COUNCILLORS have been accused of a ‘cop out’ after they decided not to take a strong stance on badger culls.

A heated debate over government-proposed culls to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis (BTB), took place at a meeting of Dorset County Council yesterday.

Coun Dan Brember had tabled a notice of motion to urge the authority to raise concerns over the government’s plans. He said that while bovine tuberculosis has a ‘serious and damaging’ impact, a cull was not the answer.

The motion was supported by Coun Andy Canning, who said culls were not an effective way of wiping out the disease.

He added that it was an ‘extremely disproportionate situation’ with ‘70 percent of badgers to be killed to save just 0.3 percent of cattle’.

He added that public disorder in protest against the culls would be an extra cost to the police service.

But a majority of councillors voted in favour of an amendment by Coun Hilary Cox, cabinet member for environment, which said finding a solution to BTB ‘is a matter for government and parliament at national level’.

The agreed amendment went on to say the council ‘urges the government to be led by the best available science’ to find a solution and to do so ‘in the most humane way available’.

The wording was met by strong opposition from some councillors, who said it was ‘watering down’ Coun Brember’s original motion.

Coun Mike Byatt said: “I do believe it is the business of this county council to express a view. We are elected members – that is what we are here for. I will not be supporting the amendment.”

He added: “I don’t think this amendment is punchy enough.”

The amendment was passed by a majority of 26 to 12.

Speaking after the meeting, members of the anti-cull group Dorset for Badger and Bovine Welfare said they believed the decision was a ‘cop out’.

Spokesman Andrew Butler said: “The amendment is worse that nothing – it has made matters worse. An overwhelming majority of people are against the culls.

“We plan to stand up and say ‘it stops here’.”

David Heath, Farming Minister, writes exclusively for the Dorset Echo: "Bovine TB is one of the gravest problems facing the south west.

"I've met many dairy and cattle farmers over the years and I know the devastation caused by a TB outbreak. Farms can be shut down for months at a time, sometimes for much longer and cattle that test positive are slaughtered.

"Farmers live in constant dread that they will get the terrible news their herd has tested positive for bovine TB. But it has an effect beyond farmers, too. It affects you, the taxpayer, to the tune of nearly £100m per year. If we do nothing to control TB it's estimated that it will cost us £1bn over the next decade.

"There are lots of ways we already tackle TB. We restrict the movement of cattle to reduce the chances of animals spreading the disease and we fund a badger vaccination project that injected nearly 1,000 badgers against the disease last year.

"We're spending millions of pounds to try and develop an oral badger vaccine - so badgers don't need to be caught and injected - but, sadly, there are still many technical barriers to overcome and it is likely to take years before we can use it in the field. And of course, vaccination does nothing for the badgers that are already infected. 

"Two badger cull pilots have been licensed this summer as part of our approach to tackling this disease. We know from scientific evidence that up to 50 per cent of new outbreaks are caused by badgers, so even though we are continuing to toughen the rules on moving cattle to stop them spreading TB, we won't get on top of the disease without looking to the wildlife population, too.

"Culling happens in France, Spain and many other countries around the world. Our Irish neighbours have been culling badgers for years with the result that cattle TB has reduced. Wild buffalo and boar were culled in Australia and Australia has now eradicated TB.

"Dorset is on standby to host a badger cull this year if, for unforeseen circumstances, the culls cannot go ahead in Somerset or Gloucestershire. I know there's been a lot of discussion about culling badgers and Dorset Council had a heated debate on the subject this week.

"I'm pleased that the councillors recognised the gravity of bovine TB on the farming community and decided the way forward should be led by the best available science using the most humane method available.

"I can assure you that this policy is firmly based on the very best scientific research, which showed in a major study that culling led to a 16% reduction in new cases over nine years. The pilots we are carrying out, which are over larger areas, are expected to see greater reductions.

"We are also going to great lengths to ensure the badger culls are humane. We have appointed independent experts to draw up criteria to measure the humaneness of the cull and the marksmen have been issued strict guidance.

"Nobody wants to cull badgers but we know for a fact that culling can reduce the spread of TB. Most people understand that we have to do all we can to get on top of this disease. I cannot stand by and watch British farmers struggle as a deadly disease spreads through the countryside and not do everything in my power to help."