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  Why the celebrity status of badgers is a problem
A zoonosis is an infectious disease which can be transmitted to humans from animals. Before pasteurisation made it safe to drink milk from infected cows, bovine tuberculosis (bTB), killed countless thousands of people. It remains a threat to farmers in close contact with cattle with open bTB and to anyone drinking raw milk from infected herds. We should all be concerned that this dangerous disease is continuing its relentless spread beyond the west country.

MPs receive campaigning letters opposing industrialised dairy units and reminding them that we should keep cows on grass. I agree, but allowing them to graze the fields in parts of my south Devon constituency can be a death sentence when these are shared with heavily infected badgers, especially those suffering from bTB deposits in their kidneys or bowel. The disease is also transmitted between cattle but enhanced biosecurity to reduce this has failed to control the advancing edge of the disease.

In 1998, there were 191 new herd incidents of bTB in Devon resulting in the slaughter of 599 cattle. By 2012 that had risen to 859 new herd incidents and 6,535 cattle culled in a single year. Nationally 37,754 cows were slaughtered in 2012 as a result of bTB and over the past decade £500m has been spent, with no reversal of the tide.

Anyone who works alongside dairy farmers will know the emotional toll from the repeated early destruction of their herds, sometimes obliterating long pedigree lines or leading to the culling of heavily pregnant cows.

Farmers do care about their livestock and about maintaining a balanced wildlife. I rarely meet farmers who wish to see the total eradication of badgers and this would not happen as a result of the cull; most feel that healthy setts help to keep diseased animals away from their land. The resentment, however, is at the repeated culling of their livestock when they can take no action even where sick badgers in poor condition are putting their herds at risk.

The badger of popular mythology is often portrayed as an endangered but gentle vegetarian. They are a common sight across the west country; undeniably beautiful, sentient and social creatures. But so too are hedgehogs, yet I have not seen one of those for a decade in my area of South Devon. The way that they are dispatched by badgers is the stuff of children's nightmares. With no natural predators, badger numbers are now out of balance in parts of the UK. We allow the control of deer, rabbits and other mammals and there was barely a murmur following the total extermination of the coypu, also a sentient mammal but non-indigenous and without a campaign team.

Could it be that the celebrity status of badgers may have put their entire population at risk by preventing a balanced view of the need to control the spread of bTB?

There are many scientists who insist that a badger cull can add little or nothing to the control of bTB but there are others who feel equally strongly that it cannot be controlled without addressing the disease in wildlife. I have no doubt that the weight of public opinion will oppose a mass badger cull but to put this in perspective, 5,000 would be culled in the Gloucestershire and Somerset pilots compared with around 50,000 killed annually on Britain's roads and the far greater numbers of cattle whose culling only a few will protest against. Why are we content to tolerate the continued early mass slaughter of these beautiful creatures? Had we dealt with this problem a decade ago while it was still geographically isolated we would not be in the position we are today.

I fear this pilot will be marred by disruption and the intimidation of farmers or anyone else, for that matter, who dares to suggest that you may have to control the disease in wildlife to control it in cattle.

There are those who would prefer to vaccinate every wild badger than see an animal culled. It has cost £943,000 to vaccinate just 1,424 badgers in one area of Pembrokeshire. Are we seriously thinking this would be a reasonable use of public money if it were rolled out across the UK for several years in succession? It would be obscene in my view when there are so many human health issues that should take priority.

In the long term, a vaccine delivered through bait rather than injection might help to control the disease in wildlife but that is still many years away and likewise a test that would be accepted by the EU to differentiate diseased from vaccinated cattle. The EU does not allow farmers to vaccinate cattle.

In the meantime, with a heavy heart, I believe we must allow the pilot to answer the question about whether controlled shooting can humanely control badgers. A cull of badgers is having an effect on the disease in Ireland but allows the use of snares which are deemed unacceptable in Britain.

There used to be a dairy farm on almost every hillside in the South Hams. Unless we take action to control bTB and to pay a fair price for milk, that way of life will be completely lost and those green hillsides will increasingly be replaced with industrialised indoor dairy units alongside acres of solar arrays.
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