Oliver Tickell

How fox-hunting and badger-culling helped scupper the Tories

Oliver Tickell

Many reasons have been given for Theresa May's catastrophic loss of support from electors - the 'dementia tax', removal of the pensions triple lock, means-tested winter fuel payments, the promise of a damaging hard Brexit, and further cuts to the NHS, education and police budgets.

But most political and media commentators forget about a topic of enormous importance to countless ordinary people: animals. As I found out several years ago while out canvassing for the Green Party, much of the 'popular' Green vote is motivated by a single issue: that it's the Green Party that can best be trusted to do the right thing for animals. And of course the Labour Party has also earned itself considerable credit with the 2004 Hunting Act which made it a crime to hunt wild animals with dogs.

If there's one thing we can be certain of, it's that Theresa May's support of foxhunting in the general election campaign went down like a lead balloon with these voters, revealing to them a Conservative Party red in tooth and claw, upholding the rights of the landowning class to set hunting dogs on wild animals and rip them apart, over their own strongly felt desire to protect those animals from these horrific and wholly unnecessary cruelties. May's promise to give the Commons a free vote on abolishing the Hunting Act was a massive 'unforced error' that played a big part in turning millions of people against her, while reinforcing the widely-held view of the Tories as the 'nasty party'.

The Tories' lamentable record in government does little to help: May's support for foxhunting was just the cherry on the top of a toxic cake of countryside policies. For example, the badger cull - supposedly intended to end the scourge of bovine TB, but in reality a sop to farmers, landowners and the National Farmers Union, which masquerades as a solution when it is increasingly clear that killing badgers is not just expensive and cruel, but also ineffective and scientifically indefensible.

All the indications are that badgers are no more the 'cryptic reservoir' of recurrent TB infections in cattle than are dogs, cats, foxes, deer, sheep, rats, rabbits, pigs or alpacas - all of them capable of contracting and spreading the disease. That reservoir is in fact the cattle themselves, thanks to poor hygiene, and reliance on tests that systematically miss both early and late stage TB infections, so allowing the bacterium to survive and perpetuate itself even in herds that have received a clean bill of health. Badger culling is simply irrelevant to the problem. The principal mechanisms of TB transmission are as a respiratory infection passed from cattle to cattle, especially when confined in warm, poorly ventilated winter housing, and from herd to herd through the movement of infected individuals.

But while these issues are of huge importance to millions of ordinary people in cities, towns and rural areas, it's not something that London's political and media elite are clued into. When the BBC Today programme's Michal Hussein was interviewing the new Environment Secretary Michael Gove this week, for example, she failed to ask a single question about animal welfare. The closest she got was ... climate change. OK, it's a biggie. But it's it's not something to set voters on fire in the way that animals do. Nor is it even part of Gove's new brief (it comes under Greg Clark in BEIS).

Now if the Tories truly want to appeal to 'the many not the few' British voters, as they must to win elections, they must stop pandering to their traditional but narrow base of farmers, landowners and others who like to kill animals for fun. The House of Commons as now constituted will never vote to bring back foxhunting anyway, and a jolly good thing too. Instead May should be looking to make the Hunting Act a great deal more effective (after all the Conservatives claim to be the 'party of law and order'), closing down the various loopholes which allow hunts to carry on killing foxes while claiming that the deaths so caused are unfortunate accidents.

It should also halt the badger cull, motivated as it is by ignorance, prejudice, bloodlust and political expediency, and instead pursue a science-led TB eradication policy - as the Labour-led Welsh government is doing with growing success not by killing badgers, but by improved biosecurity measures on and off farms to prevent transmission, and by using new, more sensitive TB tests on cattle.

is contributing editor at Resurgence & Ecologist magazine