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Muckspreader 3 January 2006 (Private Eye)

A late contender for the dottiest piece of journalism in 2005 was a piece which appeared in the Times just before Christmas by Lord Hattersley. In what appeared to be a world exclusive headed ‘A cull by royal appointment’, Hattersley revealed that Defra had been single-handedly talked into slaughtering tens of thousands of badgers by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales. It is true that Defra appears to have rethought its previous refusal to allow the killing of diseased badgers as a means to ending the epidemic of TB in Britain’s cattle. It has announced that it may next year allow a badger cull after all. But only Lord Hattersley was bold enough to disclose that this U-turn was due entirely to Prince Charles.

So startling was this charge that one looked carefully for the evidence. The only sources Hatters could cite for his claim were unnamed ‘dissidents within the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’, and one Rosie Woodroffe, a member of Defra’s Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB. Apparently these experts were horrified by Defra’s decision, flying in the face of the scientific findings that culling badgers only results in spreading TB, and they had ‘no doubt’ who was behind it: ‘the heir apparent’.

This inevitably provoked speculation as to just how the heir to the throne came to exercise such influence. Was little Ben Bradshaw, the minister in charge of animal welfare and conservation, summoned to Highgrove for a stern lecture and ordered to put his policy into reverse? Did the heir to the throne make repeated calls to ‘Baby Ben’s’ boss Mrs Beckett (aka Rosa Klebb) in the small hours of the morning, disturbing her slumbers so persistently that her resistance finally cracked?

It may be enticing to imagine Rosa whimpering surrender from her pilliow (‘OK, sire, you win. I promise to order the extermination of all Britain’s badgers’). But somehow one suspects that the process which led to the government’s U-turn on badgers and bovine TB was more complex than that great countryman Lord H. let on (he likes to call himself a ‘countryman’ because from one of his urban residences it is possible to catch a distant glimpse of fields).

What seems to have escaped the attention of the noble lord is, first, as the Treasury is keenly aware, that the cost to taxpayers of the TB epidemic is now rapidly heading for £2 billion. Even to Gordon Brown this is some pile of money. Second, the evidence quoted to Lord Hattersley by his ‘dissidents’ was only that derived from the ministry’s own notoriously inefficient ‘Krebs trials’. Much more reliable is the Irish evidence that a properly designed cull can cut TB in cattle by as much as 96 percent.

What Hatters further omitted to mention was the force of that letter signed by more than 420 vets and scientists (originally suggested by Tory agriculture spokesman Owen Paterson), calling on the government to allow a cull as a matter of highest urgency. Not only, they argued, was this the only way to save thousands of farmers and their cattle from disaster. It would also serve the welfare of the diseased badgers themselves, condemned otherwise to a lingering, unpleasant death. So pitifully ill-informed was the Times’s bizarre contribution to the debate, in short, it is perhaps unsurprising that the paper declined to print any of the letters sent in to point this out.