The Labour Party's announcement that they want the government to review its decision to cull badgers suggests the animals' fate is about to become a political spat. It's an issue that's been bubbling under the surface for several months, but in Wales it's already proved highly divisive. George Sandeman Reports:
The measure favoured by farmers to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis is to shoot badgers, which spread the disease. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, infected and subsequently slaughtered cattle cost the country £90 million last year. But the shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh is urging her counterpart Caroline Spelman to rethink the government's strategy and look at alternatives to shooting as a method of control. Questions are being raised over whether the government will have to again perform an embarrassing U-turn as it did with its proposals to sell off parts of English forest earlier this year.
The Badger Trust, which instead advocates the use of vaccines, told the Huffington Post UK: "Scientists, rather than some politicians or the farming industry, have repeatedly shown that culling badgers could make the spread of bovine tuberculosis worse and at best it would have only a marginal benefit."
The Trust points to a 10 year study carried out by the previous Labour government [PDF], which concluded that a cull would be 'unlikely to contribute effectively'.
This all comes after the Labour-led Welsh Assembly decided to review its culling policy in June, following elections in which they promised a "science-led" approach to the issue in their manifesto. However in June the environment secretary Caroline Spelman told the Commons she would allow farmers in the West of England to proceed with the cull. The decision received relatively little attention at the time, due to the media's attention being focused on the unfolding saga of phone hacking allegations at the News of the World.
Outlining their position, president of the National Farmers Union Peter Kendall said: "Sometimes we have to do what is unpopular because we know it is right." He added: "We understand there will be some people who are unhappy at today’s decision and we take those views very seriously. But we believe that no-one wants to have a situation where we have long-term infection and diseased animals in our countryside and on our farms."
The Government's decision to lift the long-standing ban comes much to the disappointment of animal rights activists, who believe oral vaccinations for both cattle and badgers would be both more humane and effective. However, the cost of the vaccines is proving to be a major stumbling block to their implementation.
The government claims the culling of badgers by guns would be self-funded by the farming community who would hire trained marksmen to target the nocturnal badger.
There are also doubts as to whether Labour fully understand issues specifically affecting the countryside given their position in government was one to employ a very limited 10 year culling trial. The NFU commented on this saying: "Not taking action is no longer an option and [this new] Government has recognised that."
On both sides there is a universal call for a short and long-term balanced approach. After the July culling decision, The Countryside Alliance said: "Culling trials carried out in the UK and Republic of Ireland over the past three decades have demonstrated that culling, if carried out effectively, can reduce TB [instances] in cattle herds. This must, however, be done in conjunction with increased cattle controls and effective biosecurity.”
This is a point echoed by Caroline Spelman, who says: "We are working hard to develop a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine, but a usable and approved cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine are much further away than we thought and we can't say with any certainty if and when they will be ready. We simply can't afford to keep waiting."
Polling by the BBC showed that 63% of people opposed culling as a way of preventing the spread of bovine TB whilst 31% were in favour with the remainder undecided. Meanwhile, the NFU commissioned an independent survey in which it claimed that the majority of people supported a legal badger cull, once the respondents better understood the TB issue.