A badger out hunting for worms. Photo: Andrea via Flickr.com.
Paterson - preparing to ditch the badger cull?
27th March 2013
Owen Paterson answered MPs' questions today about bovine TB and the badger cull. Answers were few, but the emphasis has shifted ... could the revised BTB strategy contain a significant omission - the cull?
The hon. Gentleman has got to get beyond the issue of culls ... He should concentrate on the whole strategy.
Paterson's appearance had been flagged up by the Sunday Times which said that "Defra was expected to make an announcement this week, alongside the publication of a scientific assessment of last year's cull."
"The government's badger culls are to be restarted this summer with a third killing zone, in Dorset, added to the two existing ones, in Somerset and Gloucestershire, say Whitehall sources."
Is he going to back off?
But in the event Paterson made no such announcement. If anything, he appeared to be preparing for the reverse. Pressed by Shadow Farming Minister Huw Irranca-Davies (L) to hold a binding, substantive vote on any future culls, he replied:
"The hon. Gentleman has got to get beyond the issue of culls. Our strategy encompasses vaccination of both species, significant changes to our cattle movement regime and tighter biosecurity. He should concentrate on the whole strategy ... "
So all of a sudden, the culls are just a small and not very important part of the Government's anti-TB package of measures. So small they could be dispensed with altogether?
The Irish example
Paterson's usual mantra is that Ireland's fall in TB is all thanks to culling, and that "There is no example anywhere in the world of a country that has successfully tackled TB without also tackling the reservoir of disease in the wildlife population."
But again, he deviated from the script. Responding to Stephen Metcalfe (C) he said: "My hon. Friend mentions other badger culls. The most obvious nearby country that has had one is the Republic of Ireland, where the number of cases went down from 44,903 in 1999 to only 15,612 last year.
" ... but the circumstances here are not entirely the same. That is why our strategy encompasses a whole range of other activities involving the vaccination of badgers, the vaccination of cattle and a strict cattle movement regime, which has been a key to success in other countries."
And he responded to Ian Paisley's emotional plea to get killing badgers in Northern Ireland and "remove this plague from our land" with the very mildest of agreement and a short homily on devolved powers.
Refusing to take the bait
Angela Smith, an anti-cull MP, asked what changes he plans to make to his policy on bovine TB. He replied only that the draft strategy to combat bovine TB had been published in July 2013 and that the final version, outlining Defra's comprehensive plan, "will be published shortly."
She retorted that, as the leaked information from the report had shown the culls to be inhumane, "would he not think it vital to reconsider the policy and to abandon absolutely any plans for rolling out culling later in the year?"
Paterson gave nothing away: "I received the panel's report only recently. I am considering it, and I will come back to the House in due course, when it has been fully considered."
Which at least seems to show he's got something to think about.
What about a vaccine?
Lawrence Robertson (C) asked for an update on cattle vaccine, to be told that
"We are pressing on with the development of a cattle vaccine but, sadly, it will take some years: we have to develop a vaccine that is valid and works; we have to develop a DIVA test to differentiate between vaccinated cattle and diseased cattle; and we then have to get a legal process. I am afraid that that is going to take at least 10 years."
But it was going to take 10 years last year, and the year before that and 10 years ago too. If ever there was a moving goal post in this sorry saga, it is the 10-year one.
A moment of levity
Huw Irranca-Davies delighted the anti-cull MPs with the news that during the debate on the cull earlier this month, Mr Paterson had been visiting a chocolate factory.
He then demanded that any decision to continue the culls should have a proper Parliamentary vote.
No, said Mr Paterson. He went on to say, "The last vote on a substantive motion showed considerable support, with a majority of 61, for our strategy." He mentioned the 61 majority twice, just to emphasise it.
Someone should remind Mr Paterson that that was back in June 2013, and the majority was 49 votes, not 61. MPs have become considerably better informed since then and many of them, having viewed the chaotic mess of the two pilot culls, have wisely changed their minds.
But then, maybe there will be no demand for another vote on culling badgers - if that element of the strategy is quietly dropped from the revised anti-BTB strategy.
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.
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