Minister says badger cull will not be "knocked off course"
The Environment Secretary has sounded a note of defiance over the troubled South West badger culls by pledging not to "drop our spades and run away home".
Under-fire minister Owen Paterson told MPs the coalition will not be "knocked off course" despite pilot culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire failing to kill enough badgers within the trial period.
At a Commons grilling, he warned the cattle industry risked being wiped out in England unless the spread of the disease was countered – and even conceded domestic pets could be at risk.
Culling is central to Defra's plan to eradicate tuberculosis (TB) in cattle that forces thousands of sick cows to be slaughtered annually on the peninsula, a hotspot for the disease.
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Extensions have been granted to the licences for marksmen to continue shooting in Somerset and Gloucestershire after both failed to cull 70% of the badger population after the initial six-week period proved insufficient to hit the target.
Anti-cull campaigners have labelled the Government's handling of the cull a "complete shambles".
But Mr Paterson said yesterday: "This is a four-year programme. We are not going to drop our spades and run away home just after the first few weeks."
The minister said it "would have been better" to hit the target but added: "These are pilots and we are learning an awful lot from these. What is not an option, absolutely not an option, is to run away from the bacterium and pretend that the policy of the previous years, by only concentrating on cattle which has led to this hideous slaughter, will end in anything but disaster. It will end in this country not having a cattle industry."
He added it was "obvious" that the "arbitrary" six-week timescale was insufficient.
He said: "Let's wait until we get the evaluation by the independent panel but the most obvious thing is six weeks is not long enough. That was just an arbitrary timescale."
Mr Paterson said "every other sane country" had countered bovine TB by tackling the wild animals which can act as a reservoir for the disease.
Giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, he said even if the 70% target was not met the cull could still have an impact on bTB.
The culling period in west Gloucestershire was extended by eight-weeks to December 18 after the initial six-week trial fell far short of the target.
The six-week cull aimed to target 70% of the badger population in those two areas. But statistics released by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) revealed that in Gloucestershire 708 of an estimated 2,350 badgers – about 30% of the total – were killed.
In west Somerset 850 badgers were culled during the pilot – 60% of the local population – and a three-week extension was granted until November 1.
The pilots will determine the prospects of expanding to up to 40 culls. A roll-out could mean culling in neighbouring Devon and even into Cornwall – both considered bovine TB hotspots.
Mr Paterson said culling was vital because workable cattle vaccines could be a decade away.
"We are not going to be knocked off course on this. Sadly a badger vaccine does not work on diseased animals. Sadly we don't have a cattle vaccine.
"We are well ahead of the field in the rest of Europe ... that's a 10-year programme."
He added: "It seems to me that after the first few weeks in Somerset and Gloucestershire that – I pay tribute to those involved – these trials have proved to be safe."
Mr Paterson said the randomised badger culling trial (RBCT), which forms the scientific basis for the controversial pilots, had shown an impact on bTB despite the removal of between just 32% and 39% of badgers in three areas.
Tory committee member Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, asked him about the danger posed to pet cats from bTB unless its spread was checked.Mr Paterson said: "Well I wouldn't want to be alarmist but obviously if this disease got out of hand there is a risk of it getting into other hosts."