Brian May was interviewed by guest editor Heidi Stephenson for Resurgence magazine issue 271 March/April 2012, Animals: A New Ethics. We are grateful to Brian and Heidi for allowing us to use the interview.
Can you tell us a bit about Save Me and what prompted you to set it up?
SAVE-ME is a campaign to bring about better treatment of wild animals. Of course we care about ALL creatures (including human) but our focus is the plight of the creatures of our countryside, who are so mistreated and abused at the moment, and regarded as expendable. I believe that these animals have as much right to live decent lives free from unnecessary suffering as we do. I’m convinced that if the general public really knew just how appallingly some of these innocent animals are treated, there would be a massive outcry.
You’re strongly in favour of the Hunting Act. Can you tell us why you believe it needs to stay firmly in place?
The Hunting Act was designed to protect foxes, hares and stags from being pursued and ripped limb from limb by dogs – dogs who have been deliberately and brutally bred, to be vicious especially for this purpose.
We are seeing an awful trend back to brutality in the ‘yob’ elements of society, who train their dogs to fight each other, and to savage badgers, foxes, and even domestic cats and dogs. This disgusting behaviour is little different from the traditional blood sports practiced by the other end of the community – the awful hunts. Their packs of hounds are also bred to kill, by setting them on the new baby foxes at ‘cubbing’ time. Any hound who does not respond in the required way, is destroyed.
The Hunting Act was a first step towards eradicating cruelty from the countryside, making it illegal to hunt in this way. It has been the most successful piece of animal welfare legislation ever – but is, of course, held in contempt by the perpetrators of the crime. The law is widely flouted on private land by fox-hunters who think they are above the law. Unfortunately – and almost unbelievably – we are in the hands of a government which is almost entirely pro-hunt; completely out of touch with the will of the majority of British people. We need to resist very strongly the attempts being made by David Cameron and his pals to hurl Britain back into barbarity.
A powerful minority of detractors say the Act doesn’t work – but isn’t it just about selective policing, old ‘feudal’ loyalties that are actually compromising the effectiveness of a democratic law?
The Hunting Act was given a bad start by Tony Blair, who not only didn’t make it to the vote, but – as he admitted in his autobiography – effectively told his ministers not to enforce it properly! There are many, in positions of power, who have – by turning a blind eye to clear cases of crimes against foxes – committed a crime themselves. It benefits this present government to call the law ‘unworkable’ and pretend the issues are unclear. But in fact, even in this climate of animal disrespect, many prosecutions have been successfully achieved under the act. And the argument that because a law isn’t working well enough it should be scrapped is completely specious. Can we imagine a similar argument about a law protecting children from abuse?
Did you ever imagine you would become an advocate for Britain’s wildlife?
I have felt passionately about respect for animals all my life. It was the last election which called me to arms. I realised that we were probably about to get a government which would try to bring back blood-sports. I was so appalled, I decided to try and spread this knowledge as widely as possible through a campaign of information. We will never know how much difference we made. We got a coalition instead of a conservative majority – so Cameron’s plans did not have an immediate effect on hunting, as they would have had under a conservative government led by him.
The government’s terrible plans for a badger cull are on everyone’s minds at the moment. Can you please tell us why a cull is bad science, as well as being ethically untenable?
The issue is complex, but not as complex as the government would like us to believe. Quite simply, there is not a single scientist in Britain in this field who believes we should be culling badgers – except the few in the employment of the government in DEFRA. That fact alone should make everyone smell a rat.
Caroline Spellman’s tragic plan to kill thousands of mainly healthy wild animals is known by everyone NOT to be a solution to the problem of Bovine TB. The ONLY long-term possibility of eradicating the disease is vaccination … of badgers and eventually cows too.
But the extreme end of the NFU (which is very close to the extreme end of the Conservative party, who, likewise, are in control right now) has been emotionally committed to killing badgers for a long time – as a symbolic gesture; and now they have managed to make it look like their plan is backed by science. This is a scandalous falsehood.
I believe that Ms Spellman will HAVE to abandon this policy at some point, as she abandoned her irrational plan to sell off our forests, because ultimately the farmers, who in the short term will lose popularity with the public as a result of this violent plan, will in the long term realise they have been betrayed; because the cull cannot possibly produce a significant improvement in their situation.
The last argument for culling instead of vaccinating has also just disappeared; it is now clear that per hectare, the cull will cost more than a vaccination programme.
What sort of suffering would it entail for badgers, in real terms?
Spellman’s plan is to license marksmen to shoot badgers in the dark, after they’ve been lured away from their setts. Badgers have very thick skins, and run very fast when disturbed. It’s indisputable that some wounded animals will escape – suffering lingering deaths, and, if they are infected, carrying disease to neighbouring areas. This effect is called perturbation, and it’s the reason the scientists who conducted the RBCT trial advised against a cull. This trial involved the killing of 11,000 badgers. The government are ignoring the conclusion of the trial which was, and still is: “Culling badgers can make no meaningful contribution to the control of Bovine TB in cows.”
Won’t the perturbation effect actually increase bovine TB?
There is a good chance that it will. What is certain is that culling will increase the prevalence of TB in badgers. So when, and if, the population of badgers is allowed to regenerate in future years, the problem in cows is likely to be worse. Any claims – from Cameron and others – that the cull is designed to improve the health of cows AND badgers – are very dishonest. Even DEFRA scientists would not claim this.
Would we treat an outbreak of TB in humans by killing them randomly, just to reduce the population? No. It would be lunacy. But that is exactly what Spellman’s plan would do for badgers. The marksmen will have absolutely no idea whether the badger in their sights has TB or not.
Is the badger being ‘scape-goated’ for problems that actually lie in the appalling conditions for cows inside the intensive dairy industry, and in unchecked cattle movements?
It’s certain that bad farming practices in the past allowed this disease to proliferate, and subsequently infected surrounding wildlife.
There are many responsible farmers who have tightened up their biosecurity, worked to treat their animals so that they are not so stressed, and have kept their herds healthy. But there have also been cases revealed recently of farmers illegally swapping identity tags in order to keep reactor cows in the herd, and cases of the movement of animals from bTB hotspot areas into healthy areas, producing new infections. Clearly there is a lot that could still be done to lessen cow–to-cow spread of the disease.
Is the government just paying lip-service to a ‘solution’ because they don’t want to upset farmers and call for radical change in the welfare standards of farmed animals?
I believe the cull is a political decision. There is no other explanation for a government going down a path involving immense suffering to wildlife – contrary to the advice of the scientific community and the wishes of the public.
Farmers played a large role in getting this government elected, and there is no doubt that the pressure on current ministers to deliver actions on election promises to farmers is enormous.
There is also no doubt that if we all stopped eating meat and drinking milk, this problem – this disease – would disappear. It’s a sobering thought. But what are the hopes of educating a whole population that vegetarianism is the way forward? I certainly believe it is, for so many reasons, and in the future there will come a time when the human race will have to abandon eating animal products. But it will take time. In the meantime we need to combat this disease using common sense and respect for all the animals we breed, in conditions which actually amount to slavery.
This policy is a pernicious distraction from the real task of eradicating the disease by vaccination. Even in the most optimistic estimates of DEFRA , culling our badgers can only deliver at best a 16 per cent improvement over a period of 5 years – a paltry amount, with no guarantee about what will happen AFTER that period. And the estimates from independent researchers indicate that the improvement will probably be much less, and may produce a worsening of the situation.
The Government needs to be pouring ALL available resources into making vaccination work.
Brian May is the founder of Save Me. www.save-me.org.uk
Latest news: Brian May performed at the Olympics closing ceremony on August 12. He had an image of a fox on his right arm and a badger on his left.