Spelman’s hat-trick of Defra disasters

With the forests sell-off, the handling of wild animals in circuses and now an ill thought-out badger cull Caroline Spelman has shot herself in the foot three times.

Mary Creagh is the shadow environment secretary

Bovine TB is a terrible disease. Last year alone 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England at a cost of £90 million to the taxpayer in testing and compensation for farmers. In hotspot areas like the South West, the toll on farmers and the rural community is immense.

This is why Labour in government set up the 10-year Randomised Badger Cull Trial (RBCT) to examine the effects of culling badgers, protecting cattle and reducing the transmission of bovine TB.

The final report (pdf) of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) which oversaw the study stated:

“…the reductions in cattle TB incidence achieved by repeated badger culling were not sustained in the long term after culling ended and did not offset the financial costs of culling.

“These results… suggest that badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain.”

Labour’s approach in government was – and continues to be – led by this science. The government’s decision to cull is driven by short-term political calculation. One of their first acts on coming to power was to cancel five of Labour’s six trials into a vaccine for badger TB.

Why did they not give those vaccine trials a chance to work? The government has announced a one-year trial of free shooting of badgers. Free shooting has not been tested anywhere and may not be a humane method. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that between 50,000 to 90,000 badgers will be culled over the four-year period.

The costs to farmers will exceed the benefits and could even spread bovine TB in the short term as badgers move out of culling areas. So there is no scientific basis for the cull and it may not be effective and could make matters worse.

Professor John Bourne, and six other members of the Independent Scientific Group, wrote (£) to the Times on July 13th to state:

“…there are no empirical data on the cost or effectiveness (or indeed humaneness or safety) of controlling badgers by shooting, which has been illegal for decades.”

There are also public order concerns with a badger cull. The government’s Impact Assessment (pdf) estimates the extra police needed to deal with protesters against the cull will cost £200,000 a year. Defra will take on this extra cost even though the department has been cut by 30 per cent. It is likely that armed police will be required to police any protests as the people carrying out the cull will be carrying guns.

All this extra strain at a time when Devon and Cornwall police will lose 700 officers over the next 4 years. The coalition agreement promised farmers a science-led approach on bovine TB. With these proposals the government has turned their back on the science. The environment secretary has achieved the almost impossible.

With the forests sell-off, her inept handling of wild animals in circuses and now an ill thought-out badger cull she has shot herself in the foot not once but three times. A hat trick unmatched by any other minister.

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