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Badgers

Volume 889: debated on Wednesday 26 March 1975

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement explanatory of his policy on the gassing of badgers.

Most of the public debate on this subject has been informed and responsible, but there have been some misleading statements in the Press which have caused a lot of unnecessary alarm among those who are properly concerned for the welfare and conservation of the badger. I welcome this opportunity of dispelling these misunderstandings and misconceptions.In certain parts of the South West tuberculosis has persisted among cattle herds despite rigorous measures to control it, and in most of the outbreaks investigations by the Ministry's Veterinary Service have ruled out all likely sources of infection other than local wild- life. A great many badger carcases have been examined in these areas since 1971 and over 20 per cent. of them were found to be infected with the same organism as that responsible for causing tuberculosis in the cattle. This is a very high level of infection for a bacterial disease like tuberculosis. In many cases advanced tubercular lesions were found and official and independent experts in veterinary science and badger behaviour are convinced that those animals could have passed the disease bacteria to cattle and other badgers through their faeces, sputum and urine: tuberculosis is commonly spread by ingestion of the organism when cattle eat contaminated grass. There is also evidence that diseased badgers may behave in an abnormal manner since some have been captured in or near farm buildings in daylight.In this situation it is necessary to remove this source of infection of a disease which is still a serious hazard to man and animals and which is already showing signs of spreading beyond the limited areas where it is now found. An overwhelming majority of experts believe that gassing badgers in their sets with cyanide is the only efficient method of destroying infected populations, and that this also is the most humane and merciful method of control. Death is rapid and apparently painless. My right hon. Friend therefore hopes to conduct and then to review trial operations involving the local gassing of badgers within some of these limited areas.The gassing of badgers is at present illegal, but although it would be fully justified in the limited circumstances mentioned, neither this nor any other method of destroying their colonies is warranted over most of the countryside where there is no evidence of infection with tuberculosis. That is why my right hon. Friend is seeking powers to authorise gassing by means of licences. These would authorise the use of no poisons other than cyanide gas power-pumped into the sets: the licences would be limited to those few localities where tuberculosis is shown to exist in badgers and only to Ministry officers or other responsible persons who would be subject to Ministry supervision.The Ministry will continue to do everything possible to discourage the wide- spread destruction of badgers by all and sundry. Indeed, in the interest of our badgers I would urge farmers not to kill them on suspicion but to consult the Ministry if they have any reason to suppose that they might be a source of infection. I would also ask that no one should move wild badgers from one part of the country to another because this might spread the disease.