When Ben Fogle tweeted his opposition last week to fox hunting, one user called him a “typical townie”. When he responded that he had lived and worked in the countryside for 20 years they came back to suggest he was over emotional.
You get this a lot if you take a reasoned stance on wildlife issues. Take the badger cull, set to continue this autumn. It is often reported as a battle: wildlife lovers vs farmers, town vs country, sentimentalists vs gritty realists. But scientific evidence is against it. Not to mention, actually, a good number of cattle farmers and rural landowners like the National Trust.
The Randomised Badger Culling Trial famously concluded that badger culling could make “no meaningful contribution” to bovine TB control. The scientists themselves warned the then Defra minister David Miliband that it might even make it worse since disturbance of badgers’ social groups could lead to infected survivors spreading the disease further afield. Miliband listened and, despite pressure from the National Farmers Union, said there would be no badger cull under the Labour government. David Cameron didn’t listen and, with pressure from the NFU, promised a badger cull in his winning 2010 manifesto.
Actually, the vast majority of badgers killed during the RBCT were disease-free and only 1.65 per cent of those with bTB were suffering contagious, late-stage symptoms. Perhaps this inconvenient truth is why the government has made the bizarre decision not to bother testing dead badgers. Who wants to produce more data against the badger cull, eh?
Badgers are also not the only carriers of bTB; farm cats are more likely to spread the disease. But most likely to spread bovine TB (sorry if I insult your intelligence here by stating the bloody obvious) are the bovines themselves.
In a rush to re-stock cattle herds after the devastation of foot and mouth disease in 2001, hundreds of thousands of cattle were moved around the country with no bTB testing and the number of cattle culled for bTB increased by 300 per cent in 2002.
Wales has managed to almost halve bTB in cattle recently without any badger culling, instead tightening restrictions on cattle movement, improving biosecurity and vaccinating badgers. They’ve also implemented more rigorous TB testing for cows as, alarmingly, the basic skin test used in England misses half of infected cattle. Elsewhere in the UK, an outbreak on the Isle of Skye last month put Scotland’s enviable TB-free status at risk. Broadcaster Simon King tweeted “Killing badgers is a tragic distraction to tackling the problem of bTB in cattle. There are NO badgers on Skye.”
Here’s maybe the most bizarre bit of the whole badger cull debacle – there isn’t a bTB vaccine for cows. And the government has delayed plans to develop one on the grounds of cost, while cracking on with the increasingly expensive badger cull. If I was a farmer, I’d be livid.
It’s not the only issue in our countryside where science is being ignored at taxpayers and wildlife’s expense. In order to create the high numbers of red grouse expected at a driven grouse shoot, gamekeepers burn the heather to stimulate growth of young shoots for the grouse to feed on. A recent study concluded that this heather burning degrades peatland carbon stores, known as “the Amazon of the UK”, polluting rivers and contributing to climate change. Our water treatment bills rise because of it and rural communities like Hebden Bridge – below a grouse moor under investigation by the EU for its intensive moorland management – are flooded again and again.
Despite this, landowners receive government subsidies. An investigation by Friends of the Earth found 30 grouse shooting estates – owned by lords, dukes, barons and bankers alike – had claimed more than £4 million in income support in 2014.
The government can keep payrolling damaging rural practises. Twitter trolls can goad with “over emotional townie” arguments. But the cold hard scientific facts will keep proving them wrong.