Now the minister must target red tape
The snap judgement made by many on Owen Paterson when he was appointed to head the Defra ministerial team was that he was arriving on the scene like a breath of fresh air.
Here, we reasoned, was an MP from a rural background with a country constituency who on the surface at least seemed well-equipped to understand just how the shires have lost out under the policies of successive governments in the last two decades and just how great are the challenges currently faced by farmers.
Well, they always say one should go by one's first instincts and on this occasion that has turned out to be a pretty good ploy. Mr Paterson has demonstrated he has more knowledge in his little finger about rural affairs than any of his five predecessors, whose collective grasp of countryside issues could have been summarised on a fingernail.
He has shown he is keen to meet farmers face to face, to listen to them expressing their concerns, their fears, their worries – rather than relying on the NFU to present him with its own, redacted view of the situation.
Twice in the last few months he has engaged with farmers here in the South West and, I believe, has gone away far better informed about the state of affairs down here than he had been when he arrived. But we have to salute him, above all, for the way he has stepped up to the challenge of containing – and hopefully eradicating – TB. At last farmers have seen the kind of action they have known for years is absolutely essential if we are to have a chance of putting out the TB firestorm.
There have, of course, been protests. It was inevitable that with such an emotive issue voices would be raised by a vocal minority suffering from some misplaced affection for the very wild animals that are spreading TB from field to field, farm to farm, herd to herd.
But the protests – the "wounded badger patrols" – have been a sideshow. They have never threatened to derail the process of the trial culling – which is not, let us remind ourselves, about seeing how many badgers can be killed but whether they can be killed safely and humanely by free shooting.
Further trials will be rolled out in other areas of the country. Further methods, using all the modern technology at our disposal, will be tested, whether trapping and shooting, or gassing.
But one thing is certain: Mr Paterson, Defra and the Coalition are all determined to see this through because they know full well the alternative is to see a livestock industry brought to its knees.
There is a fly in the ointment – and it's not the badger-huggers. It's the bureaucracy and red tape which, in my opinion, has led to the trial culls being conducted at entirely the wrong time of year.
For this we have to thank the bureaucrats, either within Defra or within Natural England, who believe they know best because they have a string of letters after their names and who wield an undue amount of influence when it comes to shaping official policy.
In fact bureaucracy has to be the very next target for Mr Paterson to aim at. The views of office-bound experts have to be balanced against those of us who live in the country and are actually on the receiving end of the rules and regulations they continue to churn out, despite the Government's stated intention of relieving the bureaucratic burden on the farming community.
Sound common sense must be allowed to raise its voice against sweeping, unthinking bureaucratic decrees whose only result is to make life even more of a challenge for farmers who already feel they are working 25 hours a day, eight days a week.
The Conservative Rural Affairs Group offers a conduit for clearly-enunciated views and innovative, fresh ideas to be delivered straight to the ministerial ear and I hope, having staged our fringe meeting at the Tory conference, that we shall soon be hearing from a Defra Secretary who is not only willing to listen, but to understand and to act.