Badger controversy casts shadow over idyllic English countryside
A Gloucestershire farmer’s blog has highlighted the issue of badgers and TB
Protesters demonstrating in London. In farmers’ eyes, animal rights activists feel sympathy for the badgers culled in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in a trial last year, but none for them or their stock. Photograph: PA
David Barton’s family has worked Manor Farm in Middle Duntisbourne for five generations. The farm is situated near Cirencester in Gloucestershire, in the heart of the Cotswolds. With its Norman churches, old-world charm and beautiful scenery the region is, for many, akin to the Garden of Eden. For Barton, however, there is a plague at the heart of his idyll.
Since 2001 he has lost more than 100 cattle to tuberculosis, a disease blamed by farmers in Gloucestershire and elsewhere on badgers, though that argument provokes fierce resistance.
Last month, Barton, by then in near-despair, started a blog after the latest batch of cattle, including a much-beloved bull, Ernie, failed testing. The blog has since won a worldwide readership. “I can’t watch . . . the BANG, when it finally comes, is piercing and final. The other cows know exactly what has happened and what is about to happen,” he wrote.
His latest casualties were shot on the farm because they had been treated for worms before the TB testers came, which meant they could not be taken to a slaughterhouse.
Animal rights activists In farmers’ eyes, animal rights activists feel sympathy for the badgers that
were culled in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in a trial last year, but none for them or for their stock. In his blog, Barton seeks to redress the balance, showing a video taken by the National Farmers’ Union on the day the slaughterers came to Middle Duntisbourne.
Ernie is quickly shot. “Next is Hugo. With her huge, doe-like eyes she looks at me and knows. The cow with the baby calf is becoming fractious and aggressive. She can smell blood and cordite. As she is becoming so wild, she is shot with a single bullet from a rifle. A perfect shot finally breaking the tension,” wrote Barton.
Following loss after loss, Barton is on the edge of giving up: “It’s bloody hard and quite frankly I have had enough and I’m getting out of beef because of it. You can’t live with this. It’s ruining businesses, it’s upset my whole family. They are distraught about this. It’s only two years since we were doing it before.”
Environment secretary Owen Paterson favours culling badgers. So do farmers, though the trials did not work, because shooters failed to find enough badgers. Paterson, a Shropshire MP and one not given to subtlety, infuriates the animal rights camp, though he insists he would support national vaccination of badgers, without culling, if that worked.
Bill Oddie, a respected ornithologist, as well as a comedian and actor, is one of Paterson’s most bitter critics. “He’s pretty good at saying stupid things,” said Oddie furiously this week. He said a valid scientific case in favour of vaccination has been made for two years.
Last month it was announced that badgers living on the edge of the most heavily infected parts of England would be vaccinated in a bid to create a buffer zone to stop the spread of TB.
However, Paterson insists that culling in worst-hit areas is necessary and that the well of TB that lies within the badger population will never be erased without it. He says the the fall in TB rates in the Republic, where culls have taken place, is evidence culling works. But in Northern Ireland, where no cull has taken place, numbers have also fallen following a scheme that involved vaccination of healthy badgers and destruction of infected ones.
New herds infected Nearly 1,000 new herds were shown to be infected in Britain in January and February, though more than
16,000 were tested and the vast majority shown were to be clear. Nearly 6,000 cattle were slaughtered. As in Ireland, infected herds cannot be sold or moved off the farm until the remaining animals face tests carried out every 60 days until all the animals are shown to be clear.
For Barton and his neighbours in Middle Duntisbourne the “clock is already ticking” until the departmental testers return in mid- July.
“Will we lose no animals, one animal or 30? I don’t know and no matter how hard you try to put it out of your mind the fear and uncertainty [are] always there. If any cattle react positively at the next test – even if it’s just one – we face at least another four months before we can get back to anything like normal,” he said.