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Death to Brock the Badger: a PR disaster

Friday 17 September 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has campaigned so hard against mass badger culls that he is black-listed by the NFU, regrets that the new Defra boss Caroline Spelman has made her first major blunder

ONE of the more embarrassing moments of my career, one of many but one which brought an unpleasant reminder this week, was the evening I addressed the Settle Farmers’ Club here in the Yorkshire Dales and decided to lay down some home truths instead of the same semi-humorous tittle-tattle that is the normal fodder of after-dinner speakers.

That truth was that the farmers, and the National Farmers’ Union in particular, have the worst sense of public relations of any sector of British industry that I have ever had dealings with. Then, when my mini-rant was over, I was presented with a brace of handsomely engraved whisky tumblers ... by the local branch secretary of the NFU.

Sentenced to death

Yes, I did go red and did try to explain that I was not attacking the union itself, and certainly not the farmers whom I have mixed with since childhood, but their PR “machine.” The result was that I was blacked by the union and they don’t send me any press releases, which shows how d aft they are because I can read them if I feel so inclined on their website.

My objection is that they show absolutely no understanding of the views of the non-farming public, in particular the townies who buy their products and – to be brutally frank – pay the subsidies without which very few of them could survive. Instead, all their publicity material is aimed at other farmers or food retailers, who already understand the problems their industry faces.

The image of the “ever-moaning farmer” has lived in the urban imagination throughout my 50-odd year career, much of it spent writing about rural affairs, but the NFU never seems to have noticed, so tied up are they in their own little world. Then, ten years ago, came the disaster that could have changed everything.

Foot and mouth, which ravaged huge areas of the North of England but was particularly brutal here in the Yorkshire Dales, was largely a Labour government fiasco but it was the farmers who paid the price. But the TV film of tough, weather beaten countrymen weeping as their herds burned conjured up a huge wave of public sympathy.

I hoped that this new relationship with the subsidy paying customers would be exploited and a new town-country unity formed. But no – I was expecting too much. For on Wednesday this week, the farmers were given permission to do what they have been bleating about for the past decade: kill tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands - of one of the realm’s most popular mammals.

In what I consider top be her first major public error, the new Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman – whom I have praised on these pages as being the first person in that post to have the slightest understanding of rural affairs – gave the go-ahead for England’s farmers to embark on massive cull of badgers (See Wednesday News).

Trouble is, this theory is based on potentially flawed science...

The reason: the NFU has been saying for years that badgers spread bovine tuberculosis, which means that some 35,000 cattle have be slaughtered every year. This has been happening for several years, mainly in the West Country, but the disease is moving north and has been reported in Derbyshire.

Trouble is, this theory is based on potentially flawed science. Other informed bodies like the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals say that the farmers have got the situation backwards: it is the cattle which spread the disease to badgers!

When this row last blew up a couple of years ago, the then Defra boss Hilary Benn ruled out a massive badger cull and instead launched a veterinary research programme to discover ways of vaccinating the badgers.

Benn may have had little knowledge of country affairs but he is a compassionate man and he understood, quite rightly, that such slaughter on an industrial scale would infuriate the fast majority of British people, particularly as it is based on potentially flawed science.

Badger is the kind, wise old star of the greatest children’s book ever written, the Wind in the Willows, and Brock has appeared as a hero character in countless other stories. He is firmly lodged in millions of people’s conscience from those childhood tales and this country’s treatment of its ever rarer mammals has been a total disgrace.

We almost wiped out the otter, water voles have virtually disappeared, and the hare is in steep decline, as is the dormouse, another childhood favourite, with a result that the barn owls which prey on it are also under threat.

To this litany of disaster, Caroline Spelman has now added the badger for reasons which are at least questionable if not downright wrong. It will save a few millions pounds, peanuts when the costs of the culls are taken in account. These are austere times, I know, but she would be much better tackling the Common Agricultural Policy to reduce the billions that this country pours into the pockets of French peasants.

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