Creating a buzz for the protection of badgers

IFAW UK Director Robbie Marsland with some representative animal friends during IFAW’s recent on-site Parliamentary action where some 300 supporters came out.Last week was expected to be a bad week for thousands of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset. Controversial Government plans to cull them were likely to go ahead any day. 

The Government said it wanted to see if it was possible to shoot badgers without cruelty and if killing them would help reduce bovine TB in dairy cattle. This despite eminent scientific opinion openly disagreeing with both of those reasons.

Bovine TB is a huge problem for Britain's farmers. It is the fourth biggest reason for cattle needing to be destroyed after infertility, lameness and mastitis. The Government does help with compensation for the need to destroy animals infected with TB but farmers are obviously desperate to find a solution to this problem. 

As far as scientists know, cows get bovine TB from each other and sometimes from mammals infected in the first place by other cattle. There are vaccines for both wild mammals and cows. The wildlife version is the route being used in Wales, where the Welsh Assembly decided to vaccinate badgers and not go down the culling route. 

The cattle version needs to work in such a way that tests will be able to differentiate between cows that have been vaccinated and those that really have the disease. 

Such a test has just been developed and is ready for validation. 

The EU will then have to agree the use of the test before it could accept import of vaccinated cows or their products into mainland Europe. In the meantime, it is agreed by all that existing solutions such as restricting cattle movements, reducing stress levels in cattle (which makes it easier for them to catch TB) and putting physical barriers between cattle and local mammals continue to be good solutions and should be enhanced.

Unfortunately, in response to the farmers’ desperate cries that "something should be done", the Government agreed to see if shooting thousands of badgers in a couple of trial areas would also help, if it could be done without cruelty.

This is where the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Team Badger came in. 

Team Badger was created by Queen guitarist Brian May only a few months ago. When he's not being described as a "rock god", Brian is known as Dr May - he has a PhD in Astrophysics and approaches his love of British wildlife with a scientific frame of mind. 

Brian brought together all the leading organisations working against the cull, including IFAW, under the Team Badger umbrella. 

And what a force that proved to be.

We knew that if we were to stop the cull, we had to create a buzz around Parliament that showed that this was a politically damaging position for the Government to be in. 

So we started by putting a petition on the Government's website. Within two weeks it had received more than 100,000 signatures - the agreed measure of concern for an issue by the Government. 

By the time the petition had reached over 150,000, IFAW's parliamentary team were in deep discussions with supportive backbench MPs from all parties about the need for a debate in Parliament. 

Surprisingly for such a controversial policy, culling badgers had never been discussed in Parliament before. 

To keep the buzz going we organised a meeting of backbench MPs. 

More than 40 attended. 

"Wow" said one who passed me when entering the room. 

The buzz was growing. 

The following day a delegation of MPs went to a special committee that had the power to call for backbench debates. They came out having secured a full-day debate the following Thursday. 

The buzz was becoming a roar. 

The week ended with Government Ministers making and then cancelling appointments for media interviews about the cull. 

The buzz was having its impact.

Two days before the debate, the Government announced it had decided to delay the cull until next Summer.

Justice delayed is justice denied, so the debate in Parliament two days later was still on. But first, to keep that buzz buzzing, we organised a mass lobby of Parliament by our supporters. 

A part of UK democracy allows us each the right to go into the Houses of Parliament and ask to speak to our MP personally about an issue that concerns us. 

If many people turn up on the same day, that creates a buzz. 

When around 300 of us turned up on the same day, that created a bigger buzz...

The next day was tense. 

Would the Government try to win the debate in Parliament? 

The resolution called for the cull to be cancelled and not just postponed. As a backbench debate, i.e. not proposed by the Government, the result would not be binding. 

If they won the debate our case would be very hard to take any further forward. But if they tried to win it and lost, they would look bad (never good for any Government) and we would be in a strong position. 

It turned out that the Government must not have been particularly confident about winning the vote because in the end they decided not to win it and allowed their MPs to miss the vote if they had other things to do. 

This meant that after six hours of debate the motion to cancel the debate was won by a handsome margin of 147 votes to 28. 

The Government will claim that it was simply a backbench debate that has no authority to change policy, but we know, the press know and now you know that this represents a very, very large and droning buzz of opposition to a wrong-headed policy that now has to survive another nine months of scrutiny in the face of what is coming to look like overwhelming opposition from scientists, animal welfare organisations like IFAW and the public. 

The fight goes on and IFAW will continue to push for a definite “no” to the cull rather than a postponement. If you haven’t already done so, you can still sign the Government petition and write your MP saying you want them to keep pushing for the cull to be scrapped.

-- RM

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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