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Winning hearts and minds

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SOME will be bitterly disappointed, while others clearly won't be, but, either way, the decision to postpone the planned pilot badger culls in England, announced by the Government earlier this week, was the right one in the circumstances. Politics, it is said, is the art of the possible, and it was clear in the days beforehand that, with continuing opposition from the media, celebrities and also some senior scientists, along with the prospect of a parliamentary debate, the possibility of a last-minute legal challenge and the challenge of maintaining law and order in the countryside, the Government was facing an impossible situation. If it allowed the culls to go ahead, it would be accused of heedless resolve; if it did not, it would be accused of making yet another ‘U-turn’. In the event, it was a letter from the National Farmers' Union (NFU) that helped the Government off the hook – and for sound, practical reasons.

Announcing the decision in the House of Commons on October 23, the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said that, as a result of delays over the summer in starting the culls, and revised estimates suggesting that the number of badgers in the two pilot areas was higher than originally thought, the NFU had requested that the culls be postponed until the summer of 2013, as the farmers planning to carry them out could not be confident of removing the required 70 per cent of badgers in the time remaining this autumn. Defra had therefore agreed to postpone the culls to allow the farmers to continue their preparations to give them the best chance of carrying out the culls effectively. He said that Defra, like the NFU, remained ‘absolutely committed’ to the culls, and that it would continue to work with the NFU to ensure that it got the delivery right (see p 413 of this issue).

It would be nice to think that the next few months could be spent achieving a political consensus on how best to tackle what is a real and serious problem. Unfortunately, however, this is unlikely to happen; opinion remains polarised and, with the Government having already been accused of making a U-turn and overseeing an ‘omnivoreshambles’, it looks as if the debate will continue to be conducted on party political lines.

The BVA expressed relief after the announcement that the minister had firmly stated that there had been no change in government policy. Its president, Peter Harlech Jones, said, ‘The science has not changed. Scientists agree that culling badgers does reduce the levels of infection in cattle herds, and we know that no country has dealt with bovine TB without tackling the disease in wildlife.’ Emphasising the importance of ensuring that the pilot culls were effective and humane, he said it was responsible to postpone them if they could not be delivered effectively in the time available this year. He also welcomed the stricter cattle control measures that were announced by the Government last week (see p 412).

It is important that policies are science-based but, as experience with BSE and foot-and-mouth disease has demonstrated, and the arguments about bovine TB continue to show, science can only contribute to policy development, in which political and practical considerations also play a significant part. Parliament and successive governments have tried hard to clarify the role of science in policy-making in recent years but, for all their efforts, continue to run into difficulty. Part of the problem, as highlighted in the case of bovine TB, is that scientists don't always agree about the evidence although, interestingly, an editorial in the journal Nature last week pointed out that the available evidence indicated that culling badgers might indeed be effective in controlling the disease in cattle and may be less equivocal than some opponents of the cull have suggested. The editorial argued that, in this case, the Government has at least been clear about the decision-making process and that, while scientists were entitled to disagree with its decision to cull badgers, they should not disagree with the process by which it was reached.

In his statement to MPs this week, the environment secretary commented that, by starting the cull next summer, ‘we can build on the work that has already been done and ensure that the cull will conform to the scientific criteria and evidence base.’ Given the controversy that continues to surround the prospect of a cull, it will be important to ensure that this is the case. Meanwhile, more effort needs to be devoted to explaining to the public why it is important to use all available tools to tackle bovine TB and the genuine hardship it causes. It would be naive to think that opposition will die down on the basis that the cull has been postponed. Along with the scientific, political and practical considerations, there is an emotional element to this debate and, whatever the logic of the policy, there remains a need to make progress in the battle for hearts and minds.

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