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The culling fields - government mired in row over badgers

Guardian - Wednesday July 5, 2000

by Trevor Lawson

Government ministers are poised to allow the slaughter of thousands more badgers, adding to a pile of 20,000 corpses already being collected in the infamous "Krebs experiment".

Ministry of Agriculture operatives are currently swarming all over Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, eradicating badgers in the experiment to prove they give bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to cattle. But the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Nick Brown, has spent months mired in farmyard manure and wellies, in an effort to show he listens to farmers. Although the experiment is costing 34m, he now seems poised to condemn badgers before the evidence is available, desperate to end farmers' incessant whining.

The problem is that proof of badger involvement will not be available until 2004 at the earliest. And the man gathering the evidence - Prof John Bourne - says it could go either way. "We don't know if culling badgers makes things better," he admits. "It could make things a sight worse." It's thought that if badgers are a source of bTB, culling leaves lonely survivors, which take the disease further afield.

But with bTB increasing in cattle at a rate of knots, the National Farmers' Union must be seen to be doing something. It's concocted a proposal for more badgers to be killed wherever badgers can easily be blamed for bTB break-outs.

The plan has been opposed by conservation and welfare organisations, and by Bourne, in the TB Forum, which was set up to look at short-term solutions to the disease, focusing on cattle management. But ministry civil servants have edited the opposition out of the minutes and left the badger proposals off the forum's website, so as not to alarm the public.

Instead, a sub-group has discussed the proposals in secret. Officials deny that Brown supports the plan, but in June he said he would consider further culling if the TB Forum asked him to. Sources at Westminster indicate that he is happy to proceed, as is Baroness Hayman, his Lords counterpart.

A secret NFU memo, seen by the Guardian, shows that next week at the TB Forum meeting, the NFU plans to force a vote on the issue. The Forum has been set up with a majority of pro-cull organisations, so a majority is inevitable if a vote takes place. Culling could then get formal approval while the fox hunting bill dominates Parliament, reducing unwelcome media attention. The NFU is also planning an autumn press campaign, designed to convince people that they can catch bTB from badgers.

"There's still no evidence that badgers even transmit bTB to cattle. They certainly don't to people," said Dr Elaine King from the National Federation of Badger Groups. "Ministers say they have no intention of approving 'widespread badger culling', while behind the scenes their officials appear to be engineering a fait accomplis to deliver just that."

Ironically, the proposals have thrown the NFBG and Bourne into an unlikely alliance. Bourne proposed the TB Forum in the first place, to concentrate on cattle issues, and it now threatens to backfire. "Badgers are not in its remit," he insists.

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