Hilary Benn MP (Labour, Leeds Central) is a former Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2007-2010)
Parliament is today debating the government’s decision in favour of a badger cull following the environment secretary’s announcement this week of a delay until next year.
Many of the arguments are ones familiar to me given that I wrestled with them as the Secretary of State for the Environment prior to taking the decision in 2008 there would not be a cull of badgers.
Some of the facts are agreed. Bovine TB is a terrible disease. It has a huge impact on the farmers affected and they are understandably desperate to find a way out of this nightmare. But we all have a responsibility to take action that will work.
To fight bovine TB, successive governments have implemented controls based on surveillance, testing and the slaughter of reactor cattle. But since the 1980s, the incidence of the disease has increased again – with a significant rise following the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic – although in recent times there have been some signs of levelling off.
The disease is transmitted between cattle, and between cattle and badgers, but what has dominated the debate is whether badger culling could be effective in controlling the disease. The last government decided to try and find out the answer.
The 10-year randomised badger culling trials – the Krebs trials – were overseen by the Independent Scientific Group on cattle TB.
Eleven thousand badgers were killed to discover what impact culling would have. The ISG’s final report, published four years ago, concluded reactive culling – killing badgers in areas where there had been local TB breakdowns – made the problem worse, and proactive culling – which involves taking an area of about 100 sq km and repeatedly culling badgers over a number of years – produced only marginal benefits because although TB was reduced in the area of the cull, it increased outside of the area because of the disturbance and movement of badgers.
While some scientists argue a prolonged cull over even larger areas – some 250 to 300 sq km – could reduce the incidence of bovine TB, the ISG’s judgment was the practicality and cost of delivering a cull on that scale meant badger culling could not “meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB”.
Having listened carefully to a wide range of views from scientists, farmers, veterinary and wildlife organisations, and many others, I decided that a cull was not the right approach. It was a view that has subsequently been endorsed by the Welsh Assembly government and by a group of distinguished scientists who wrote recently to The Observer.
One of the factors I took into account was public acceptability of any cull and the impact of this on whether it could be done. The science is clear that you could end up making the disease worse if a cull was not sustained over time or done ineffectively, and public opposition including protests (which there will be) and the unwillingness of some landowners to take part, would make that more difficult.
And as the reasons behind this week’s delay in the cull make clear, it is very doubtful it is a practical proposition in any case.
It was a difficult decision to take, and I knew farmers would be disappointed and angry. We all want the same thing – to beat this terrible disease – but I had to reach a view about what would be effective, guided by the science and by practicality.
The coalition government’s decision to go ahead with the cull is wrong and tragic. A lot of perfectly healthy badgers will be killed during the cull, although we won’t know exactly how many because no post-mortems are going to be done.
And even if a cull were to achieve a slight reduction in the incidence of bovine TB, that in itself shows it is not the answer to this serious problem. Is anyone seriously suggesting that, having carried out these two trials over the next four or five years, it would be practicable or publicly acceptable to attempt to eradicate up to 70% of the badger population in large swaths of England?
I also regret the fact ministers cancelled five of the six demonstration projects for the injectable badger vaccine which we now have available. Vaccination must be the way forward, along with effective cattle controls that have started to have some impact.
As we know from the very large number of people who have signed the petition against the cull – which has led to today’s Parliamentary debate – passions run very high. As a long-time opponent of fox hunting and a supporter of animal welfare, I share those feelings.
Ministers have a responsibility to take decisions based on the science and on animal welfare grounds, taking full account of the practical consequences that would flow from those decisions. I was convinced in 2008 tha t I took the right decision not to approve a cull, and I am just as convinced today.