Given the passionate objections of some sections of society to the proposed badger cull, it’s no surprise that National Farmers Union (NFU) chairman Charles Mann won’t be drawn on when the shooting will begin.
He won’t say where the cull areas will be within west Gloucestershire, nor will he risk the inevitable repercussions of naming any of the farmers affected.
But when he simply says that the cull will begin “shortly” and pauses significantly before denying that the shooting has started, you suspect the cull might be going ahead this week, if it hasn’t already begun.
For Mr Mann – as well as, you suspect, the majority of farmers in Gloucestershire – the proposed badger cull is a matter of practicality.
It’s the biggest criticism they level at those opposing the ban, that there are actually no viable alternatives to stopping the outbreak of bovine tuberculosis which are actually ready to go.
Cattle vaccinations, for example, would take several more years to be approved by European legislators in Brussels and a badger vaccine would be almost impossible – not to mention time-consuming and expensive – to administer.
So while Mr Mann is passionate about the countryside and works with livestock on a daily basis, it’s unsurprising that he says farmers whose business is primarily the slaughter of animals have little patience left with this devastating outbreak of bovine TB.
And the facts speak for themselves. Bovine TB has now spread through the Midlands and has reached as far north as Shropshire and Cheshire. There were 27,000 cattle slaughtered in the UK in 2011 and in the last 12 months that total has risen to 34,000.
The disease is costing the UK economy £100 million every year. One farmer in the Forest of Dean contacted Mr Mann last week to say he has had 127 cattle slaughtered because of the disease.
So something needs to be done – urgently, and it needs to work. Farmers say that a cull of badgers is the only feasible thing to do.
Mr Mann, whose farm is way out in east Gloucestershire but who represents the NFU across Gloucestershire, said: “We have got to do something to begin to stop it. We have been promised cattle vaccination for 15 years and it’s still five years over the horizon.
“Badger vaccines can only ever be part of the solution because of their cost, time requirements and impracticality.
“All these things are ones that we’re willing to discuss but something needs to be done urgently and it’s getting worse. It’s costing £100 million a year and in 10 years that’s £1 billion thrown down the drain.”
So the cull is going ahead. West Gloucestershire and Somerset are two pilot areas, each having a six week cull this autumn before further ones over the next three years which will aim to reduce the areas’ badger populations by 70 per cent. In West Gloucestershire that’s going to mean the loss of 1,500 animals over four years. It sounds like a lot but pales in comparison to the figure of 50,000 killed on the nation’s roads each year.
And if it’s shown to be a feasible way of reducing the population, the model will be spread to 10 more areas of the UK each year in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Mr Mann said: “It’s not going to destroy the national population. It’s going to reduce it enormously in the affected areas but they are still going to breed and be there. We’re not trying to impact its iconic status but we are trying to make both populations – badgers and cattle – healthy again.”
This summer’s extreme rainfall has made life difficult for farmers in general and the spend required to protect themselves from bovine TB has made things even harder.
Mr Mann said: “Protecting the herd, your feed store and farmyards from badgers carrying the disease is fine if you’ve got a modern dairy building set up with a ring fence around it. But if you’re like a lot of the old Cotswold farmers with the odd building here and there it gets incredibly difficult, and expensive.
“Dairy farmers have had a difficult summer and if they see their businesses being pulverised by disease, they start to wonder what the point is.
“The financial side is always a huge concern but the recurrence of the disease when you have managed to clear it before is the mental issue to overcome.
“Having the test is like being told you have to go for a scan because you may have cancer – you may have 200 animals you are putting through the test and every one that goes clear is a sigh of relief.
“There’s no point in having a farming business unless you are running it as a business. Farmers, like shop keepers and car manufacturers, are aiming to make a profit – that’s the whole point.
“But sentimentality is important. One of the best things about being a farmer is working in the countryside and we all take part in conservation schemes. We all enjoy the animals we have but ultimately we sell them for slaughter and we need to balance that sentimentality with realism.”
Opponents of the cull fall into two camps – mainly they are the reasonable ones, with whom Mr Mann and his colleagues have the battle to convince them that there are no practical alternatives.
The other section of the protagonists are the more extreme factions, those who have threatened violent action against farmers who implement the cull on their land.
Mr Mann said: “People think that badgers should survive in the wild without any understanding of the impact that it might have on other things living in the countryside.
“We’ve got a jigsaw of interests and pressures in the countryside. There are people who are very against the cull for completely genuine, principled reasons who we are happy to have discussions and arguments with.
“But there are other activists for whom discussion isn’t really on their agenda – they need to realise that this isn’t sport or a pleasure activity, it’s a vital part of trying to clear up a filthy, dirty disease.”