COUNCIL planning departments up and down the UK, especially those in rural areas, used to have an unwritten rule: “Don’t annoy the RSPB.”
The influence and power of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds derives from a national membership of more than a million, vast land ownings and funds of around £100 million. This means that when it objects to something, more often than not it does not happen – although Donald Trump managed to beat the charity over his golf course in Aberdeenshire.
But the power of the RSPB reflects a wider influence of conservation, animal and nature charities across the UK, and this is why the next few weeks could potentially prove to be problematic for David Cameron and the Conservative Party, with the start of a mass cull of thousands of badgers. The government has agreed to two trial schemes in England because farmers have claimed that badgers are the primary cause of bovine TB. The nervousness about the project is reflected by the fact that it has already been delayed once, but it could start as soon as today.
The problem is that while bovine TB is a major concern in British agriculture, the scientific evidence linking it to badgers is debatable, and there is a strong case being made for an effective vaccine for cattle as an alternative.
Nevertheless, Tory Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, a keen shooter himself, like the Prime Minister, has been persuaded that it is worth trying a cull. It would seem to be a politically sound move: farmers want it and are traditionally Tory, while the hunting lobby in the form of the Countryside Alliance is strongly Tory. The feeling is Tories would like to kill more cute, furry animals for fun, such as foxes. But this ignores another core element of traditional Tory support: the majority of the many thousands of people who support wildlife and conservation charities and get very upset when cute, furry animals are harmed.
Of the top 100 UK charities, 15 are related to animal welfare and conservation. One of the bigger ones, the Wildlife Trusts, even has the badger as its symbol. The 47 trusts it runs have more than 800,000 members and the three biggest alone have an annual income of more than £12m. Now these charities are on the warpath and so are their – largely Conservative-leaning – memberships. Whether it is Mr Badger from Wind in the Willows or pictures of cuddly wildlife, the public has a soft spot for badgers and they even have a celebrity supporter and opponent of the cull, Queen guitarist Brian May.
Once the cull gets under way, it will not be long before pictures of thousands of slaughtered badgers are all over newspapers and the web, which is bound to provoke a reaction. Cameron has taken on traditional supporters in his party on several issues, not least gay marriage, only to see them look for alternatives, often Ukip. The badger cull could yet prove to be another damaging episode in the erosion of the Tories’ core support.