Defra Minister brands RSPCA a 'disgrace' over badger advert

DEFRA Minister Richard Benyon has branded the RSPCA a ‘disgrace’ for running for what he claims is an ‘inaccurate advert’ on the Government’s plans for a badger cull.

Over the past few days, the animal welfare charity has been running a full page advert in the Metro newspaper under the headline ‘Vaccinate or Exterminate?’.

The advert, which is being run free of charge, is intended to encourage the public to donate to the RSPCA’s campaign to ‘stop the cull’ and promote its view that vaccination offers a viable means of controlling bovine TB in badgers.

The advert goes on to say: “The UK Government wants to shoot England’s badgers. We want to vaccinate them - and save their lives.”

It asks the public to donate £3 to its campaign to ‘help save England’s badgers’.

The advert has already angered some supporters of the badger cull policy who have argued on Twitter that the use of the word ‘exterminate’ is misleading as the cull will not entirely remove populations of badgers at either local or national level.

On Monday, Mr Benyon joined the fray. Commenting on Twitter, he said: “What a disgrace for an organisation like RSPCA to run such an inaccurate advert on Govs anti bovine TB strategy.”

An RSPCA spokeswoman defended the adverts. She said: “The word ‘exterminate’ accurately describes what will happen to in excess of 70 per cent of the badgers in the pilot cull areas - and beyond if the disastrous policy is rolled out.”

She added: “We sympathise with farmers over this devastating disease, but share the views of Professor Lord Krebs and other leading scientific experts that a cull would be of little help in eradicating bovine TB in cattle and could even make it worse in some areas. We stand ready to work with the farming community to deliver more effective alternatives including the vaccination of both badgers and cattle and improved biosecurity.”

But Defra has posted a blog refuting the RSPCA’s claims. It says the full page advert ‘incorrectly suggests that badger cull pilots to help control the spread of bovine TB will ‘exterminate’ badgers in England’.

“This is not the case and is extremely misleading to readers of the advert. There is no risk to England’s badger population,” the blog states.

“As we have always made clear, culls are being piloted this summer in two areas to check the humaneness, effectiveness and safety of controlled shooting as a method to reduce badger populations. Targets have been set in the two areas based on robust population estimates to ensure that badgers will not be wiped out from the pilot areas. Outside of the two pilot areas, no badgers will be culled.”

The blog goes on: “The advert also incorrectly claims that scientific evidence suggests that the badger cull pilots are unlikely to stop the spread of bovine TB in cattle.

“Based on results from the Randomised Badger Culling Trials it has been estimated that culling over 150km2 area will lead to an average reduction in new cases of TB of around 16 per cent over nine years, relative to a similar unculled area. This is a significant reduction that will help us tip the balance and start to reverse the spread of TB when used alongside our other TB control measures.”

An NFU spokesman said: “We are not surprised that yet again the RSPCA is using cheap tactics and misinformation in its campaigning. 

“Any respectable organisation would have seen the recent EFRA select committee report which said that vaccination is not a silver bullet. It is a shame that a charity which claims to represent animal welfare continues to run an alarmist campaign without representing the full facts. The RSPCA needs to start publicly acknowledging the 38,000 cattle which were slaughtered last year as a result of contracting TB.”

Licences have been issued by Natural England allowing farmer-led companies to cull badgers over areas of 300sq.km areas in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset from June 1.

The RSPCA’s stance on the badger cull has regularly set it at odds with farmers in recent years. The charity’s chief executive Gavin Grant was shown on national television threatening to ‘name and shame’ those who took part in the cull last year, while the RSPCA’s Freedom Food animal welfare scheme has threatened to expel farmer members who take part in the culls.

The RSPCA spokeswoman said: “The RSPCA Freedom Food standards are explicit in that the killing of wild animals to protect farm animals from harm is only allowed in exceptional circumstances after all non-lethal alternatives have been exhausted and where the use of lethal force is conducted in an humane manner. This is clearly not the case with the badger cull.”

RSPCA ad provokes Twitter debate…

Among those complaining about the advert on Twitter was @jackedinjill who said the use of the term ‘exterminate’ was ‘misleading’ and urged like-minded people to complain to the Advertising Standards. She said: “There have NEVER been plans to kill ALL badgers, and never will be.”

Jonathan Rich, a barrister who has clashed on numerous occasions with the RSPCA, tweeted: “I could not agree with you more, Richard - @RSPCA_Political are a disgrace.”

But anti-badger cull campaigners expressed their anger at Mr Benyon’s intervention. Animal welfare campaigner Dominic Dyer said the comments went ‘beyond the pale’.

He tweeted: “When so called Environment Minister launches public attack (on) most respected wildlife charity in world you can see how bad its getting DEFRA.”

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