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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt