Muckspreader 29 May 20062006
We were all stunned by what emerged when a spotlight was recently shone into some of the murkier reaches of the Home Office: a vision of incompetence beyond our worst imaginings. But just as shocking a picture would emerge if a similar searchlight was beamed into the corridors of Defra. Examples of scarcely credible maladministration proliferate on every side, from the non-payment of subsidies fiasco to their mishandling of the varroa threat which threatens the survival of Britain's bees.
Still the most obvious disaster, however, is that facing Britain's dairy farmers as their herds fall victim to the epidemic of bovine TB spread by our exploding badger population. Thousands of farmers cannot sell their milk or animals. 20,000 cattle a year are being slaughtered, at an annual cost of more than £100 million. By 2014, according to Defra, taxpayers could be looking at a total bill of £2,000 million. And so prevalent now is TB in badgers that scientists wonder how long it can be before the disease infects humans.
Faced with this crisis Defra remains in a state of jelly-kneed paralysis, between two totally opposed lobbies. On one hand are Britain's increasingly desperate vets, insisting that the only way to halt this disaster is a targeted cull of sick, infectious badgers. Nearly half the country's farm vets, backed by many of our leading veterinary scientists, point out that 20 years ago, before the ban on badger-culling, TB in cattle had been all but eliminated. Culling has eliminated bovine TB in 23 of the EU's 25 countries, leaving only Britain and Ireland out in the cold. And now, after trials which yet again confirmed the efficacy of culling, the Irish are joining the rest of Europe.
On the other hand is the powerful animal rights lobby, to whom the idea of slaughtering cuddly Mr Brock is anathema. Ready at the drop of a hat to orchestrate a blizzard of protest letters to any politician or journal daring to countenance culling, the badger lobby seems to have ministers by the balls, not least the wretched 'Baby Ben' Bradshaw, whose knowledge of the countryside is so great that he famously described the badger as 'Britain's largest wild mammal' (to the chagrin of several million red, fallow and roe deer).
Defra's chief line of defence (or prevarication) has been to set up an Independent Scientific Group, chaired by Professor John Bourne and made up of scientists whose main qualification is their complete lack of any expertise in TB. They chiefly rely for their 'evidence' on the so-called 'Krebs trials', studies based on trapping badgers, which appeared to show that culling would only make the problem worse, because it drives sick animals into surrounding areas, spreading the infection even more widely (Bourne calls it 'perturbation' - a practice, it seems, which makes you blind).
But as the vets have now comprehensively exposed, the Krebs trials were only a pseudo-scientific charade, never designed to work. Even Defra admits that the percentage of badgers culled was sometimes as low as 20 percent. Prof.Bourne has admitted in the Veterinary Record that his staff were not allowed into a third of the land chosen for study. Meanwhile the tragedy rolls on: for farmers, for cattle, for taxpayers, and for all those sick badgers, condemned to a lingering death, only because humans became so blinded by sentimentality that they allowed badger numbers to explode to a level nature could no longer tolerate.
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