There are few certainties in British political life right now, but here is one. If the government follows through on its recent promise to allow the culling of badgers in areas infected by bovine TB, it will quickly find itself in trouble. Conservatives will be seen as the nasty party once more; there will be blubbing and hand-wringing among the Liberal Democrats. And, at the end of it all, the decision to allow farmers to blast away at one of the nation’s favourite wild animals may well serve to spread the disease it was intended to eradicate.
The temptation for Tories to declare war on Mr Brock, as Beatrix Potter called her badger in The Tale of Mr. Tod, must have been irresistible. Bovine TB, which is spread by infected badgers, caused 37,000 cattle in England and Wales to be slaughtered in 2009, costing the taxpayer more than £60m. In south-west England and Wales, one in seven herds is infected. Sanctioning a cull would endear the government to its supporters in the farming community and cost nothing. Under the privatised scheme proposed by the Agriculture Minister, farmers would be asked to do what many of them rather enjoy doing anyway – shoot wild animals.
No government, though, should ignore the level of intense, somewhat sentimental adoration in which certain species are held. We may eat more meat than ever, the welfare of animals who provide our food may be a matter of sublime indifference to most shoppers, but the idea of one of our favourite species being killed, for whatever reason, will be cue for protest and high emotion.
The last government discovered how strongly people feel about the fox. Badgers are in a different league of popularity. Unlike foxes, they have not developed a fondness for snacking on children. In the highly subjective matter of sympathy for wild animals, looks are everything; badgers are blessed, like hedgehogs, with an appearance which causes the human heart to melt. If bovine TB were spread by rats, the few people who objected to a nationwide cull would be regarded as distinctly odd.
It is intended that the badger cull starts in May – just in time for the BBC’s Springwatch programme, as it happens – and, more importantly, in the middle of the breeding season. The government will quickly find itself in deep difficulty with a sentimental, animal-loving electorate.
The practical problems will be no less difficult. The combination of protesters seeking to protect badgers and enthusiastic farmers, armed with high-speed rifles and hunting at night, is unlikely to be a happy one. At least, with the demonstrations against fox-hunting, there was no danger of the demonstrators becoming the prey. Beyond the risk to human life, there is the inevitability of badgers being wounded and dying a slow and painful death.
Even without the intervention of animal rights protesters, the cull is only to be successful if it is organised and comprehensive. A farmer might, through lamping at night and setting up hides above badger setts, manage to clear his land, but if his neighbour is unco-operative, the effect will be minimal. The National Trust, which has a record of being steered by its animal-loving membership, is unlikely to welcome guns and traps on its land.
A cull could easily do more harm than good. Research shows that while badger numbers decrease in the area where they are being shot, the effect in the longer term is to spread the disease across a wider area. The government has sought to obviate the problem of infected animals moving out of areas where they are being shot by insisting that a minimum area of 150km should be culled but, logically, the idea that badgers will not move outside this arbitrary limit sounds like a nonsense.
In his new spirit of honesty, Tony Blair has admitted he never quite came to grips with the fox-hunting debate, and that wrong decisions had been made. His successor would be wise to learn from that lesson, and remember that one should never underestimate the animal passion of the British.