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Saving Brock the Badger: We can afford it

Friday 26 October 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, long concerned about the dwindling populations of wild mammals in our countryside, decries the call for a huge cull of badgers on financial grounds because, compared to the billions wasted by Government, it is "chicken feed"

EXPERTS. The people who tell us what to eat, how much to exercise, how to bring up our children - until, of course, they change their minds or another set of "experts" comes out with exactly the opposite advice. I suspect there are many people like me who now ignore anything they say because we are totally confused.

As I have said before in this column, my favourite epigram of all time states that the reason why arguments between academics become so heated is because there is so little at stake. But this week, two allegedly "top scientists" fell out with each other over a matter of great import to country lovers and this, literally, is a matter of life and death.

badger under threat
Under threat: Brock the Badger

The life and death of the badger, that is, which probably is responsible for the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle, particularly in the West Country. This week there were calls for a mass cull of the entire badger population between, roughly, Bristol and Land's End, a slaughter of tens of thousands, perhaps even a hundred thousand, of one of Britain's favourite wild animals.

This recommendation came from the Government's Chief Scientist, Sir David King. Yet only a few months ago, the so-called Independent Science Group led by Professor John Bourne declared - after studying the problem for ten years - that a mass cull would be ineffective and could even make matters worse.

The two camps spent much of the week rubbishing each other's science - about par for the course - but the argument left me conflicted. As anyone who reads this column regularly knows, I am a great supporter of farming and famers. But I am also deeply concerned at the steep decline of the wild mammal population of this green and pleasant land. So what to do?

Now some of the media inferred that Sir David was acting under pressure from the Treasury because the vaccination of cattle against bovine TB costs some £80 million per year. Yet another story published this week reported findings from the Taxpayers' Alliance which suggests that this Government has wasted £101 billion in failed initiatives in the past decade. Yet a third report showed that a single top civil servant is about to retire with a £2.7 million pension, including a £335,000 tax-free lump sum.

The alleged £80 million vaccination bill shrinks to insignificance when figures like this are bandied about. It also does not include the costs of a mass cull, which would also run into many millions because it would demand a huge amount of manpower to cover the whole South West.

it brings shame on a country world-famous for its alleged kindness to

For the same expenditure, it would probably be possible to vaccinate, not the cattle, but the badgers themselves. Eradicate the disease in them and you cure the problem, a solution which does not seem to have occurred to anyone in Westminster or Whitehall although mass vaccinations of wild animals have been successful in mainland Europe.

Britain once had an enormous range of native mammals. Bear, bison, beaver, boar and lynx are long gone and, probably not over-mourned. But since I was a lad, the otter and the water vole have come close to extinction, the red squirrel hangs on by a single claw, the hare is now a rarity for reasons I have never heard explained and even poor old Prickles the hedgehog has lost half its numbers in some areas.

Mice and shrew populations are also in massive decline and, if you don't care too much about mice, Barn owls do because they feed on them and so one of our most magnificent birds is threatened too. Add the badger to this dismal list and it brings shame on a country world-famous for its alleged kindness to animals.

As all political parties boast of their "green" credentials, here is a chance for real action rather than empty promises. Keep on paying the paltry £80 million a year until we can develop an effective badger vaccination programme and cut a few billion off Government waste. Better still, sack 30 top civil servants and their over-blown pension plans.

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