The recent decision to postpone plans for a pilot cull of badgers this autumn was very difficult but also pragmatic and responsible. A combination of bad weather, limited time before the start of a closed period for culling and a significant increase in the estimated badger populations in the two pilot areas all conspired to put plans on hold for this year.
In spite of this setback, the farming industry and the government’s commitment to a targeted cull of badgers to tackle the spread of bovine tuberculosis is unswerving. TB is a horrendous disease that brings untold misery on farming families across south and west England and Wales.
Last year, the taxpayer paid out in excess of £100m to farmers for the 34,000 cattle that were needlessly slaughtered after contracting the disease. The disease is out of control and spreading, posing an ever greater threat to livestock and dairy farmers across the country.
” Tackling bovine TB matters both for companies and consumers”
How the disease is spread and how it can be controlled are complicated matters, but it is clear that the disease is not only spread between cattle but between wildlife, primarily badgers, and cattle as well.
At the moment, attempts to bear down on the disease are purely focused on cattle: testing for infection, culling infected animals and movement controls. In effect, we are trying to deal with the problem with one hand tied behind our backs.
Culling badgers is bound to be a highly charged, emotive issue given the strong sentimental attachment to the species. The reality is that no one, not even farmers, wants to have to kill badgers. But there is no alternative. The science demonstrates that under the right conditions, culling wildlife can be effective as part of a package of measures to control and then eradicate TB. No other country has got on top of the disease without simultaneously tackling it in wildlife.
Some argue that vaccination presents an alternative strategy. They are wrong. It has a role to play in a long-term control and eradication policy, but you cannot vaccinate infected animals. There is no licensed vaccine for cattle and no orally available vaccine for badgers. Widespread vaccination of badgers is simply a non-starter.
The grocery industry’s commitment to supporting the delivery of government policy is vital. Farmers need to have the confidence that their customers recognise the necessity of eradicating TB and are prepared to stand behind them as they take the difficult yet necessary steps to root out the disease.
Supermarkets are right to stand up to the antics of campaign groups and to challenge intimidation in all its forms. We applaud those companies that have gone out of their way in supporting government policy.
But it is also in the supply chain’s interest that we tackle TB to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of livestock and dairy farming in large parts of the country. Tackling the disease matters both for the companies that depend on the food produced by these farms and for consumers who demand high-quality, home-produced fresh meat and dairy products.
Tom Hind is director of corporate affairs at the NFU