The left's opposition to badger culls ignores the plight of our farmers

Rural workers' livelihoods are being devastated by TB. Labour should come to their defence.

"Dave" is not his real name. He’s too scared to tell me that. He’s been a farmer in Devon for over fifty years. He loves animals and knows everything about cows. He knows their moods, their temperaments, their individual identities. His family works fourteen hours a day seven days a week to serve and look after their dairy herd of 1,000, hand feeding them when they’re sick and nursing them through birth. It’s work of blood and sweat. He doesn’t shoot badgers, but since the government’s new trials started he’s been scared his family farm might be a target for animal rights activists.

"If I speak to you it will have to be anonymous because we’re terrified to speak up…." He says, "We’re attacked so easily right out here. It’s very isolated in the countryside and no dairy farmer can afford extra security right now."

This autumn a new controversy has split British politics. It’s the biggest rural-urban divide since fox hunting. To deal with the huge number of cattle being infected with TB, the government is piloting badger culls. Sites in the south west of the country will be allowed to shoot these cute little black and white creatures on the grounds that they are spreading this devastating infection that is killing cattle and crippling farmers. If the pilots are accepted and rolled out, some 100,000 badgers could be killed.

Parliament is set to debate the pilots on Thursday. To date, the argument has divided neatly along left and right lines. The new Tory environment secretary, Owen Paterson, says that it’s "sad sentimentality" to worry about badgers when so much damage is being done to the rural economy. On the other side, shadow environment minister for Labour, Mary Creagh, has called on the government to abandon the trial, dismissing it as a "shot in the dark". Brian May isn’t happy and the radical left is advocating the direct action that keeps farmers awake at night . As a self-declared lefty, I know where my team stands. But I disagree - I think our values might be better served supporting farmers.

My worry is this. The left has always been the party of cities and urban areas, growing as it did out of the trade union movement. It has never had enough to say to rural workers, as I’ve argued before. I’m worried that the countryside could be reduced to a play park for urbanites. I’m concerned that it will become a place to protect fauna and fauna, rather than to cultivate jobs and livelihoods. A place to visit at weekends, rather than strive through the weekdays. The Labour Party was supposed to be about labour – the clue is in the name – but we seem to be prioritising the concerns of people without a working connection to the land. How can Ed Miliband talk about being "one nation", when we have so little to offer these rural workers?

My friends say they are not against farmers, they just don’t believe there is any evidence that culling works. The evidence from the Kreb trial – the most thorough and widely quoted research - demonstrated that culling could result in a 16 per cent reduction in TB over nine years. It’s true that the methods used for the current pilots are slightly different – badgers are being shot outright, rather than caught in cages - and there was evidence that TB could be spread further unless hard boundaries are put in place. We can’t dismiss those concerns, but surely if the evidence is divided, the answer is more trials, not a complete lock down?

More research is urgent, because both sides agree that TB is devastating the countryside. We know that it has resulted in some 34,000 cattle being sent to the slaughter last year alone. That figure is worth reading again because it’s almost one death every fifteen minutes. We know that it has cost us as a country some £500 million over ten years. We know that something has to be done.

Farmers are paying for this pilot themselves because they say past experience shows that it works. When David started farming fifty years ago, he used to shoot badgers, and his farm suffered no TB. When EU regulations made badgers a protected species, he stopped culling out of respect for the law. Now there are badger sets everywhere and regular cases of TB are driving them under. This picture has been replicated at a national level. In 1998 less than 6,000 cows were culled for TB, now we’ve had 21,512 in the first half of this year alone.

"We don’t want to kill all badgers," says Dave, "It’s only when their numbers get out of control that they start causing infections. Because they have no natural predators, it’s up to us to keep the numbers down or they take over."

Working so closely with infected animals means that Dave’s son-in-law came down with TB himself. His family stood by as he lay in bed rapidly losing weight and coughing, but they still want to keep going.

"My family wish to carry on farming," says Dave, “My children have been to college and trained to do it. They love it and their children love it. It’s in your blood. There are very few other occupations open to you around here in your 40s."

Animal rights groups and charities say that the answer is vaccines and increased biosecurity. But there is no credible vaccine for cows, and the vaccine for badgers is extraordinarily difficult to implement. The NFU reports that you have to catch each badger in a cage, and then vaccinate them once every year for four years for it to be effective. As for biosecurity, the idea that farmers have enough money to invest in initiatives like full scale separate housing is naïve – and I’m not entirely sure that ending free range farming is desirable anyway.

It’s difficult to explain how difficult life in the countryside already is. Back in Devon, one of Dave’s neighbours has recently gone out of business. The price of milk paid to farmers has been slashed by 4p a litre this year, and supermarkets continue to sell milk at barely the cost of production. It’s been too damp to graze outside, so fodder supplies have been used up and the price of grain is biting. We’ve lost 40 per cent of our diary farms over the last ten years and TB is pushing more over the brink. And all the left is talking about, is the badgers.U

Update: After this article was published, I was contacted by Labour's environment team, who wanted to highlight the work they have been doing for rural communities. In particular, they recently pushed for a parliamentary debate about the government’s decision to abolish wage protection for 152,000 low-paid farm workers, something they say will take £240 million out of rural workers pockets over the next ten years. They say they have also supported dairy farmers' calls for more transparent contracts, and tabled amendments in the Lords calling for the Supermarket Ombudsman's powers to be strengthened. They say they have also highlighted how long-term youth unemployment has gone up faster in rural areas compared to cities in the first two years of this government. Finally, they wanted to point out that this BBC poll found that opposition to the badger cull was fairly similar in rural and urban communities.

Queen guitarist Brian May speaks with protestors as he joins a rally on College Green against the proposed badger cull. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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How the middle-aged became the hedonists

When they next open a bottle of wine (or three), the parents and grandparents of today’s teens should raise a glass to their responsible offspring.

Rare is the week that passes without more horrific tales of the debauchery of the youth. One photo has come to embody their supposed recklessness: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench in Bristol with bottles of booze scattered beneath her. The photograph is now a decade old, and the image it portrays is in urgent need of updating. The startling thing about today’s youth is now how much they indulge but how well behaved they are. They are putting their hedonistic parents and grandparents to shame.

Wherever you look, the picture is the same. Over a quarter of those aged 16-24 today are teetotal; just 29 per cent drink heavily in an average week, compared with 44 per cent a decade ago. Only 23 per cent of under-25s smoke, a 10 per cent decrease since 2001. Conception rates among under-18s are at their lowest since records began in 1969, and the number of sexually transmitted infections among those under-25 has also declined in the last five years. Today’s youth haven’t been resorting to narcotics, either: drug use among under-25s has fallen by over a quarter in the last decade.

Young fogeys are not only on the rise in Britain. In America teen sexual activity has decreased by one-fifth since 1988, and only 38 per cent of 12th grade students (those aged 17 and 18) said they have been drunk in the past year, compared to 52 per cent in 2001. Something similar is happening throughout Western Europe: in Spain, wine consumption has halved since 1980.

These trends reflect how times have changed for young people. The rise of online entertainment and socialising has its downsides, such as increased loneliness and anxiety, but teenagers and those in their early twenties have many more alternatives to boozing or smoking a spliff. “In past decades, teens might have smoked, drank and had sex because they didn’t have much else to do,” says Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me. “Now, teens have a world of entertainment and digital communication available on their phones 24/7.” And savvy youngsters know that social media has given debauchery an online afterlife. About half of recruiters in the UK already look at a candidate’s social media profile, according to a study last year from Career Builder, and a third of all recruiters have rejected candidates about finding evidence of binge-drinking or drug use online. Small wonder ambitious young people are so reluctant to indulge.

Today's youngsters have less money for booze and drugs. They have become poorer in the past decade: in real terms, full-time wages for those aged 18-21 and 22-29 were over 10 per cent lower in 2013 than in 2004. Add to this soaring housing costs, and Generation Rent is too preoccupied with saving to spend a great deal on drink and drugs: 670,000 more people aged 20-34 live with their parents in Britain today than in 1996. 

Parenting has become better, making it harder for children to drink away their teenage years. A quarter more 11-15-year-olds say their parents don’t like the idea of them drinking than in 2008. Parents have become older – the average age of a woman giving birth has passed 30 for the first time in history, and is four years higher than in the 1970s – and are having fewer children: the average number of children per UK woman has decreased from 2.93 to 1.83 in the past 50 years. “Over the last 20 years, parents have become more attentive and involved, more playful, less harshly punitive with their children. They are more educated about parenting, and monitor their children more closely,”  says Frances Gardner, Professor of Child and Family Psychology at Oxford University. “Women have also become more educated in general, and now have children at later age. So this may have improved the behaviour of young people.”

The government has also made life harder for youthful hedonists. Schemes like Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 and an increase in fines dished out to shops, pubs and clubs that allow those under-18 to drink have made it more difficult to source drink under-age. The ban on smoking in enclosed public places, including pubs and bars, and workplaces in 2007 has ushered in an era when smoking is increasingly regarded as an inconvenience. Meanwhile taxes on cigarettes and alcohol have been ramped up: across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today. Selling alcohol below cost price was banned last year.

But the decline of youthful excess is about far more than the cost. If price were all that was driving youngsters away from booze and fags, then use of drugs, which have become significantly cheaper in real terms, would be on the rise. That young people are far better behaved owes to something much deeper than a thinning out of their wallets: it is the result of a generation who know how competitive the workplace is and are ambitious to get ahead.

The recession and globalisation mean have made the employment market far tougher. Most important to making the workplace more cutthroat is the rise of skilled female graduates. Women outnumber men at university today – including Russell Group institutions. Thirty years ago, only 56 per cent of women aged 16-64 were in work; today, 69 per cent are.

Young people have never faced more competition for the best jobs. They know it, too: even at university, freed from the prying eyes of their parents, young people are shying away from drugs and booze. The trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 a year five years ago makes university an awfully expensive place to go if your only aim is to get hammered. And students know that indulging while their contemporaries swat up in lectures will make them less employable after they graduate. Greater competition in the workplace means that “the cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of consumer trends agency Future Foundation.

Some fear that as real wages increase, so will underage drinking and drug taking. Yet it seems more likely that young people will become even better behaved. Even as the economy has ticked up young people have not changed their habits. “If you grow up in the middle of a recession it will effect what you spend your money on,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. Young people who have discovered alternatives to late-night drinking have learned there are plenty of other ways to be entertained than binge drinking into the early hours.

The changing face of Britain is making youthful excess less common. Although London is the richest part of the country, it is also among the least hedonistic: a third of adults in London do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any British region. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” says Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK. Not only are ethnic far less likely to indulge in booze, drugs and fags, but the effect seems to rub off on their white British friends.

While millennials have proved better behaved than the previous generation of young people, they are now being outdone by those born in the new century. Children are a third less likely to bunk off school now than in 2008. Just 22 per cent of under-16s have tried a cigarette, half the number who had in 2003.

“All I need are cigarettes and alcohol,” Oasis sang 22 years ago. While the spirit of excess is dying among today’s young, it remains alive among their parents and grandparents. Sexually transmitted infections, which are declining among the under-25s, are rising fastest among those over 45. Those aged 65 and above are now more likely than any other group to drink alcohol at least five days a week, with those aged 45-65 not far behind. Perhaps, as Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies says: “Watching your parents get gozzled might put young people off.”

When they next open a bottle of wine (or three), the parents and grandparents of today’s teens should raise a glass to their responsible offspring. And when politicians complain about “broken Britain”, they should make it clear that they have middle-aged hedonists in mind. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war