Labour 'cowardly' over cull of badgers
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has made a fierce defence of culling badgers to curb tuberculosis in cattle, labelling Labour "inaction" as "cowardly".
The minister, who assumed the rural affairs brief last month, told the Conservative party conference in Birmingham bovine tuberculosis – which is rife in the South West – has caused a "shattering financial and emotional cost on our farmers, their families and communities".
In his first keynote speech in the role, he also urged the British public to back farmers as they did the country's Olympians this summer by buying more home-grown produce.
The Natural England quango has just licensed "pilot" badger culls in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset.
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After six weeks, officials will assess whether trained marksmen shooting free-running badgers is safe and humane, and the pilots could be extended to last four years and pave the way for up to 40 cull "zones" over the next four years.
Mr Paterson told activists the cost to the taxpayer of bovine TB would rise to £1 billion over the next decade, chiefly through compensation to farmers, "if we don't take action".
He said: "Let's be clear. Bovine TB imposes a shattering financial and emotional cost on our farmers, their families and communities.
"This will only get worse if we continue the cowardly policy of inaction pursued by Labour in government."
Labour refused to sanction a cull, claiming the scientific evidence did not justify killing badgers, which carry the disease. But the coalition Government argues a 16% reduction in the disease is possible.
Despite £15.5 million being spent on vaccine research, there was no workable solution in the short term, Mr Paterson said.
He continued that there is "no workable, oral badger vaccine and there probably won't be for several years", and insisted an effective vaccine for cattle is "some way off".
Meanwhile, Queen guitarist Brian May, a vocal opponent of the cull, was at the Conservative conference yesterday to lobby MPs against the move.
He told the Western Morning News: "Culling has never worked and will not work. The only way is vaccination."
And while he believed opponents would win the argument in the end, in the meantime thousands of badgers – mainly healthy – would be killed.
Farmers supporting the cull have voiced concern about intimidation from protesters, who mounted a noisy campaign outside conference on Sunday. Speaking out against harassment, Mr May said: "We are fighting for humanity and decency so we have to behave humanely and decently. We don't support any kind of intimidation."
Mr Paterson also highlighted the "plight" of dairy farmers against the backdrop of falling farmgate milk prices and scores of farmers going out of business, many in the Westcountry.
He hailed the recently signed dairy code of practice between farmers and processors to ensure producers get a better deal, but contended "we can also do our bit".
Mr Paterson, MP for a rural constituency in Shropshire, said Britain imports 115,000 tonnes of ice cream – more than double the 50,000 tonnes sent abroad.
"Just as we got behind Team GB this summer, we must get behind our farmers," he said.
"By buying British, we can support our producers and enjoy some of the best dairy products in the world."