to 40 widespread culls in the years which lie ahead’.
He said: “The next General Election will determine whether widespread mass-culling of badgers takes place across the countryside for many years to come; culls based on two chaotic pilots last year which were a catastrophic, unscientific and costly failure.
“Labour will do things differently and more effectively, working with farmers and wildlife groups and others to turn around and eradicate bovine TB.”
He said the experience in Wales – based on cattle measures, including annual cattle-testing, combined with vaccination of badgers – had shown ‘there is another way’.
But Mr Eustice said opponents of culling were reading too much into what was happening Wales, where TB levels have halved over the past five years.
He pointed out badger vaccination was only taking place over a very small area and that TB levels were also falling in England, where the tightening of cattle measures appeared to be having an effect.
“Our point is that on its own that will never be enough,” he said.
“We have always been clear we have broad strategy that includes improving cattle movement controls and deployment of badger vaccine in the edge area. But we are also clear we must cull infected wildlife in these TB hotspots.”
The Cornwall MP defended the decision not to deploy independent monitoring this year, saying it was never intended to be in place in year two and that the relevant data would be collected and interpreted by AHVLA and Natural England staff on the ground.