Encouraging noises do no harm – but where's the real commitment?
David Cameron said all the right things on his flying visit to the North Devon Show last week, but I'm not sure if his emollient words are going to make a blind bit of difference to the way things pan out.
Take the badger cull, for example. The Prime Minister made much of having the political courage to tackle the wildlife reservoir of the disease and said he would be sticking to his guns.
Which is all well and good, except that it is not the Government which will be pulling the trigger. Responsibility for that has, very calculatedly, been devolved to the farming community, along with most of the costs and a good deal of the risk involved.
If the pilot culls succeed in removing 70% of the badgers in the six weeks or so allowed for the process, humanely and without undue public disorder, credit will belong to the two culling companies. Similarly, if the operation is rolled out to 10 more areas next year, as the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson would like, it will be because the farming community in each of those areas has organised itself and raised the funds to make it happen, probably with substantial assistance from the NFU.
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Against that background, I don't quite understand the NFU's complaints – articulated by Kevin Pearce in the WMN on Friday – that farmers are being expected to comply with all sorts of new controls on cattle movements while the Government does nothing to deal with the disease in badgers, when that isn't the Government's role.
It's no good blaming Messrs Cameron and Paterson for the delays. The timing is entirely in the hands of the culling companies, and knowing the individuals involved as I do, I'm sure they've got perfectly good reasons for holding off.
As for the nature of the culling process, about which many farmers are deeply sceptical, that too was pre-ordained by the so-called science and accepted by the NFU as part of the deal.
The alternative, of targeted culling, has never been properly assessed.
The situation as we have it now was all too horribly predictable. Farmers are being made to carry the can for a process in which they had little or no part in designing, in return for which they are being expected to shoulder costly and damaging controls on how they run their businesses. No wonder the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary are happy to stand on the side-lines and cheer them on.
I am not quite so cynical about the Prime Minister's endorsement of farming as "the backbone of Britain" and "a growth industry". The Government has, after all, recently committed £160 million of research funding to an agri-tech strategy explicitly geared to productive farming. But, as was pointed out at the time, it hardly squares with the Government's intention to divert hundreds of millions from farming support to environmental management (although in PR terms, that could turn out to be a blessing in disguise).
Still, we mustn't carp unduly. It isn't often that a Prime Minister turns up at a one-day agricultural show in the Westcountry and, along with the visit to Mole Valley Farmers at South Molton, it does demonstrate that farming is still on the Cameron radar – particularly in marginal constituencies.
In the final analysis, both the success of the pilot badger culls and the future of the industry will be in the hands of farmers themselves. Encouraging noises from the Government do no harm in that context, but a genuine commitment to deregulation and a less one-sided approach to TB control would be a whole lot better.
Anthony Gibson is a freelance writer and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org