“I’ve looked at science and policies a lot in my career, and I think this is one of the worst policies I have ever seen.”
Most people would agree that England has a problem with bovine tuberculosis among its cattle. But many do not agree with the government’s view that badgers are to blame; that it is diseased badgers that are infecting the cattle; that the disease can be controlled by killing badgers rather than looking at farming practices; a view which ignores the science that says culling badgers will have little effect and may make matters worse.
Anyone campaigning to protect English badgers from the government’s disastrous badger-culling policy will be familiar with the name of Dominic Dyer, though maybe not with his background and why campaigning against the cull is so important to him.
I caught up with Dominic during an anti-cull protest in Exeter. Walking through the city centre to chants of ‘Save Our Badgers – Stop the Cull’, I looked back at the hundreds of people marching along.
“It’s getting better every time we do one of these events,” said Dominic. “On the first one we only had about 20 people. In Birmingham we had 2000. More people join us every day.” (Photo: Courtesy of Lesley Docksey at Exeter)
We discussed how, because these events are held locally across England, the government has simply not caught up with the numbers of protesters.
Events like this work. We get into the local press and onto local TV. Local councilors and MPs take much more notice of public opinion this way. Also, this campaign has been built through social media. Politicians still haven’t realised how powerful this form of campaigning is.
Later he told me about his background and why he had ended up traveling around the country to speak at the anti-cull protests.
From MAFF to the Badger Trust
He joined the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (later to become the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Defra) at 16 in 1986. Why MAFF?
After 6 months as a trainee sheet metal worker I decided I wasn’t suited to working with my hands and looked for a London office job. I saw an advert for Clerical Assistants in the Civil Service and applied. The interview panel, impressed by my enthusiasm, offered me a job on the spot. In those days you did not know which Whitehall Department you would end up in.
Imagine – it could have been the Department of Social Security or Home Office and my life would have been very different!
He was obviously happy to have ended up in MAFF where the experience he gained in food, agriculture and conservation issues in the UK and Brussels led him to where he is today – head of the Badger Trust and Policy Advisor at Care for the Wild.
While at MAFF Dominic developed his considerable public speaking skills through working in the Trade Union movement. This led to the late Mo Mowlam recruiting him into the Young Labour movement to mobilise young people to support Labour ahead of the 1997 election.
This involved helping to organise events for the party leadership to engage with teenagers. Dominic recalled one such event in a Wimbledon secondary school in 1996 where Tony Blair addressed a large audience.
Blair talked about his ambitions for the economy, health service and education, but most of the questions from the young audience were on environment and conservation issues, ranging from climate change and recycling waste to animal testing and fox hunting.
This was a wake-up call for the Labour leadership and a key factor in developing their animal welfare manifesto in 1997, which included commitments on banning fur farms in the UK, ending animal testing for cosmetics and introducing a ban on fox hunting. Labour realised what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have since forgotten – the environment, animal welfare and wildlife protection matter to voters.
With his experience in government and politics Dominic left the civil service in 2000 to join the Food and Drink Federation.
It was an exciting time. I played a key part in setting up new food industry groups at the FDF in the rapidly expanding organic food, soya food and vegetarian food sectors. I also became expert in the environment and health trends which were influencing the shape of farming and food production in the UK and around the world.
In 2008 Dominic became Chairman of Care for the Wild International but also left the FDF to take on the sometimes controversial role as Chief Executive of the Crop Protection Association.
Working in the plant science industry was challenging, not least when trying to strike the balance between the need to use crop protection technologies, including pesticides, to maintain food production while protecting the environment and public health.
But it allowed me to work with Government Ministers, Scientific Advisors and the National Farmers Union (NFU) at a senior level as well as environmental organisations such as the RSPB, WWF and the British Beekeepers Association.
The value of “inside knowledge”
Some campaigners are suspicious of Dominic’s background, but they should consider how useful it is. He has worked face-to-face with big corporations, government ministers and scientific advisors. He knows how they think, how they’ll react towards people objecting to their policies. He understands the science behind many of the policies. In other words, wildlife campaigners have someone on board who can keep them ahead of the game.
For example, many remember the terrible slaughter and burning heaps of dead animals during the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak. What we did not know, as Dominic does, was that it could have been contained by vaccinating the animals – a move originally supported by Tony Blair and his Agriculture Minister Nick Brown. The last minute intervention by NFU President Ben Gill led to the policy being dumped in favour of a mass culling programme in order to maintain live cattle, meat and dairy exports to Europe.
This decision, resulting in shutting down large parts of the countryside for months and compensating farmers for lost cattle and sheep, ultimately cost tax payers over £6 billion. Even worse, the restocking of cattle from the South West without any TB testing systems, led to a trebling of TB rates in cattle over the following 18 months – a disaster for both farmers and badgers.
Now the NFU opposes vaccinating cattle against TB for the same monetary reasons. It would rather kill many thousands of badgers than risk losing export markets.
The NFU has too much influence, is too close to Defra. And the Tories are supported by the NFU and the Countryside Alliance (originally formed to fight the ban on hunting with dogs). This is why they will try to repeal the Hunting Act. It is this relationship that forged the badger cull project back in 2008.
Politics versus Science
Jim Paice, Shadow Farming Minister when the Tories were in opposition, was asked by David Cameron to come up with a policy on tackling bovine TB that would satisfy the NFU. Dominic was present at farming industry and political meetings where the NFU and the Countryside Alliance were heavily represented.
They were standing around chatting, constantly saying “We must have a badger cull.” That was what they were promised, and what they got when Cameron became Prime Minister. It was a political decision.
In 2011 I chaired a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference on global food security. Speakers included Agriculture Minister Jim Paice, NFU President Peter Kendall, CEO Oxfam Dame Barbara Stocking and Soil Association Director Helen Browning.
A key outcome of the debate was total agreement on the need to base farming and environment policy on good peer-reviewed scientific research that could command both political and public confidence.
It angers me that, by supporting the culls, Paice, Kendal and Browning have thrown this key requirement for policy making out the window.
Will Culling Continue?
I asked Dominic about the “non-statement” Owen Paterson made in Parliament two days earlier about future culls.
George Eustice (Farming Minister) is no longer willing to act as front man selling Paterson’s unpopular message. Eustice has a tiny majority of just 66 votes in his Cornish constituency. Because of the unpopularity of the culls, his future hangs in the balance. And he wants to keep his seat as an MP, so we are unlikely to see a cull roll-out to Cornwall this side of a general election.
There are fights in the Cabinet about the culls. The LibDems want them stopped. The Tories, dependent on the support of the NFU and the Countryside Alliance at the next election, need them to continue. This is about politics and staying in power, not disease in our cattle.
No roll-out, but Paterson will work to continue the culls. But all the licence conditions from shooting distances, culling areas, monitoring requirement and free shoot to cage trap ratios will need to change, taking account of the many failures of the Pilot Culls and the Independent Expert Panel’s just-published and very critical report.
The Badger Trust and other wildlife organisations hold the view that if the conditions change, then the whole licence process has to start again from scratch with a new public consultation process. If Paterson ignores that, we are ready to seek a Judicial Review.
Dominic’s vision – an independent Wildlife Protection Agency
What is so important about fighting the cull?
I’ve looked at science and policies a lot in my career, and I think this is one of the worst policies I have ever seen. A political policy, not a scientific one, and it’s doing great damage not just to our wildlife but to the reputation of our farmers.
Hopefully the badger cull argument will eventually be won and the killing halted. However, that still leaves all the other wildlife to be fought for. But Dominic has an aim beyond ending the culls.
We need, we absolutely must have, a Wildlife Protection Agency that is completely independent of both government and NFU interference. This is the only way we can protect our wildlife. This is what we must campaign for.
Until that time comes, you can expect to hear him speaking wherever a badger cull protest is taking place.