Nick Clegg has backed the controversial West Country badger cull – and urged celebrity campaigners against it to stop inflaming the situation.
The Deputy Prime Minister also that pledged the coalition would not allow developers to concrete over the Green Belt, but would boost house-building.
The Western Daily Press has reported how Natural England has issued a licence for the free shooting of badgers in West Gloucestershire, with a second one in Somerset imminent. Ministers insist it is vital for tackling the spread of bovine TB, which is devastating West farms and costing taxpayers £90 million a year. But celebrities like Queen guitarist Brian May are fighting back, and the petition he launched against the cull has now been signed by more than 100,000 people.
As comments become increasingly emotional, there are calls for boycotts of supermarkets over the cull, and warnings by some activists of taking direct action.
Mr Clegg said: “This is an incredibly difficult issue. It divides opinion, it provokes a great deal of emotion and passion. I can understand that.
"I’m a great animal lover myself. The idea of culling a single badger is of course distressing, but I really do think it needs to be balanced against the huge distress and pain which cattle experience themselves, and the massive psychological, emotional and financial distress caused to farmers and their family.
“So it’s not as simple as only focussing on the suffering on one side of the equation because there is suffering on both sides of the equation.
“You don’t want to cull badgers but if you don’t cull badgers at least on a pilot basis, which is what we are doing, there’s very little evidence anywhere around the world that you can really bear down on bovine TB without bearing down on the animal population that carries the disease in the first place.”
Mr Clegg said they were being sensible, and guided by science, in holding the two West pilot culls, to see whether they could be conducted safely and humanely.
And he added: “I would ask people – I totally respect and admire their commitment to avoid animal suffering – just to reflect on the fact that yes, we do not want to see badgers culled, but nor do we want to see cattle suffer a terrible disease. I visited farms in the South West myself, and it made quite an impression on me to see the animal and human effects of bovine TB. You would have to have a heart of stone not to try and find some way of trying to deal with this.
“This is a difficult and delicate moral and policy dilemma. I think almost any choice you make in this area is going to inflame anger and objections one way or another. I would ask people who feel strongly about this to respect there is a legitimate other side of the story in this debate – and it is not sensible for people to start staking out ever more vituperative positions.”
Mr May claimed the petition could get a million signatures: “I believe people of this country are speaking and saying they want to be heard and don’t want this bloodshed in the countryside.”
West-based actor Anthony Head and TV wildlife presenters Sir David Attenborough and Bill Oddie also oppose the cull, along with Labour.
Lib Dem Somerton & Frome MP David Heath, the new Agriculture Minister, said there was a lot of misleading information from cull opponents.
“They say culling will make the situation worse and that vaccination is a viable alternative – the science says they’re wrong on both counts.”
Mr Clegg also defended the Government against claims that in its desperation to boost the economy, it will concrete over the countryside.
It has announced it will relax planning laws, to allow extensions like conservatories to be built without consent, and waive the requirement on developers to include affordable homes in their schemes.
Planning powers will be removed from local councils ministers believe are guilty of poor or slow decision-making, and some advisors close to the Tories want to allow building on the green belt, including 106,000 hectares in the West, such as between Bristol and Bath, Cheltenham and Gloucester, and in Dorset.
Mr Clegg said: “There are numerous sites around the country, including the South West, where developers have received permission from councils to build homes, usually a mixture of private homes and affordable homes, but where literally nothing is happening, where the developer has basically not got a single spade in the ground. It is denying young families in the South West a home.
“All we trying to do is kick start construction on sites where planning permission had previously been granted.”