Richard North, 01/09/2013  

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It might seem provocative to suggest that Joanna Lumley, Felicity Kendal, Dame Judi Dench and various BBC presenters are happy to see tens of thousands of badgers dying long and painful deaths from a horrible disease, and are equally happy to see hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds disappearing from large tracts of Britain’s countryside. 

Thus writes Booker, telling us that these are some of the consequences of that explosion that has taken place in our badger population since the 1980s and 1990s, when controlling their numbers was banned in response to pressure from the "animal rights" movement of which these people are such vociferous supporters – not to mention the despair of those thousands of farmers who have had to watch the slaughter of 305,000 of their cattle, at a cost to taxpayers of £500 million, because their herds have succumbed to TB, much of it passed on by infected badgers.

In fact, neither side in the great "badger cull debate" is entirely right or entirely wrong. What the protesters don't like to admit is that, until 30 years ago, Britain had all but eliminated the scourge of TB in cattle by ruthlessly controlling badger numbers.

But since this was progressively made illegal, our badger population has multiplied to such an extent that nature has introduced its own form of control, through that growing epidemic of TB that condemns so many of them to an extremely unpleasant death, reducing them to a pitiful state that the protesters would not like to see shown on film because it contrasts so starkly with those delightful pictures of a healthy Mr Brock that are better suited to their propaganda purposes.

The growing pressure this over-population has imposed on their food supplies has also had a devastating effect on the other forms of wildlife omnivorous badgers like to eat, from hedgehogs and bumblebees to ground-nesting skylarks.

The other fact the campaigners like to keep quiet about, although it is one our very well-informed Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, tries to make whenever he can – as on Tuesday's Today programme, when he was up against Evan Davis excitably putting the case for the protesters – is that wherever in the world countries have managed to eradicate or significantly reduce the ravages of TB in cattle, they have only done so by drastically controlling its main wildlife reservoirs: New Zealand possums, Australian buffalo, German deer, Irish badgers. In France this year alone, the authorities have carried out badger culls to halt no fewer than 78 TB outbreaks in cattle, with scarcely a chirp of protest.

Where our British campaigners are partly right, however, is in claiming that the kind of culls by shooting alone that are now being piloted in the West Country are "unscientific" and "will not work". They point to the "failure" of the so-called "Krebs trials" carried out under our last government (while ignoring the much more methodical badger-culling trials in Ireland, which in Donegal cut the incidence of TB in cattle by 96 percent).

But apart from the commonly heard argument that those Krebs trials were "designed to fail" (which indeed they were), it is true that shooting badgers, however expertly, can only be a very partial solution to the problem, as Mr Paterson well knows. The shooting trials are only intended to confirm the methodology.

This, of course, is why he repeatedly insists that the ultimate answer must lie, first, in developing much more efficient DNA testing to identify those badger setts which are genuinely infected; and, second, in looking at other methods of killing infected badgers more efficiently and humanely.

No one would argue for a return to the use of cyanide poisoning, banned in 1984 because it resulted in badgers dying a death just as unpleasant in its own way as that from TB itself. But the "euthanasia" of infected setts by gassing should not be ruled out (and could arguably be permitted under both the Bern Convention and the 1996 Protection of Badgers Act, which both allow the killing of sick animals for humane reasons). One way or another, this disease has brought about a catastrophe for which a solution must be found.

As Mr Paterson says, he wants to see "healthy cattle living alongside healthy badgers". If that day could come, no one would benefit more than those other forms of wildlife for whom cuddly Mr Brock has become their most deadly enemy. If our animal rights fanatics could see those parts of the wider picture they like to ignore, we might have a rather more rational and enlightening debate.


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