As a farmer, I have found it increasingly difficult to keep silent whilst the national debate has raged about the government's proposed badger cull. When I read recently that National Farmers Union president Peter Kendall had written to the BBC, accusing the corporation of anti-badger cull bias, I could keep silent no longer.
I am a 56-year-old farmer with a 48 hectare pasture farm, so the NFU is supposed to represent me, but it doesn't. Kendall says that the BBC has a duty to base its reports on the latest, most accurate science, and I entirely agree. Yet the uncomfortable problem for the NFU is that the most accurate science we have has consistently shown that killing badgers has very little scientific credibility whatsoever. To say so is not bias, it is simply fact but a fact that the NFU seems determined to ignore. By doing so it does a disservice to me and to all farmers.
My farm is right in the heart of one of the so-called TB hot-spots in Gloucestershire, just a stone's throw from the local pilot cull zone. In this high-risk area, local herds are tested for cattle tuberculosis annually. I want to get rid of cattle TB (bTB) as much as the next man, but I know full well that killing badgers is an irrelevant - but perhaps convenient - distraction from the very real reforms that urgently need to take place in the farming industry if we are to rid ourselves of this disease.
I may have chosen to farm livestock but I would consider it a complete failure on my part if the only way I could make my business succeed was by killing all the wild animals that interfered with my plans rather than making every effort possible to prevent problems in the first place.
Unless we can show that we have done all we can in terms of strict bio-security, first class cattle welfare and safeguarding our stock against infection, we should be ashamed of ourselves for reaching for the gun for a quick fix instead.
I'm proud of the fact that my family has farmed for generations which is why I want to see the government change its badger cull policy and instead drive forward a long-term solution which will, first and foremost, genuinely benefit cattle farmers and their businesses. I urge other cattle farmers to read the science for themselves and to see that England's badgers are an easy target but not the right target. The right target is bovine tuberculosis and the power to manage this disease lies with us. We must ask ourselves, if, in the long term, if we are better off sticking with DEFRA's outdated test and slaughter policy coupled with the continual killing of badgers or would we prefer a 21st Century farmer-led, cattle health and bio-security scheme giving us back responsibility for and control over our own herds?
DEFRA already offers this kind of approach to bTB in non-bovine sectors such as alpacas, llamas, deer, goats, pigs and sheep where better risk management is actively encouraged along with moves to implement vaccination and a pledge to help make these sectors self-regulating. This is a perfect illustration of how we should react to bTB in all animals, and if it were not for the outdated EU cattle export rules that ban the use of cattle vaccines and insist on unrealistic accelerated eradication, we would treat bTB in cattle the same way. We can't go on killing badgers when we should be changing the rules instead.
Badger shooting is due to start in my local area any day now. It's outrageous not just because it's an unnecessary slaughter, but because I know that my fellow hard-pressed farmers have been led to believe that the slaughter will help solve their problems when in fact it could very well simply make them worse.
Professor John Bourne CBE, chair of the independent scientists who oversaw the ten-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial, got it right when he reflected "It is unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control." For the sake of the future of this once proud industry, and the wildlife that we should cherish, I urge those agricultural leaders to start being honest with farmers.