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Badgers back in the frame

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OPINION on whether badgers should be culled to help control bovine TB in cattle has long been polarised and seems set to remain so following the announcement last week of government plans to include badger culling in the 'tool box' of measures for tackling the disease. Predictably, Defra's proposals have been denounced by charities such as the Badger Trust and the RSPCA, while farmers' groups have welcomed them as long overdue. In Parliament, there are signs that the debate could split along party lines, with Hilary Benn, who ruled out a cull on the basis of the scientific evidence when he was secretary of state at Defra, still suggesting that a cull is unlikely to help, and Jim Paice, the minister now responsible for farming and animal health, using much the same evidence to explain why a cull is necessary. Mr Paice pressed for controls on badgers when he was Opposition spokesman on agriculture, and the launch of Defra's consultation last week fulfils a commitment made by the Conservatives before the General Election in May.

The problem with opinion being polarised, particularly on an emotive issue such as this, is that it tends to inhibit rational debate, which can prevent appropriate decisions being made. It will also make the job of interpreting the response to the public consultation exercise difficult because, with feelings running so high, there is every likelihood of intensive lobbying and of opinion being mobilised on both sides.

For its part, the BVA has welcomed the consultation, including the recommendations for badger control in areas where bovine TB persists at high levels. Both the BVA and the British Cattle Veterinary Association have long argued that there is no single solution to bovine TB and that the disease cannot be tackled effectively without measures to control the disease in both cattle and wildlife. They therefore welcome the commitment to a balanced package of measures that uses all the tools available, and recognition by the Government that it will not be possible to eradicate bovine TB in cattle without also addressing the reservoir of disease in badgers. They also welcome a commitment by the Government to monitor the effectiveness, humaneness and impact of badger control measures, and say they will be examining the proposed licensing criteria and culling methods in detail, to ensure that they are as effective and humane as possible.

There is clearly much to consider in the consultation document, in terms of the principle, detail and practicality of the measures proposed. One question that arises is whether enough farmers will be prepared to work together to apply for licences for coordinated control across the minimum 150 km2 areas required, and whether the controls can be sufficiently well managed. The Government says it will fund the licensing operation and monitor the impacts of the policy; however, it expects farmers to pay for the culling or vaccination of badgers and to implement the controls themselves.

Attention has inevitably focused on the proposals to cull badgers, but the continuing need for effective controls on cattle should not be overlooked. In this respect, other changes mentioned in the Government's consultation document are also worthy of note. They include changes to the TB testing regime to ensure that tests are better targeted on the basis of disease risk, increased controls in high-risk herds and wider use of the gamma interferon test in areas with a low incidence of disease. They also include plans to change the terminology used to describe a herd's TB status, so that herds are described as being officially TB-free, or as having had their TB-free status suspended or TB-free status withdrawn.

In launching the consultation, Mr Paice noted that the Government's highest priority was to reduce the financial deficit, and that any new measures needed to be affordable, which was why the farming industry was being asked to bear the costs of controlling badgers. He also pointed out that farmers, vets and government needed to work in partnership to bring bovine TB under control. The consultation comes at a time when the Government is changing the contractual arrangements under which vets carry out TB testing, while developing proposals for sharing responsibilities and costs of animal health with the farming industry. It intends to publish a 'comprehensive and balanced' bovine TB eradication policy early in 2011, and it will be interesting to see how the current financial constraints on Defra affect the overall programme.

The measures outlined in Defra's consultation document would apply in England only. In the meantime, the Welsh government is seeking views on revised proposals for a badger cull in Wales. Taken together, these developments indicate clear recognition by ministers of the need to take all available steps to control bovine TB, and this in itself is to be welcomed.

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