Landlines: Farmers are convinced that shooting badgers is effective

On one short stretch of road recently I saw five dead badgers. That death toll suggests there are a lot of badgers about. As indeed there are.

Estimates vary, but the UK badger population has been put as high as one million. It is also suggested that the steady increase in badger numbers over the past 20 years is at least partly responsible for the massive decline in hedgehog numbers, as badgers are partial to hedgehogs.

More pertinent for livestock farmers, more badgers means more bovine TB because they carry the infection and spread it on grazing areas. On-off badger culls authorised by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Areas in specific areas – on or off depending on which government minister is head of Defra at the time – have been inconclusive. That is, anti-cull protesters claim that shooting badgers has not reduced TB in cattle. As well as being ineffective, they say, it is cruel because many badgers have not been killed outright.

Farmers, however, are convinced that shooting badgers is effective. That is not surprising. Some dairy farmers have spent years under restrictions and seen hundreds of their cattle slaughtered because regular testing shows they have TB. Any improvement is welcome. Testing clear of TB after eight, ten or a dozen years must produce an amazing feeling of relief and a conviction that eliminating badgers works.

More objective evidence is provided by vet Roger Blowey who has TB tested cattle in Gloucestershire for 40 years. His analysis of 21 farms with almost 7,000 cattle in the badger-cull area indicated that over the 18 months of badgers being shot the number of bovine TB cases fell by 83%. Analysis in Somerset in a cull area indicated an even greater success rate. That seems solid evidence to me. I have nothing against badgers but then I’m not a dairy farmer in a hot spot bovine TB area. Being parochial, I hope the badger problem never reaches the same critical stage in the Borders and north Northumberland.

We all know the saying there are lies, damned lies and then statistics, but that is not always true. We also know, because the message has been given time after time for year after year, that there is a gap between those who farm efficiently and profitably and those who consistently lose money. What can be astonishing, according to records and statistics I believe are accurate and unbiased, is how wide that gap can be.

A recent example was given by Quality Meat Scotland’s head economist Stuart Ashworth. The best 20% of beef producers, he said, reduce waste, know their customers, and use what resources they have to best advantage. The worst 20%, by implication, haven’t a clue. The result is that in the top 20% net positive margins were from £200 to £350 per cow. The worst were losses of £200 to £350 per cow. How do they stay in business?