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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 22/02/2004)

Badgers bring on 2bn disaster
MPs lash Krebs over cockles
Tiny Tony falls for big boys' ruse
Scottish fishers told 'You can't go home'

Badgers bring on 2bn disaster

On Tuesday, a Tory front-bench spokesman will table the largest number of questions to a minister ever put down by an MP on a single subject on the same day. His purpose is to highlight a crisis which, by 2014, may have cost taxpayers 2 billion. Owen Paterson, the shadow agriculture minister, will put down 300 questions, in addition to the 200 that he has already asked, to expose the mishandling of the disaster being inflicted on our cattle industry by the epidemic of TB in Britain's soaring badger population, easily the largest in Europe.

The story of badgers, TB and cattle provides a tragic instance of how a seemingly idealistic policy can end up creating a disaster for all involved, including the badgers. The problem lies in the fact that badgers are Britain's best-loved wild mammal. As a secret internal report for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirms, between 1975 and 1982 gassing badgers to prevent them spreading TB to cattle meant that the TB problem in Britain's dairy herd was almost non-existent.

Then, in 1982, badgers became a protected species. Gassing was outlawed. Pressure from animal rights groups, headed by the Political Animal Lobby, led to a new Badger Protection Act in 1992. The badger population exploded, more than tripling to 800,000. As if nature wished to find some control, badger TB reached epidemic levels, condemning them to a long and painful death. As this spread, so did TB in cattle which, because of its threat to human health, meant an ever higher bill for compulsory slaughter.

By 1997, when Labour came to power, aided by a 1 million gift from the Political Animal Lobby, a scientific adviser to the Government, Prof John Krebs, confirmed that there seemed to be a strong link between TB in badgers and cattle. But the Government was so terrified of taking action that Prof Krebs was commissioned to design a series of "trials", based on trapping and limited culling of badgers, to quantify the link.

These were so clumsy that, as answers already given to Mr Paterson show, the only consequence of the trials, costing 33.5 million, was to spread TB among cattle 27 per cent further, as badgers disturbed by trapping fanned out into uninfected areas. Some 5,000 cattle herds are now "restricted". Payments for slaughter last year were 31 million. But the spread is exponential, and Defra estimates that by 2010 public spending will have totalled 1 billion, with a further 1 billion by 2014.

The pain this inflicts on farmers is enormous. In north Devon, Tony Yewdall, the president of the Guernsey Society, and his son Jonnie have just heard that 48 more of their 300 Guernsey cattle are to be culled, having lost five already. On a farm swarming with diseased badgers, Mr Yewdall dreads his next TB test in April. Without urgent action, he fears that soon there will be nothing left of his pedigree herd, built up over 50 years,for his son and grandson to take on.

Last week Sir Ben Gill, the retiring president of the NFU, called for such action, not excluding gassing, the only effective method of culling, as the only way to save Britain's cattle industry from complete disaster. But as Defra's secret report shows, the Government appears paralysed. It talks of vaccination as one answer. But 10 years ago the ministry was promising an effective vaccine for cattle "within 10 years". Today, having spent 8 million on research, it predicts a vaccine may not be available for "10-15 years".

The Government is so fearful of public reaction to a mass-cull of badgers that it is happy to contemplate an even greater slaughter of cattle, at a cost which should alarm even Gordon Brown. As Mr Paterson says, "they are proposing to spend 1 to 2 billion of taxpayers' money, to achieve nothing". The irony is that the Government's policy is consigning hundreds of thousands of badgers, out of sight, to a very nasty death.

Mr Paterson, who has been concerned with TB since he became MP for North Shropshire in 1997 (and who is probably the only MP to have kept pet badgers), concludes: "It is clear from the ministry's answers that the only solution is a proper management policy which will restore balance to the countryside, benefiting everybody: farmers, other forms of wildlife - and ultimately the badgers themselves."

MPs lash Krebs over cockles

A committee of MPs last week published a devastating report on the blunder by Government scientists which last year closed down much of our 20-million-a-year cockle industry, threatening the livelihood of several thousand people. As was first reported in this column last June, Sir John Krebs's Food Standards Agency closed the cockle beds in the Thames, the Wash and South Wales because it claimed to have found an "unidentified toxin" in the cockles.

Its scientists had been injecting mice with massive quantities of cockle-meat, held together by toxic solvents. The mice then died. But when, in November, the scientists finally took steps to eliminate "solvent carry-over", the mice survived.

The environmental, food and rural affairs committee, chaired by the Labour MP Austin Mitchell, was withering in its criticism of the FSA, suggesting that ways must be found to compensate the cockle industry for the "very real and unnecessary damage" it had suffered. On Friday, the BBC's Today programme covered this but, with its customary lack of professionalism, had failed to grasp the central point at issue, that the FSA's tests were so flawed.

Ill-briefed, the supposedly fearless John Humphrys let the FSA's Dr Andrew Wodge completely off the hook. Asked whether the FSA had done anything wrong, Dr Wodge replied "certainly not", and that "as a precautionary action to protect human health, we would do the same thing again".

On the other cockle-related story lately making headlines, I asked the Health and Safety Executive whether Morecambe Bay was a workplace under the Health and Safety at Work Act; and, if so, why they had taken no action to prevent the "industrial accident" which killed 20 Chinese workers.

The HSE confirms that the activities of the cockle-pickers were within its jurisdiction; that they were aware of a "near-miss" involving the Chinese in December; and that they "gave advice". Perhaps MPs would like to ask why HSE officials did not take enforcement action or serve a prohibition notice, as would have been their statutory duty with any other business.

Tiny Tony falls for big boys' ruse

Anyone who follows the European Union soap opera with any understanding must have squirmed last week at the ease with which Tony Blair fell for the trap laid for him by Gerhard Schroder, in inviting him along to Berlin to pose alongside Schroder and Jacques Chirac as one of the EU's "Big Three".

There is of course no way in which Blair is going to be allowed to join the "Franco-German motor" which has been at the heart of the "European project" since 1963.

But Schroder has wanted to head off the possibility that Britain might join with Spain, Poland and the other entrant countries, to form a new counterpoise to the French and German "directoire" which runs the EU. Gagging to get in with the "Big Two" since 1998, Blair fell for the ruse, as apparently did most of the British media, failing to read the contempt shown for Blair by Chirac.

As Richard North and I put it in our recent book The Great Deception, ever since 1997 Blair has given "the impression of a small boy standing in the touchline, longing to join the bigger boys on the field, but without understanding the rules of the game they are playing". Last week provided another sad example.

Scottish fishers told 'You can't go home'

The fishermen of Wick, in northern Scotland, have been told that if they fish for haddock on their traditional grounds 20 miles off the coast they will no longer be permitted to return home to Wick to land their catch. Instead they must make a 120-mile round trip, regardless of the weather, to land in Buckie or Fraserburgh. But foreign boats, such as those from Belgium, France or Norway, can continue landing their catches in Wick.

This is the latest lunacy to emerge from the bizarre deal agreed in Brussels last December by Ben Bradshaw, the fisheries minister, under which non-British boats are now being given preferential access to United Kingdom fishing waters. In its ruthless bid to eradicate what remains of the Scottish fishing fleet, the European Commission is now flagrantly breaching Article 12 of the EU treaty, which outlaws discrimination on grounds of nationality.

Even more oddly, it seems to be doing so with the active support of UK ministers.