Civil servants have a saying which sends a shiver of terror up the spines of prudent politicians: “That’s a very bold course, minister”. Bold, in Whitehallic, means likely to position the proponent so deep in the soup that the top of their head is visible only through a powerful microscope. Such was the widespread expectation last week, after Caroline Spelman, environment minister, announced she was “strongly minded” to authorise a nationwide badger cull.
Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that badgers are carriers of bovine tuberculosis, which costs the UK cattle industry £100m a year. A succession of inquiries dating back to 1975 proves the connection. Far from badgers being scarce, the countryside teems with them. The national population is officially estimated at 190,000, but the true figure is thought to be higher.
So where is the problem about culls – up to an estimated total of 35,000 – in regions where bovine TB is a serious issue? The answer, of course, is the impassioned emotionalism of millions of voters who neither live in the countryside nor derive their living from agriculture, but cling to a view of our fauna formed by Kenneth Grahame and Beatrix Potter.
“This is a black day for badgers – a day we been dreading,” declared the RSPCA animal charity following Ms Spelman’s announcement, in tones that might be appropriate to a nuclear catastrophe. A BBC poll shows that 63 per cent of the public oppose a badger cull, against 31 per cent in favour, with the rest undecided. Tory MPs report receiving far more angry letters and phone calls about badgers than about media phone-hacking.
Sentimentality dominates almost every debate about the management of our countryside and wildlife, and few politicians care to challenge it. Scottish freshwater fisheries, an important source of tourist revenue, suffer severely from predation by cormorants, mergansers and seals, a surfeit of which inhabit our northern coastline. But culling licences are hard to obtain, because fish lack a popular constituency.
Inshore salmon farms have a disastrous environmental impact on wild species, but Scottish politicians refuse to check the menace, because fish-farmers have more powerful tribal lobbies than salmon and crustaceans. I used to tell foxhunters that, if only they could breed a species of giant rat to chase in place of furry, bushy-tailed Reynard, the future of their sport would be secure.
It is dismaying to see how many bodies nominally devoted to conservation allow their policies to be driven by members’ whims rather than by science. Some years ago, the then-director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, complained to me about the havoc wrought by predators at the Society’s capercailzie sanctuary at Abernethy. I suggested that, to preserve the birds, destroying vermin was essential. She responded: “We have to consider what our members will put up with.” This seemed an important and damning remark.
The RSPB in recent decades has campaigned passionately – some would say obsessively – for the interests of raptors, heedless of their impact on other bird species. The Society justly deplores the historic persecution of hawks by gamekeepers, to promote pheasants, grouse, partridges.
Today, however, the balance has swung disastrously the other way. As I walk the lanes around our country home, the proliferation of kites, buzzards and other raptors is as alarming as the decline of songbirds. Last week a sparrowhawk swooped on our bird table.
Many songbird species are in rapid decline. This is partly a result of habitat loss and farming practices – but shrinking numbers are correspondingly more vulnerable to unchecked predation. An estimated 150m songbirds a year fall victim to sparrowhawks and cats, whose populations have doubled since 1970. But no politician would provoke the fury of cat-lovers by making bells a legal requirement – the ready remedy for feline predation.
The RSPB is implacably hostile to any control of raptors, including translocation of birds from areas where they have become a plague, sterilising eggs and suchlike. It only grudgingly accepts such panaceas as the use of electric fences to exclude foxes, conditioned taste aversion and diversionary feeding for raptors.
None of these is remotely cost-effective, but the RSPB sets its face against any form of control that restricts numbers. The organisation Songbird Survival is at last making a real impact with its campaign to limit predation, offering scientific evidence of its impact to which the RSPB has no credible answers.
Class hostility – still such a force in British life – surely plays a part in its attitude. Because landlords, grouse-moor owners and suchlike want raptor control, such an expedient is perceived by its foes as a “toff’’ cause. Yet a recent study at Otterburn in Northumbria showed that killing vermin dramatically increased local populations of songbirds as well as game.
The mistake made by urban sentimentalists, some of us would argue, is to suppose the British countryside in a natural state of grace. It is, and must be, intensively managed. The farming industry grievously damaged its own credibility as custodians of the environment in the 1960s and 1970s, by employing chemicals on a scale and in a fashion that inflicted appalling damage.
But today, a much better balance has been struck. Most farmers are alive to their responsibility to the land they occupy, and the wildlife that inhabits it. It seems right that society should demand alike from landowners, conservation bodies and voters a respect for science and objective evidence, rather than indulge either proprietorial selfishness or urban soppiness.
But the sentimentalists, including the RSPCA and RSPB, which wax rich on widows’ legacies and can claim to speak for millions of members, are stubborn in their ways and politicians flinch from defying them. I admire Ms Spelman and her colleagues, who declare their commitment to the scientific evidence for a badger cull. But this is not scheduled to take place until 2013, after regional trials. So close to another general election, I shall be pleasantly surprised if a single tubercular badger gets the bullet.
The writer is an FT contributing editor