Let’s bring some sanity back to the badger debate

So, what happened to the Indian summer, the mini-heat-wave; the shorts and T-shirt end of October? All we have had is more of the same, damp, foggy, wet, miserable weather; at lower temperatures than last week.

I do hope that by the time you read this, we will be cutting maize again; it has been a frustrating week, where field conditions have changed little. I have seen some of the maize cut locally on the clay last week, with horrendous ruts and mud everywhere; seriously relieved that my maize is grown on sand this year (if not every year). I am itching to get it in now, as the cobs are hanging upside down and I don’t want them dropping off, and there is always the chance of high winds blowing it all over as it gets later in the season.

October is a month of great weather contrasts and uncertainty; it is quite possible to have over 70 degree heat and snow in the same month. A hailstorm, floods, indeed anything goes in October. It is now over, we start to think of winter, and we are being prepared by some forecasters to expect a hard, cold winter; not exactly good news if you are a dairy farmer; we like mild winters, preferably dry, mild winters. Having had the driest spring in over a century, the wettest April and June on record, 2012 delivered a dramatic turnaround not seen before and I don’t particularly want to see it again!

Following two dry winters, I took part in the ‘drought summits’ with the Secretary of state as this year started; millions of people faced a hose-pipe ban, and then it rained in biblical proportions, reservoirs filled up, rivers flooded, and it went from anxiety in the spring, to total misery for many as their homes, land, and roads were flooded.

This has happened before of course; following the extreme drought (pardon us Australians) of 1975 - 1976, it rained and rained with serious problems in many parts of the country. The sustained recovery of 2012 has not been seen for over a hundred years, according to experts; after a very dry spell, 1903 had the wettest summer on record, as the rain poured and the heavens opened from May to October. London had 58 hours of continuous rain, without interruption; the longest continuous rain in the UK allegedly.

Wet seasons in those days were not only difficult for farmers, but they could be extremely dangerous. Most farmers relied on some sunshine in the summer to make hay, a difficult enough task when the sun did shine, given that it was all done by hand on all but the largest estates, where some mechanisation was being developed. In difficult conditions, the hay would be rained on, maybe several times before it was eventually made, and carried in to buildings or stacked in ricks. Handling this poor quality hay during the winter could result in fungal spores being inhaled by the stockman or farmer, with serious results. ‘Farmers Lung’ was a fairly common problem amongst the farming community, and its severity could range from death, to impaired lung function, which would last a lifetime, and severely restrict the unlucky victim.

l Dramatic events last week once again brought bovine TB to the front pages, and television screens. It was wrongly reported in most instances, where it stated that Ministers had ‘pulled the plug’ on the pilot badger cull areas. In fact it was the NFU and the contractors who were organised, trained and prepared to carry out the cull who told Government that the cull would have to be postponed, as the number of badgers in both areas of the trial were dramatically revised upwards at the last minute by Defra. This meant that the targeted 70-80% of badgers culled could not be achieved for several reasons.

The increase in badger numbers in the cull areas according to the latest count were almost double, vastly increasing the number to be culled; this column has often commented on the number of badgers in the countryside and it was no surprise to find that they had been underestimated. Due to the Olympics, and delays caused by legal challenges from the ‘Badgers Trust’, the start day for the cull was already late and given the weather conditions, the task of stepping up all the arrangements in order to achieve these new figures was impossible.

The responsible and sensible decision was therefore taken, and the cull has been delayed until next June, which will allow time for proper preparations and a much longer window to achieve the required figures. This is disappointing, and we have to watch and listen, as others spin their stories, gloat over their ‘victory’, and generally tell us how all this could be very different with vaccination.

I think we should try and be positive over this though, as it gives more time to explore the area of vaccination. In the next 7 months, the government must provide clear answers to several issues concerning vaccination for cattle. How effective is it? How good is the ‘Diva’ test (which distinguishes between a vaccinated and diseased animal)? What are the chances of getting this through Europe? Crucially, how long will that take? The details of how it would work and who would pay are very much secondary to those fundamental questions.

I’m afraid that I do not believe for a second that the vaccine is effective enough (50-60% immunity), but even if it were, I would be absolutely amazed if this could be agreed in Europe, following all sorts of scientific tests and process; without it all taking many years. Dr Brian May has publicly stated that he believes it can all be done in a matter of months and that he has had assurances from Brussels to that effect. I also find this an extraordinary statement, but let’s find out; Brian May is very keen to work with the NFU to find the answer.

Should this fantasy become reality (and I have eaten someone else’s hat as I don’t have one of my own!); what happens to the badgers then? Do we as farmers carry on with our farming, leaving diseased wildlife to spread to the other half of the country which is currently clean such as West Sussex? Is that a moral position for us to take? Is that the legacy we want to bequeath to future generations? Is this madness of allowing a top predator to breed uncontrollably going to be extended to foxes? What about rabbits, deer, grey squirrels? Rats? Why not? This is where the current policy of organisations which I believe are losing their way will take us if left unchallenged.

The RSPB will not admit publicly that badgers are doing harm to ground-nesting birds; I can only guess that this is for political and fund raising reasons. The RSPCA is likely to be challenged on its ‘charitable’ position, given that it involves itself in activities which are more akin to a lobbying organisation. I would also draw your attention to the fact that the RSPCA has also seen its membership fall dramatically over recent years; in line I would suggest with the change of direction since individuals with more extreme views and ideas joined its council. The next 7 months will provide us with an opportunity to explore these organisations and others in more detail; flushing out their true position, examining their alternative answers (if they have any) to a problem that we as farmers have had to live with for decades. Let’s bring some sanity back to this debate.

Gwyn Jones