Buoyed by its huge popularity in the opinion polls and the fact that it is managing Brexit so well, the government has decided to further endear itself to the voters by shooting hundreds of thousands of badgers. Its cull of these creatures, previously limited to a few specific areas (where it has been staggeringly unsuccessful), is to be rolled out nationwide. This, then, is what we might call a Hard Brocksit strategy and it was revealed late on a bank holiday weekend in the hope that nobody would notice. But we did notice.
It is not known yet how exactly these animals will be despatched. Previously the hunters have sprinkled peanuts in the middle of a field in the dead of night and shot anything which tried to eat them. Cages have also been used. This time I would suggest that the badgers are transported live to Westminster Green where members of the cabinet can kick and stamp them to death, in full public view, just to drive the message home. Show a Tory a member of the animal kingdom and he will reach for his revolver, or cudgel, or hobnailed boots.
Whatever virtues the Conservative party possesses — and they seem to dwindle daily — being nice to animals isn’t one of them. It is just over a year since Theresa May, in a moment of monumental stupidity, announced she would like to see another free Commons vote on fox hunting with the aim to repeal the ‘hunting with hound’ legislation. Given that 80 per cent of the population is in favour of the ban and virtually all of those who are against are Tories, this was maladroit handling on a par with what you might expect from a Liverpool goalkeeper.
Do not underestimate the strength of feeling these issues arouse. As I traipsed from constituency to constituency during the last election campaign, fox hunting was right up there alongside immigration and economic competence as deciding factors in which way people intended to vote. Successive opinion polls have also suggested the public is equally averse to the badger cull — so there’s a few more million votes to be lost. Including mine; I voted Conservative for the first time last year, distressed by the state of my own party and unable, for aesthetic reasons, to vote for the idiotic Lib Dems.
But I will not do so again. I can’t vote for a party which shows such animus or at the least disdain for the animal kingdom, and does so serially, year after year, at the behest of our expensively subsidised and inefficient farmers. We have a grave crisis with our wildlife in this country, largely a consequence of loss of habitat occasioned by farming practices and, indeed, the building of ever more houses to accommodate an influx of immigration to which the public is, once again, fabulously averse. No party, not even the Greens (which stopped caring about animals about 30 years ago), takes this issue seriously. But the Conservatives really couldn’t give a monkey’s.
Already some of the pro-cull lobby have taken refuge in that most hilarious of redoubts, that the badgers actually like being shot. It’s good for them. This has echoes of the old canard deployed by the fox hunters — Reynard, bless him, absolutely loves the thrill of the chase! The badger haters insist it is better to be cleanly shot than die a lingering death underground of bovine tuberculosis (bTB). Right. Except that the badgers are rarely cleanly shot, something which greatly worries the British Veterinary Association among others, and the vast majority of those which are shot do not even have bTB.
The badger haters also sometimes add: ‘Plus, badgers eat hedgehogs!’ Quite true, and hedgehogs are indeed in precipitous decline. But not because of badgers. Even the main hedgehog campaigning organisation — the Mrs Tiggywinkle Liberation Front, or something — accepts that the dearth of hedgehogs is once again the consequence of intensive farming practices and destruction of hedgerows.
Nor is there the slenderest tendril of evidence to suggest that murdering our badger population will reduce the incidence of bTB among dairy cattle. Trial culls have demonstrated this very clearly. Remember that the first trial cull, over a nine-year period, was overseen by Lord Krebs, who said afterwards of the whole business: ‘I can’t understand how anyone who has looked at the science would say that it is a good idea.’
There has so far been no incidence of a reduction in bTB among dairy herds in areas where trial culls have been inexpertly carried out. The majority of badgers killed have been healthy and not vectors of the disease. At one cull, in Cumbria, it was noted that both the cattle and the few badgers infected with bTB showed a strain which originated in Northern Ireland. Badgers only rarely use ferries; they become discombobulated by the raucous behaviour of people in the top deck bar. The cause was infected cattle imported from Ulster. But mismanagement of farmyard slurry has also been suggested as a cause for the spread of bTB — and plenty of other animals (dogs, cats etc) are also susceptible to the virus and act as vectors. Nor are the testing methods much cop.
The answer, somewhere down the line, will be inoculation, of both badgers and cattle. The vaccine is not entirely effective right now, but in time it will be. Until then do nothing — better, by far, than a costly, cruel and possibly counterproductive programme of mass slaughter. In the past two trials the average cost per badger shot was about £4,000. Imagine that rolled out across the country.
I suspect we will look back at our badger cull much as we look back at our ‘accidental’ introduction of myxomatosis back in the 1950s. A grotesque and inhumane response to a creature which simply got in our way for a while. There are still rabbits with bulging eyes rotting in the hedgerows today. And every time I see one, I feel ashamed.