Controversial pilot culls of badgers in two South West locations will go ahead next year, according to Farming Minister David Heath.
The Frome and Somerton Lib Dem MP restated the Government’s commitment to controlling the reservoir of bovine TB in the badger population by introducing the pilot culls in early summer.
He told the annual open meeting of the Somerset county branch of the National Farmers’ Union: “I promise you it is our very clear intention to do these trials next summer.”
With the flood of disease challenges he was facing in his new Ministerial job, he sometimes felt like “all four horsemen of the apocalypse rolled into one”, he said. He explained he had not been expecting to be given his ministerial job but was “absolutely delighted” that he had been.
Mr Heath stressed that vaccination for either badgers or cattle was not a viable option for controlling bovine TB, in fact it was illegal in the case of the latter, and that if there was an alternative to culling badgers to curtail the spread of the disease the Government would use it, but there was nothing currently available.
“Frankly this should have been sorted out years ago,” he said.
The pilot culls in West Somerset and around Tewkesbury were called off at short notice this autumn because of a lack of time before the start of the badger breeding season and because of the number of badgers involved, far greater than had at first been estimated. Seventy per cent of all badgers in the cull areas were to have been shot by licensed marksmen paid for by farmer groups – a highly controversial programme opposed by animal-welfare organisations and condemned in a backbencher debate in the House of Commons, when the Government’s plans were defeated.
Bovine TB has been causing widespread havoc in cattle herds in the Westcountry and last year was responsible for the deaths of 26,000 cattle nationally, costing tens of millions of pounds in compensation and anguish to farmers who have seen their herds decimated.
Speaking more generally about the challenges to agriculture, Mr Heath admitted he “did not have all the answers” and had to listen to those who were doing the farming.
He said that although there were a lot of threats and difficulties facing farmers, overall he was optimistic for their future.
But he said the country needed a food strategy, and that if people could not be fed, the Government was failing.
“I haven’t got a magic wand,” he said. “All I can do is my best as your Minister.”