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England's badger cull – is that it?

Where does Owen Paterson’s badger cull policy go from here?
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While the Defra Secretary was keen to present the decision as a sensible pause while the lessons of the Independent Expert Panel are digested, in reality it is a huge blow to him, the NFU and the thousands of farmers around the country banking on a much wider policy of badger control in the near future.

 

There is a scenario where, as Mr Paterson suggests, this is merely a delay.

 

Culling will continue in Somerset and Gloucestershire over the summer or early autumn with changes recommended by the Independent Panel in place.

 

These will include improvements in the way contractors are selected and trained to ensure, in particular, their shooting is more accurate, more use of thermal imagery and steps to ensure culling is spread evenly across the entire cull areas. The setting of numerical targets for removing badgers is also set to be ditched.

 

If this all works well and the improvements help deliver more effective and humane culls, new areas could be licensed next year, leading to wider culling in subsequent years, according to Mr Paterson.

 

This is a sensible delay while the technique is ‘perfected’, he told MPs, his commitment to culling seemingly undimmed. “We are clear that culling needs to be part of the answer as there is no other satisfactory solution available at the moment,” he said.

General Election

But even he will know, deep down, things are unlikely to be that simple. There are already questions about how culling in the pilots will be monitored this year and, therefore, how improvements will be demonstrated and quantified.

 

Then there’s the prospect of the General Election. If all does go according to plan this year, key decisions on the roll out (mark II) will be made in the months running up to next May’s tightly contested election.

 

It take a brave move for David Cameron and Nick Clegg to endorse the roll out, not exactly a sure-fire vote winner, at that time.

 

That is not to say the policy couldn’t be revived post-election, although this would only be a realistic prospect under a Conservative-led administration.

 

Another unknown is how closely the policy is tied to Mr Paterson’s future. Even in the context of a job that covers CAP reform, flooding,

climate change and horsemeat scandals, this policy has come to define his time at Defra.

 

Dating back to his days as a Shadow Defra Minister a decade ago, when he tabled around 600 Parliamentary Questions on the issue of TB and badgers, and throughout his time as Defra Secretary, he has vigorously, at times evangelically, advocated the need to cull badgers to combat TB.

 

If the forthcoming May EU elections go badly for the Conservatives, Mr Cameron may be tempted to reshuffle his Cabinet a year ahead national poll. Few Ministers, including Mr Paterson, would be safe.

 

Whether they arrive this year, post-May 2015 or beyond, there is no guarantee Mr Paterson’s successor will be as keen to promote the policy.

 

The policy isn’t dead but nobody is under any illusion about the task that lies ahead in reviving it.

 

So how did it come to this?

IEP report

Mr Paterson’s plans have been scuppered on two fronts – practicalities and politics.

 

The IEP’s report made it very hard for Mr Paterson to sanction any further roll out. The panel included the pilots had effectively failed on two out of the three criteria they were being monitored on – effectiveness and humaneness.

 

“If culling is continued in the pilot areas, or in the event of roll-out to additional areas, standards of effectiveness and humaneness must be improved,” the report stated.

 

While the option remained of making the changes in Somerset and Gloucestershire and bringing in Dorset this year effectively a third ‘pilot’ for the changed policy, even this was not considered practically or politically feasible in light of the IEP’s clear advice.

 

With Opposition to the policy seemingly be growing among MPs, including in the coalition parties, Mr Paterson could not get it signed off by the Cabinet and coalition, even though Prime Minister David Cameron had been supportive in the past.

 

Mr Clegg, in particular, was keen to take maximum credit for his role in halting the policy.

Hospital pass

Delivering the two pilot culls has proved fiendishly difficult.The reality is the way they were constructed meant they were almost designed to fail.

 

The pilots were necessary because controlled shooting, introduced on the now questionable basis off cost and practicality, had never been tried before.

 

It is easy to forget that when the policy was given the green light by Caroline Spelman in October 2011, the original intention was for two pilots in 2012 and then up 10 new areas a year from 2013.

 

By the end of this year, there were meant to be up to 22 areas operating simultaneously. There will be two.

 

The contrast with Ireland, where has Government-led culling has been a central part of a TB policy that has a dramatic reduction in reactor numbers, is telling.

 

In England, the farming industry has been given the ultimate hospital pass and asked to deliver and fund this hugely controversial policy off its own back. That it has been able to do so, even so far, is massive credit to the NFU and the farmers and contractors involved .

 

Then there have been the hoops to jump through – farmers have been asked to kill a percentage of what has turned out to be an unknown number of badgers, over 70 per cent of large remote areas, using an untried method and freshy-hired contractors, while ensuring 95 per cent of badgers die within five minutes.

 

All in the presence of hundreds of protestors intent on stopping them night after night and, in some cases, in the face of threats and intimidation – against the backdrop of a high profile media campaign against the policy and the ever-present threat of legal challenge.

Too onerous

The conditions, as laid out, have simply been too onerous for the farmer-led companies to meet to the satisfaction of the cull monitors.

 

These conditions have been shaped to an extent by the desire to ensure badgers are culled as humanely as possibly, an essential part of any cull policy.

 

But the rules and regulations have also been shaped by the conclusions of the Independent Scientific Group in 2007 on its analysis of the 10-year badger culling trial.

 

Jim Paice and Caroline Spelman and then Mr Paterson have been forced to construct a policy that meets the ISG’s criteria, for example, its minimum area size, recommendations on numbers of badgers removed and timing of culls.

 

The fear was that if any policy strayed from the ISG’s mantra, it would be struck down in the courts.

 

Mr Paterson’s forced climb down on the roll out is a consequence of the flaws inherent in the pilot cull policy, which could still, despite the damning verdict of the IEP, deliver disease benefits in the cull areas.

 

It is not an acceptance that badger culling can’t play a significant role in reducing TB levels in cattle.

 

Mr Paterson continues to make reference to progress made in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US and, above all, Ireland, where there are rules and regulations around badger culling but they have not proved be as restrictive as those that have strangled the English pilots.

Conditions

But the conditions in the UK are different, of course, and not just in the fields and farmyards where the M. Bovis bacterium continues to be spread between badgers and cattle, but also politically.

 

The events of this week raise the question of whether a badger cull policy could ever be re-shaped – whether this year or in future with new rules, new governance, new technology such as PCR and new methods, like gassing - that are acceptable legally and politically (beyond certain members of the Royal family) in England.

 

Despair

Despair

Meanwhile, farmers continue to look on at the political, media and to, an extent, scientific establishment with disbelief, bordering on despair.

 

More than 30 areas had submitted ‘expressions of interest’ to Natural England about becoming future cull areas.

 

In Dorset, in particular, and areas of Devon and Cornwall, huge amount of work at considerable cost had gone into preparing to become new areas, despite all the problems associated with last year’s pilots – a sign of the determination to address one of farming’s biggest sores.

 

There was still the belief Dorset might get the green light right up to day of the announcement. Many farmers around the country will be feeling very let down. Mr Paterson is right to remind everyone that his 25-year strategy is about much more than badger culling.

 

There will be new cattle controls, badger vaccination and more costs passed onto farmers.

 

The problem is, as Defra went around the country consulting farmers and vets on the draft strategy last year, the same messages kept coming back, particularly in the heavily infected areas.

 

Yes, they said, we will accept more cattle controls and a higher share of the costs on the condition that badger culling is rolled out as a national policy and in a way that is practical and affordable to implement.

 

Otherwise, they insisted time after time, there is little point engaging in other elements of the strategy, as one of the main sources of infection will still be out there, free to infect cattle.

 

That viewpoint is unlikely to have changed after Thursday’s announcement.

 

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