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A cull won't solve our farming problem, so stop blaming the badgers

Bovine tuberculosis in cattle causes emotional and financial havoc, but it's time for farmers to stop looking to a badger cull - it won't solve anything.

I’ve been a hill farmer for forty years so I know a thing or two about cattle. I also know quite a bit about badgers because near our farm in north west Northumberland we have several badger setts in the valley. Our badgers and the cows in this valley live happily side by side without incident and without a single case of bovine tuberculosis in cattle on farms in this area.

The government and the National Farmers Union would have people believe that the only solution to controlling the devastating scourge of bTb, is to kill thousands of badgers. I think that’s nonsense. Shooting badgers is a pointless exercise, a short-term, ineffective, sticky-plaster on the gaping wound that is bovine tuberculosis.

I have firsthand experience of bTB, I know the immense emotional and financial havoc that it brings to hard-working, hard-pressed farmers and I understand how desperate they are to see something done to make it go away. But for the government to stubbornly pursue a badger cull when all the scientific and conservation common sense tells us it simply won’t work, is ultimately not going to help farmers. And farmers themselves have got to come to terms with that inconvenient truth.

Jim Paice, the former DEFRA Minister said that doing nothing was not an option. Of course not, but doing the wrong thing is even worse. Culling badgers is very likely to spread bTb to previously uninfected areas. Badgers are timid creatures who are also socially mobile. The badgers on our land don’t just stick to their own setts, they move from sett to sett with a number of satellite setts in between. Badgers under attack will run beyond their territory and if that happens, we could end up with a far bigger bTb problem on our hands than ever before.

Killing badgers is also morally bankrupt because it’s diverting much-needed funds and energy away from tackling the fundamental root causes of the TB problem. For as long as this government is obsessed with culling badgers, it’s not focusing on measures to reduce TB on farms and that’s where we need to get to grips with it.

My own observation is that bTb hot-spots tend to be in areas where you have dairy farms with ever increasing intensification of cattle. Intensive farming methods are focused on increasing profit by increasing yield from ever more pressured animals who, inevitably, become more stressed and therefore more vulnerable to disease.

Intensification of dairy farming in particular, is a growing problem borne of market pressures. The dairy sector is already under enormous financial hardship, with farmers working long hours for decreasing returns. Their solution? Buy more cows and increase their milk production. It’s a terrible downwards spiral that leads to poor cattle welfare, low immunity and a disease disaster waiting to happen.

To truly tackle bTB and other diseases like mastitis, we need to detensify cattle farming and stop pushing animals to the very limit. That is precisely what the NFU should be telling farmers, not helping them on to the badger culling bandwaggon. But the NFU is little more than a self-serving bureaucracy more interested in its own survival. 

We bought our current farm thirteen years ago and we’ve done an immense amount of work to enhance and encourage wildlife and rich biodiversity. We’ve created woodlands and habitats and in so doing, farmed using methods that are in harmony with nature. On our farm we run self-catering holiday cottages, embracing eco-tourism and sharing our passion for wildlife. Our visitors get up close and personal with nature, even having footage of our badgers and barn owls streamed live into every cottage. We are living proof that if you treat the natural world around you with respect and live in balance with nature, badgers and other wild animals are far from being the enemy, they are a wonderful delight to be treasured and protected.