Badger control is crucial if PGI status is to pay off
NO ONE is more relieved than I that at last we have achieved protected EU status for West Country beef and lamb.
Long before the start of the eight-year campaign which resulted in the EU awarding Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, I was arguing that the unique, grass-fed meat from this region was so distinctive that it merited recognition.
The designation will allow shoppers in this country to opt for a superior product and, in theory, will add a valuable export commodity to the range of speciality foods for which we are becoming recognised.
But I say "in theory" because there are misgivings about the benefits and practicalities of the new status, particularly among those whose job it is to promote British meat.
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They are asking themselves how they can give assurances of a steady supply of certified PGI products to overseas buyers at a time when TB is cutting a swathe through the ranks of the South West's livestock farmers.
The fear is that we end up creating a market that we are not able to supply simply because we are still not adopting a sufficiently robust attitude to badger control and disease eradication.
The EU has made it plain that it expects to see positive results in return for the considerable funds it has provided for us to combat the menace of bovine TB.
As of January 1, we have seen more controls imposed on farmers. Not all farmers appear to realise the significance of this but, essentially, if a farmer owns and runs several blocks of land and one is shut down because of TB, all the others will automatically be shut down, too.
Then there are the penalties for late testing, which will lead to fines in the forms of reductions in Single Farm Payments – the very money on which so many livestock farmers rely.
I've had my own experience in this direction, fencing off a badger sett on the advice of Defra to avoid cattle contact only to be penalised by the Rural Payments Agency for claiming on land that cattle did not have access to, though technically it was still grazing land.
The consolation is that my cattle went clear of TB.
But all these controls, all these additional measures, are proving so onerous that many livestock farmers are simply chucking in the towel, concluding there are less arduous ways of earning a living.
And we are still only treating the symptoms of the TB epidemic, not the cause.
We are still only tackling the effects of the problem rather than making a serious assault on the reasons it is there: a massive population of infected wild animals.
Unless we make the wholesale control of badgers an absolute priority there are only two possible outcomes, neither of them palatable.
Either we shall find the door slammed on exports, dealing a crippling blow to the economy of the South West, or, when the all-important world market comes knocking on the door and waving lucrative contracts, we shall simply not have the volumes of beef and lamb to supply– PGI status or not.