A leading animal welfare charity is taking a cynical stance on the pilot badger culls in the South West, a Westcountry MP has warned farmers.
Conservative MP Neil Parish told a meeting of farmers yesterday that their industry must unite against the unhealthy "attitude" of the RSPCA. And he claimed that the RSPCA's stance on TB – and calls by its chief executive Gavin Grant for badger marksmen and farmers allowing culls on their land to be named and shamed – had more to do with raising the organisation's profile, and precious public funds.
Speaking to 60 farmers at the annual open meeting of the Devon branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), the MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said: "It is worth asking why the hierarchy of the RSPCA is taking this attitude.
"They have taken a position where they just want to raise money," said Mr Parish, chairman of the Parliamentary Animal Welfare Committee. "By taking this attitude they have lifted their profile to enhance their support."
Mr Parish, an ex-farmer who chaired the European Parliament's Agriculture Committee when he was an MEP, said he wanted to be controversial about the RSPCA because of the attitude taken over the culls, and Mr Grant's statement on a BBC Panorama programme about identifying people involved in the cull.
Mr Parish had spoken in the Parliamentary backbencher debate on the proposed cull, which is part of the Government's programme to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis, responsible for the deaths of 26,000 cattle last year. In that debate the Government had been soundly defeated, attracting only 28 votes in favour of the cull.
"That was because the Government decided it was a back-bench vote and did not get involved," he said. "If that vote had been whipped (as in a full parliamentary debate) the Government would have won." Mr Parish said it was right that the pilot culls in West Somerset and the Tewkesbury area of Gloucestershire had been postponed this year because there was not enough time – but he was adamant they would go ahead next summer.
It had been a nonsense to try to start the culls so late in the year, he said.
"We have a long way to go, because people don't understand what it's really all about, which is disease control. Nearly 6,000 cattle were lost to the disease in Devon alone last year – and a lot of them were young dairy heifers.
"But the public does not understand the implications of that loss.
"We shall have to punch above our weight to get our message across."
One way would be to recruit the Young Farmers' Clubs to use social media and spread the message that way, he stressed.
Fran Barnes, the NFU's head of strategic communications, said the social media was vital – and that wrong information published on it should not go unchallenged. She urged members to use Twitter to get across the true facts and to counter downright wrong information.
But the RSPCA's opposition to the badger cull was not a publicity stunt, the charity insisted.
A spokesman said: "While it is true the charity is facing financial challenges – the same could be said of many organisations. It is unacceptable for the NFU and others to attack the RSPCA's chief executive Gavin Grant, who has the full support of the RSPCA for advocating a position we have held for years.
"The RSPCA has a responsibility to advocate in accordance with our charitable purposes and that is precisely what we are doing on this scientifically flawed, inhumane and unnecessary cull of badgers."