This week heralded an all too familiar event in the UK Parliament - a House of Commons debate on the badger cull. With the second year of culling having very recently completed, politicians and animal lovers alike are eagerly awaiting the news of just how many badgers were killed over the last six weeks in Gloucestershire and Somerset.
The debate in Westminster Hall was opened by anti-cull advocate Chris Williamson MP with the words "we really shouldn't be having this conversation." I couldn't agree more. Last year's culls were described as "a catastrophic failure" by the Chief Scientific Officer of Natural England (a Government body), as both "ineffective and inhumane" by the Government-commissioned Independent Expert Panel (the IEP), and generally as an epic waste of money, resources and badgers' lives by all leading independent scientific experts.
Throughout the debate, which aimed to discuss the assessment of the Year Two cull results, we heard the same old lines from the same old people - that the cull was all about saving the poor badgers from a terrible illness (despite the fact that in 2013, a report into the Welsh Government's Badger Vaccination Project showed that out of almost 1,200 badgers caught to be vaccinated last year, not a single one was showing any visible signs of disease), that killing possums in New Zealand (a non-native species) was somehow identical to killing badgers in England (a native and protected species), and that the cost of bovine TB could rise to £1bn over the next decade. Only the latter may be true, which is why it is integral that the Government, pressured by the National Farmers Union (NFU), puts an end to this pointless, scientifically void, and toxic policy and works with charities like IFAW to put in place sensible policies and practical solutions that actually help badgers, cattle and farmers alike.
Against the cull, we heard from Anne Main MP that she initially voted yes to the cull, but had the confidence to change her stance when she learnt the facts, and that her constituents had completely lost confidence in the Government's management of the bTB issue, we heard from Caroline Lucas MP that it seemed that rather than listen to scientific advice, the Government was actually seemingly trying to "close down" scientific evidence, and we heard from Tracey Crouch MP that the cull policy was based on "bad science and encouraged perturbation", and that the Government, her own Party, had changed the methodology in measuring badger populations again and again - almost to suit their needs.
On the other side of the argument we heard from Roger Williams MP, who was quick to announce his memberships of the NFU and the Countryside Land and Business Association (CLA), that bTB was a zoonotic disease (a disease that normally exists in animals but that can infect humans) and that there was a real public health risk if we didn't tackle it. He didn't mention though that the slaughtered 'reactors' (that's the cattle that test positive for bTB) end up unlabelled in the food chain without treatment once visible lesions have been detected and cut out, against the advice of the Food Standards Agency. We heard from Neil Parish MP that there had been a dramatic rise in the numbers of cattle testing positive for bTB since the early 1990s, but he failed to mention that most of this is due to the restocking of untested cattle following the foot and mouth crisis at the beginning of the same period, and we heard from George Eustace MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, that all was well in cull world, that the Government is now analysing data from this round of culling and that the results will be published shortly.
At IFAW we are not alone in supporting the common sense approach to managing bTB - better testing, enhanced bio-security and badger vaccination. This works....fact! Even excluding the recent vaccination programme, already in Wales we've seen a 48% drop in cattle being slaughtered as a result of bTB, in Northern Ireland we've seen the same, and pre-cull in England stricter bio-security measures have led to a 13% drop since 2013.
We know there is no silver bullet to solve this issue, but we also know that all the cull is doing is pointlessly destroying our native badgers, alienating the public and offering false hope to farmers. Let's hope that the new Secretary of State, Liz Truss can find the strength to be true to her word, having recently mentioned that she believes in scientific evidence and that as a nation we start to lead on, as Maria Eagle MP so eloquently put it at the debate, "evidence based policy rather than policy based evidence." Until then we'll keep fighting against the cull.
To find out more about IFAW's work to protect badgers and other animals, and what you can do to help, visit www.ifaw.org