Will the badger cull cost the Tories the election? It certainly should!

| 16th March 2015
The voice of the people? Protester on the People's Assembly March Against Austerity 2014. Photo: The Weekly Bull via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
The voice of the people? Protester on the People's Assembly March Against Austerity 2014. Photo: The Weekly Bull via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
David Cameron has called the badger cull is 'probably the most unpopular policy for which I am responsible', writes Dominic Dyer. But unable to break his pledge to landowners and the NFU, he has left Environment Secretary Liz Truss to fudge the issue until election time. Electorally fatal? So events may prove.
Despite the catastrophic failure of his badger cull policy the Prime Minister is holding on to the wreckage for his political life and he will keep playing the badger blame game.

We are now just under 50 days from a general election and the badger cull issue has taken centre stage in a wider debate about wildlife protection and animal welfare, which could help decide the outcome.

The Labour Party have even put the badger on the front of their wildlife protection and animal welfare manifesto, as they make a clear election commitment to stop both the pilot culls and a wider national roll out of the policy should they form a Government.

With a recent MORI poll showing that badger culling was the 5th most common issue of complaint to MPs in 2014, both MP's and prospective candidates know the disastrous policy is political poison on the door step during the election campaign. However, David Cameron is now stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to killing badgers.

Despite recently telling first time voters on Sky News that the badger cull is "probably the most unpopular policy for which I am responsible", he cannot afford to lose the votes - and money - of landowners and farmers by dumping the policy this side of the election.

The answer? Easy! Let Liz Truss take the flak

So he's playing for time by letting his Environment Secretary Liz Truss hold out the possibility of an extension of the policy should the Tories form another Government after 7th May, without making any concrete commitment on how this will be achieved.

On 3rd March after almost six months of avoidance and delay and a personal intervention from the Prime Minister, Liz Truss finally sat down with members of the Badger Trust Board to have a frank and open discussion on the badger cull policy.

Just how sensitive the badger cull issue has become was clear from the start, when Liz Truss suggested our discussions should remain private and off the record. This request was ludicrous in view of the level of public interest in our meeting and the fact that both the BBC and ITV News were waiting on the steps of DEFRA's offices, to interview me the minute I left the building.

The meeting did not deliver any surprise U-turn on killing badgers, but it was noticeable how lacking in confidence and isolated the Secretary of State appeared when it came to defending the disastrous cull policy.

Despite trotting out the now familiar statements about following the advice of her Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens, on the need to control the spread of TB in wildlife as well as cattle, it was clear her heart was not really in it.

Nigel Gibbens, the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer, was also very noticeable by his absence from the meeting, which sent a clear message that he is unwilling to enter into any further political controversy on the failed culling policy, this side of the General Election.

Policy in paralysis

Despite the catastrophic failure of his badger cull policy the Prime Minister is holding on to the wreckage for his political life and he will keep playing the badger blame game.

And despite statements made at the NFU annual conference a few weeks week before, the Secretary of State was unable to give any clear commitment on a national roll out of the policy should the Conservatives form a Government after 7th May.

Bold statements from her predecessor about a 25-year cull rolled out to 40 new areas of England by 2020 were not repeated. With over £15 million being spent on just 2 years of culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire alone, this came as no great surprise.

The fact that Natural England are also considering revoking the Gloucestershire cull licence due to major failures in meeting cull targets, is also no doubt causing a major political headache for the Secretary of State.

The NFU sense the Government is losing its appetite for badger culling and this explains why their President Meurig Raymond, was willing to risk the reputation of the NFU by backing claims by livestock vet Roger Blowey that culling badgers in Gloucestershire has significantly lowered TB in cattle, without any supporting independent scientific evidence.

These claims fly in the face of public statements from Nigel Gibbens, that any lowering of TB rates in cattle is down to tightening of cattle TB testing and movement controls, not badger culling or vaccination.

Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Institute of Zoology has also joined the fray, pointing out in a letter to the Journal Veterinary Record (7th March 2015) a number of methodological flaws in the study that the "highlight the difficulties of drawing any conclusions whatsoever from such as small and non-systematic study."

And in the same Journal, 14 members of the British Veterinary Association roundly denounced the study as "highly dangerous, particularly when it might be used in a policy context ... the use of a selective, incomplete and uncontrolled data analysis to infer a dramatic claimed impact of badger culling, which flies in the face of established scientific evidence, does not inspire confidence ...

"The data presented by Blowey and others, and the conclusions they draw, do not represent a 'science-led' approach and should form no part of the evidence base on which future policy in relation to badger control is considered."

Notwithstanding the Government's commitment to a "science-led policy of badger control", Owen Paterson might have been willing to throw caution to the wind to back the NFU's claims on social media. But Truss knows she would be risking what little is left of DEFRA's reputation for science based policy making, if she followed his example.

Badger cull has failed tax payers, farmers and wildlife

The level of incompetence, negligence and deceit surrounding the badger cull policy is staggering. The policy has cost huge amounts of public money, free shooting the killing method being tested has proved a disastrous failure, none of the badgers killed have been tested for TB, cull targets have been missed and many badgers have died long painful deaths.

What makes all this worse is that the Government together with the NFU developed a risk register for the badger cull policy in secret in 2010, which accurately foresaw all these failures. However this document was hidden from public view and was only released after a two year fight in the High Court, with the Badger Trust and the Information Commissioner joining forces against the Government on freedom of information grounds.

The badger cull policy has driven a wedge between the public and farming industry, led to a significant increase in the illegal persecution of badgers and proved a dangerous distraction from the need for more effective TB cattle testing systems and the introduction of a TB cattle vaccine.

Playing politics with wildlife has proved a dangerous game with no clear winners. The badger cull policy has failed tax payers, farmers and our wildlife and the vast majority of the public, MPs and scientists with expertise in animal health and disease control, now believe it should come to an end.

However the badger cull was a political policy agreed by David Cameron prior to the 2010 election to help win votes from the farming and landowning community.

Despite its catastrophic failure the Prime Minister is holding on to the wreckage for his political life and he will keep playing the badger blame game, as he needs every vote to remain in office after 7th May.



Dominic Dyer is CEO of the Badger Trust & Policy Advisor for Care for the Wild.

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