Between a brock and a hard place


Between a brock and a hard place

A badger cull would inflame passions on both sides, says Geoffrey Lean.


Posted 01 July 2011, by Geoffrey Lean, The Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group Limited),

I never thought I would say this, but I feel much sympathy for Caroline Spelman, the accident-prone Environment Secretary. Fresh from the horrendous Horlicks she made of flogging off England’s forests, she faces an imminent decision on a far trickier, and even more emotional issue – whether to authorise Mr Badger’s execution for infecting cattle with tuberculosis.

She has, it should be said, learned lessons from the forest fiasco, and is approaching whether to take on the gruff Wind in the Willows father figure with due deliberation. Justifiably accused of not fully consulting affected groups over her privatisation plans, she has this time met with more than 20, ranging from the National Farmers’ Union to the Badger Trust, and convened top-level scientific meetings.

But she faces a lose-lose choice, caught between two passionate, irreconcilable positions, each with powerful arguments to deploy. Whatever she decides will arouse anger, attract condemnation from leading scientists and experts and, almost certainly, lead to a much-dreaded judicial review.

On the one hand, partly thanks to Kenneth Grahame, badgers are hugely popular. Though in no way endangered, they are protected by their own Act of Parliament, unlike hundreds of truly vulnerable species, and public opinion remains solidly against culling them.

On the other, bovine TB is surging through cattle herds. Confined to isolated pockets little more than 20 years ago, it now covers most of the west of England and much of Wales.

Nor is there any doubt that badgers get the disease and pass it to cattle. And yet, as sedentary animals that stick to their own territories unless disturbed, they cannot be blamed for its rapid spread. That has to be down to farmers moving infected cattle around, despite measures supposed to prevent it – and Ms Spelman must greatly strengthen those controls and increase enforcement against the amoral minority who flout them.

But even stopping all movement from infected areas would not solve the problem now that TB is so widely entrenched. This Government came to office convinced that culling was the answer; Agriculture Minister Jim Paice told The Daily Telegraph debate at last year’s Game Fair that the main outstanding questions were “where”, “when”, “how” and “by whom”.

“Whether” did not get a mention, but it has figured prominently since. For, although culling remains much the likeliest outcome, ministers’ ardour has been steadily cooling as they have come to realise the difficulties involved. For a start, it counter-intuitively spreads TB, at least initially: surviving badgers flee from the killing fields, taking the disease with them, often to uninfected areas nearby.

In an attempt to minimise this effect – and to try to ensure a thorough job – ministers plan only to allow farmers to undertake co-ordinated, simultaneous culls under licence over areas of at least 150 sq km, where they can get access to 70 per cent of the land, and commit to doing it for four consecutive years.

But even this may not have much effect. For a start, officials believe that the much-cut English Nature will only be able to issue four such licences in the first year, thus at first permitting culling on only some 600 sq km of the infected 38,000 sq km.

Worse, ministers plan to allow farmers to shoot free-ranging badgers because that is more than 10 times cheaper than making them trap them first. But it is also bound to be much less effective – badgers will head for their setts at the sound of the first shot – and to result in badly wounded animals, further inflaming public opinion. And a shot dog, or person, could endanger the whole enterprise.

Scientists have advised ministers that such a cull would, at best, only remove 16 per cent of badgers in any area. Would such a small gain be worth the political cost? Certainly the new Welsh Government has backed off, indefinitely postponing a cull planned by its predecessor.

Yet the alternatives aren’t great either. The first badger vaccine was licensed last year, but trapping the animals to inject them is horrendously expensive. An oral vaccine is not expected before 2015. And vaccination does not eliminate the disease in badgers that already have it.

Immunising cattle would be the best bet, but it is banned under EU law. So far, testing cannot tell the difference between an infected and a vaccinated animal and Europe will not import any that prove positive. A test that can tell the difference is being developed, but even then Brussels is unlikely to relent quickly – partly because the Continent has little bovine TB and does not want to take any risk of bringing it in.

So spare a thought for Ms Spelman. She may yet well find the Wild Wood to be the most perilous forest of them all.


Growing hair, I need hardly say, is not something I am particularly good at. But more hirsute gardeners are increasingly using their locks to make things grow.

“How thoughtful!” exclaimed the environmental website Grist when one Jane Bogner, from California, this week boasted that she always composted her hair. “If your compost heap could talk, it would say ‘Jane, you’re a pal’,” the site declared – not least because tresses contain “30 times as much nitrogen as manure”.

But the tip might complain of indigestion – for Mother Earth News warns that “hair takes one to two years to decompose completely”. It suggests keeping “clippings from shaving” and demanding back “trimmings at the barber”, before putting them directly into the soil, rather than on top of the heap (a practice supported by research from Mississippi State University).

This being America, one enterprising Floridian hairstylist, Phil McCrory, has made a business out of this, after putting clients’ clippings round a rosebush’s roots and watching it grow 15 feet in three months. He sells hairy mats that can be buried for fertiliser or used as mulch. Here, a Blackburn hairdresser was told by council officials last year that he was breaking the law by taking customers’ hair for composting, as he had done for 40 years, because he had a legal duty to show his business’s waste was not harming the environment.


First the good news: under the EU budget proposals published this week, payouts under the Common Agricultural Policy are to be cut in real terms. Now the bad: it’s the wrong ones being slashed.

The slush fund paid out to farmers essentially for doing nothing (“Pillar One” in Euro-speak) – which, in Britain, mainly benefits East Anglian grain barons and rich landowners – is merely to be frozen from 2013.

Instead, the axe will fall on “Pillar Two”, which serves more useful purposes – like conserving wildlife and landscape, improving rural life and increasing competitiveness – and keeps many struggling hill farmers in places such as the Yorkshire Dales from going under. Analysis by the authoritative Institute for European Environmental Policy reckons the cuts will amount to at least 7 per cent.

Even more alarmingly, the plans will, for the first time, allow money designated for useful payments to be switched to the slush fund instead. To make this shameless stuff look better, the proposals suggest that

30 per cent of Pillar One funding should be attached to “greening” commitments – but these are vague and unspecified and are not expected to amount to much.

It could have been worse. The Brussels bureaucrats were originally planning (in private) to cut Pillar Two by about a third, but scaled this down in the face of protests from MEPs and green groups. But it’s still a snub to Britain, which has led the campaign to cut the CAP while increasing green grants – and uses them particularly effectively.


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