Owen Paterson talks to farmers

Here’s what Owen Paterson said last week. This speech opened the Oxford Farming Conference.

Mr Paterson’s our Home Secretary for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, so this is a career politician’s speech. We can make our own judgements. One of the striking topics in Mr Paterson’s speech is the culling of badgers (Meles meles) to control tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle (Bos primigenius). Here’s a list of notifiable diseases affecting livestock in Britain. Mr Paterson says he’ll go ahead with badger culling next year. Then he quietly remarks on the movement of cattle around our country. As you know, I’m against the cull and in favour of the movement restrictions.

About the cull, I agree with the scientists hired by our previous Government. They considered this question for more than a decade, then said (in scientific words) ‘Don’t cull British badgers!’ I wrote about the evidence that culling badgers here may not be just a waste of resources. It may actually increase bovine TB.

So why does Mr Paterson insist that the cull will go ahead? Only ‘pilot’ culls, a few sentences after he’s said that badger culling will work against bovine TB only if ‘carried out over a large enough area for a sufficient length of time’. Contradicting himself, eh? I think it’s pretty clear why he says he’ll go ahead with the cull. He gave this speech at a conference about farming. As Alistair Driver at the Farmers Guardian wrote, the National Farmers Union (NFU) president Peter Kendall asked Mr Paterson to have badgers culled next year.

After saying this, perhaps Mr Paterson hoped that the audience had stopped listening. He went on to say that badger culling is ‘only one element of the Government’s approach to tackling bovine TB… strengthen cattle movement controls, increase our surveillance testing regime and invest in research into badger and cattle vaccines… also.. better diagnostic techniques such as PCR.’

PCR? What’s that? How to lose your audience’s attention. Please Close Receivers…

I hope you’re still reading. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) has many uses, including diagnostics. It detects particular DNA sequences. I’ve run many thousands of PCRs. It’s not yet ready to be useful for diagnosing TB in cattle but I agree with Mr Paterson that this is something to look forward to. So keep funding good research, Government!

Vaccine? Sounds good, doesn’t it? But I wrote about how badger vaccination needs more development. So like I said, keep funding good research, Government!

Meanwhile, you know my opinion about Mr Paterson’s other point. I wrote that I think restrictions on cattle movement are the way forward for TB control.

Mr Paterson says he’ll strengthen cattle movement controls and I’m waiting to see him do that. Perhaps it won’t immediately please his supporters in the farming world, but I hope he pushes it through. Needs must.

PS I’ve just found that Matthew at The Bovine TB Blog says we do need to cull badgers.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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7 Responses to Owen Paterson talks to farmers

  1. Thank you for commenting on my blog and I am sorry that we have that in common. I have never been here before, but in looking around it is very interesting and well done. My sister is a veterinarian here in the states.. Regarding the post..it makes me think that the response when in doubt is ‘kill it’……Michelle

    • argylesock says:

      Yes I think that’s the attitude behind some of the pro-cull opinion. Me, I’ve nothing against shooting if it’s done properly to minimise suffering. But it seems that with badger culling, if you clear one sett or whatever, the badgers from next door will move in and bring whatever they’re carrying. So you’d almost need to eradicate M. meles to eradicate bTB.

      I’m glad you like my blog 🙂

  2. I wasn’t aware of this problem (since I no longer live in the UK) so thanks for the information. I agree with you. Culling wildlife with the goal of eliminating a species from an area is rarely successful.

    • argylesock says:

      Are you thinking of a particular case? Mr Paterson tosses in mentions here and there. I think it the outcome of culling wildlife is likely to depend on the species and its food web.

      • No case. Just that wildlife are resourceful and will survive against all odds as long as they have food/habitat. Culling would have to be extremely aggressive to eliminate a species in the expansive UK countryside where there are so many hiding places.

        Just last week I saw 2 bobcats in St. Paul, MN (city of 300,000). They had built a den in a small wooded area. Extremely resourceful. I was glad I wasn’t any closer than I was 🙂

  3. argylesock says:

    Is anybody trying to eliminate the bobcat? Here, nobody tries to eliminate the badger (Meles meles) and there’d be a public outcry if that were even suggested. It’s such an iconic creature.

    But I’m wondering whether M. meles could be managed with licensed shooting. That’s a suggestion that nobody (sfaik) has made in public. But we have licensed shooting for other species which lack natural enemies. Either because those natural enemies were hunted to extinction many years ago (hence management of the red deer (Cervus elephus)) or because the species isn’t native here (hence management of the fallow deer (Dama dama)). Not long ago, M. meles was managed in various cruel ways, such as digging it out of its sett and baiting it with terriers. I certainly wouldn’t condone such a thing. But shooting? Why not?

  4. Pingback: Horse and pig in beefburgers | Science on the Land

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