The pilot badger culls in the Westcountry have succeeded in removing diseased animals and will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson insisted.
In a vigorous defence of the policy that has divided the countryside and been heavily criticised for failing to meet the cull targets, Mr Paterson stressed he remained committed to tackling the disease in the wild as well as on the farm.
He told the Oxford Farming Conference, the UK’s biggest annual gathering of the farming establishment, that he remained absolutely committed to making Britain TB free within 25 years, using every tool available.
He was asked by Somerset farmer James Small if – and when – the badger cull is rolled out more widely it could be made “more easily administered and far more proactive” – a clear reference to the frustration many farmers feel at the red tape and slow pace of the fight against bovine TB.
The Secretary of State told him: “I would like to pay tribute to all those in your county who took part in the cull. I was in Somerset shortly after the cull period had ended and farmers and landowners there are confident they will see a reduction in this disease as a result of the cull. However we will have to wait for the independent panel to report before we decide how we proceed from here.”
Mr Paterson made it clear, however, that he would not flinch from continuing to pursue a culling policy, insisting no country in the world with a TB problem had succeeded in dealing with it, without tackling it in the wild.
“Since the Republic of Ireland have been culling they have seen a reduction in the disease of some 20% and I know – as former owner of pet badgers – that an Irish badger weighs on average a kilo more than an English badger because they now have more healthy badgers there.”
Mr Paterson reminded delegates at the conference, held in Oxford University’s Examination School, of the huge impact of bovine TB on British farming. He said: “In the 10 years up to last January 305,000 otherwise perfectly healthy cattle were destroyed.
“The latest figures show that between January and September 2013 a further 24,618 cattle had to be slaughtered, that’s an average of over 90 cattle a day. It will cost taxpayers £1 billion over the next 10 years if we don’t take action.”
He acknowledged there was strong opposition to the badger cull with the population roughly divided into thirds with one third supporting the cull, one third opposed to it and one third “neutral”. He said it was important to follow the scientific and legally-sound approach to culling badgers to ensure the “neutral third” remained onside.
But he was adamant the policy was working. “Contrary to many reports, significant numbers of diseased badgers have been removed. And farmers in those areas are confident that they will see a reduction in the disease,” he said.
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Paterson also called on the British public to chose UK produced food whenever possible. In an echo of the Western Morning News’ long-running Buy Local campaign, Mr Paterson asked: “As British farmers and food producers you know that we grow some of the best food in the world here – so why is 24% of the food eaten in the UK imported when it could be produced here?
“We have a top-class fruit and veg sector which produces everything from green beans to strawberries, yet we imported £8 billion of fruit and veg in 2012. This is a huge opportunity, and it’s up to all of us – farmers, food manufacturers and government – to take action.” He said the public sector already spent £2.1 billion a year on British food, but more could be done.