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Might England's badgers finally be getting lucky? Don't count on it. Photo: Andrew 3457 via Flickr (CC BY).
Might England's badgers finally be getting lucky? Don't count on it. Photo: Andrew 3457 via Flickr (CC BY).
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Post-Brexit Britain cannot afford the badger cull!

Lesley Docksey

27th July 2016

The government may want to press ahead with the English badger cull, writes Lesley Docksey. But after the Brexit vote it may just cost too much - for taxpayers and for the farmers who bear part an increasing share of the expense, now facing the loss of the 55% of their income that currently comes from Brussels.

Due to all the expensive machinery now required for modern farming, most farms run large overdrafts. Will they now be looking at their post-Brexit overdrafts and wondering if they should pull out?

The Badger Trust recently put out a post-referendum call to Andrea Leadsom, the new Secretary of State at Defra, England's environment and countryside department, to halt the badger culls. As the Trust's CEO Dominic Dyer put it:

"Defra is already reeling from a brutal round of budget cuts and does not have the staff capacity to cope with rearranging subsidies to farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy, changing food labelling and safety regulations, free movement of labour and disease control policy, to mention just a few.

"Every key aspect of Defra's work will now have to be reviewed and significantly altered to cope with this workload and we cannot see how such a marginal and ineffective policy like the badger cull can survive this process."

Dominic Dyer should know - he used to work for Defra. And what makes the badger culling even more pointless is that, as he continued,

"Defra has already stated that they will never be able to tell if culling has impacted on the levels of TB in cattle and, given the £25m they have spent so far on this policy, we cannot see a rational justification for them continuing with it."

Why should the money-no-object largesse to farmers continue?

Some 55% of the UK's income from farming comes from the EU via the Common Agricultural Policy support. Would any post-Brexit government be able to replace this? Would they even be willing to?

Defra is already drastically cutting farm inspections in the hope of saving some money - consistent with Westminster's traditionally cavalier approach to all things concerning the environment, ecology and food production.

Back in 2001, at the height of the foot and mouth disease crisis, there was a television interview with an 'advisor' to the government. When faced with the possibility that British farming might be destroyed by the way FMD was being handled (and at that time many suffering farmers felt that the aim was to put them out of business), he casually replied:

"That's okay. We can import all of our food."

No. it's not okay! Depending on what terms we leave the EU, large scale importation of food might not be an option. With the ongoing global financial turmoil and the pound losing its value, the prices of imported goods are set to rise while the value of exports fall.

And while farmers grow feed crops like maize (incidentally a big hit with badgers), we still import a vast amount of animal feed, another cost that will hit farmers, on top of all their other worries.

Bovine TB is (for England at least) a problem. But killing badgers won't solve it.

On top of the CAP subsidies, the EU currently gives the UK £23 million a year to tackle bovine TB in cattle. They do not allow any of this money to be used for culling badgers, hence the £25 million of our money that Defra has spent on the culls. What the EU money pays for includes testing of herds, compensation for farmers and, one hopes, ongoing research into and trials on vaccine for cattle.

Landowners and farmers are now taking on much of the cost of the culls apart from the policing, which over the last three years has cost £6.5 million.

The first culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire, unwillingly funded by the taxpayer, were 'pilot' culls that were meant to run for four years, after which Defra could hopefully judge whether they had any impact on bovine TB. But the word 'pilot' was scrapped after the first year. They became simply 'badger control' programmes.

The initial regulations have been changed, dropped or scaled right down, and more culling areas are being rolled out across the country. Or are they?

Financing the badger culls

Any area that applies for a licence to cull badgers has to set up a 'contracting company' with a board and members. The company is in charge of the shooters (who must hold appropriate gun licences) and trappers, all of whom have to be trained (training and licensing costs are among those for which Defra is ultimately responsible).

The company also has to demonstrate that, through its members and participating landowners, it has the finance to cover all four years of the cull. Farmers have to pay up front to become members, and must financially commit to the cull for the four-year period.

Due to all the expensive machinery now required for modern farming, most farms run large overdrafts. Will they now be looking at their post-Brexit overdrafts and wondering if they should pull out?

There are of course the rich landowners. Some of them have been eager for their land to be part of culling areas and willing to make the financial commitment. In their terms the money needed might seem fairly minimal, but the Brexit vote has seen the investments of the rich take a hammering.

No one yet knows what will happen to trade and investment, and culling badgers might become an unnecessary distraction.

The effect of the Brexit vote on farming

As pointed out by West Dorset MP Oliver Letwin - a closet Brexiteer who was (until sacked by Theresa May) trying to assemble a huge international trade team to negotiate the UK's post-Brexit future - there are over 40 years of trade and other agreements to unpick and rewrite in a way that is acceptable to the EU and other trading partners.

Yet ministers are still demanding that we have it all when we leave; our political grandees suffer from an enormous sense of 'entitlement'.

Given the government's arrogant attitude towards the EU and the reaction that is having in much of Europe, it is likely that what the UK ends up with will not be favourable to farmers, some of whom do well from trading with the EU. Where Scottish farmers are concerned, over 70% of their business is exporting to the EU.

Initially, many farmers were in favour of leaving the EU, having been persuaded by the Farming Minister George Eustice's optimistic line. He even claimed the farm animals would vote for Brexit. The NFU, particularly in Scotland, was not so sure. The NFU Chair Meurig Raymond expressed doubts about what would happen to framing, food prices and agricultural exports.

And since the vote to leave, farmers have been really waking up to how it might affect them. Like the rest of government, Defra had no 'plan B' for what it would do if Brexit won.

BBC Radio 4's daily Farming Today programme has featured a lot of worried farmers. John Shropshire runs G's, one of the UK's largest vegetable growers, and has farms not just here but in Spain, Poland and Senegal. Much of his business relies on access to the European Single Market. When asked by Farming Today what he would do if that access became difficult, he said he would move all his operations outside the UK.

All in all, it might seem just possible that the badger culls could be a victim of Brexit. But before you get too hopeful, consider this:

At a meeting with some of his constituents Letwin was asked whether - considering how much the UK has benefited from the EU environmental and wildlife protection laws - the government would consider putting all that protective legislation into our own domestic law.

He assured them that of course it would all be part of our law when we finally left the EU, pausing only to add in his usual cheery manner:

"But that doesn't mean we can't dismantle it if we want to."

 


 

Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics, and on political issues for UK and international websites.

 

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