The government's proposed slaughter of badgers has resulted in the biggest public outcry about a wildlife issue since the Hunting Act of 2004. While the announcement from the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Owen Paterson on 23 October that the cull will be delayed is welcome, it nevertheless represents the right result for all the wrong reasons.
The delay is not because the government of the United Kingdom listened to the results of a 10-year trial that cost £50 million, nor heard the concerns of many senior scientific experts. Nor is it because of the wishes of more than 160,000 online petition signees and the vast majority of the public who oppose the cull. The thing that finally led to the announced delay was the fact that farmers decided they couldn't afford to foot the bill.
But Mr Paterson continues to insist that he is determined to forge ahead with the massacre come next summer. It begs the question: What has happened to our so-called democratic processes?
The previous government abandoned badger culling as a means of controlling tuberculosis in cattle on the advice of the Independent Scientific Group, which conducted the 10-year, £50 million, Randomised Badger Culling Trial, a trial that was completed in 2007 and remains the only credible source of scientific evidence concerning the role of badgers in the spread of bovine TB. In his overview of the ISG's report, chairman professor John Bourne concluded that "badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain."
In spite of the evidence from the trial, the existing coalition government announced it would pursue a 'science-led policy of badger culling,' and in 2010 quickly organised a public consultation on the issue.
Respondents to the consultation overwhelmingly rejected badger culling. Indeed the idea of a farmer/landowner-led cull, using a combination of 'controlled shooting' and trapping and shooting, received the lowest level of support of the six options the government presented. Every public opinion poll since then confirms that the majority of the public opposes the mass slaughter of badgers. Yet this is the policy the government pursued.
Until now, the government hasn't even seen fit to seek the opinion of parliament on this controversial and divisive policy, and it would still be ignoring parliament were it not for the fact that a public petition on the government's own website attracted more than 163,000 signatures in a short period of time. Further demonstrating just how undemocratic this whole process has been is that even though Members of Parliament rejected the policy, by 147 votes to 28, during a backbench debate on Thursday 25 October, the vote won't be legally binding, so the government will be free to pursue its seemingly obsessive desire to see badgers killed en masse regardless.
It is difficult to understand why the government would pursue a policy which has been roundly discredited, which will make it extremely unpopular, and which will certainly be disastrous for the public image of farmers.
Humane Society International/UK, alongside our partners, is working to bring a permanent end to the misguided plans to cull badgers in England. But unless we can persuade the government to finally abandon this disastrous policy for good, the announced delay may be no more than a stay of execution. The badger, one of our few remaining iconic mammal species which has inhabited these lands far longer than we have, may still be destined to suffer in their tens of thousands in order to save the blushes of a few Ministers and DEFRA officials who are far too closely aligned with the belligerent, misguided and over-influential National Farmers Union.
But this is supposed to be a democracy. Therefore, the government should listen to the majority of the public and scientists who oppose the cull and abandon this disastrous policy for good.