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Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2010

Bovine TB is having a devastating effect on many farm businesses and families. The situation is steadily getting worse—the number of animals slaughtered each year is unacceptable and more farms are affected as the disease spreads across the country. The area of England affected by bovine TB has grown from isolated pockets in the late 1980s to cover large areas of the West and South West of England. 6.4% of herds in England were under bovine TB restriction at the end of 2009. The figure was 14.3% in the South West. In 2009, over 25,000 cattle were slaughtered due to TB in England.

The cost to Government of controlling bovine TB in England was over £63 million in 2009-10 (excluding scientific research). These costs are rising year by year and there is a strong case for early effective action to turn this around. Furthermore this has been raised as a concern by others across Europe and we are under increasing pressure from the European Commission to strengthen our controls.

Eradicating bovine TB is our long-term goal, but it is clear that the approach to date has failed. We need to take additional measures urgently to stop the disease spreading and to start to reverse the rising trend. The farming industry, veterinary profession and Government need to work in partnership to achieve this.

There is no single solution to tackling bovine TB—we need to use every tool in the toolbox. Cattle measures will remain the foundation of our bovine TB control programme but we will not succeed in eliminating the disease in cattle unless we also tackle the disease in badgers. The science is clear, there is no doubt that badgers are a reservoir of the disease and transmit bovine TB to cattle. No other country in the world with a similar reservoir in wildlife has eradicated TB from cattle without stringent wildlife control measures.

That is why the coalition Government have committed, as part of a package of measures, to develop affordable options for a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine TB in cattle. I am today launching a consultation on the Government’s proposed approach to badger control in England.

Badger culling has the potential to reduce bovine TB in cattle by rapidly reducing the overall number of infected badgers, thus reducing the rate of transmission of the disease to cattle. The main body of evidence on the impact badger culling has on incidence of bovine TB in cattle is the randomised badger culling trial (RBCT) which took place between 1998 and 2007. The results of this major Government-funded trial demonstrate that badger culling, done on a sufficient scale, in a widespread, co-ordinated and efficient way, and over a sustained period of time, would reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle in high incidence areas. Analysis of the results covering the whole period from the beginning of culling to July 2010 show that the beneficial effects of culling persist over this time and that the initial detrimental effect seen at the edge of the culled area had disappeared by 12 to 18 months after culling stopped.

The proposal on which I am launching the consultation today is to issue licences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to enable farmers and landowners to cull badgers, at their own expense. Under existing arrangements farmers and landowners are already able to apply for licences to vaccinate badgers. Under the Government’s new proposal, they will be able to use vaccination either on its own or in combination with culling. The Government’s proposal will empower farmers to take control of reducing the risks of transmission from the wildlife reservoir at the local level.

Licences would be subject to strict criteria to ensure that the badger control measures are carried out effectively, humanely, and with high regard to animal welfare. This will include a requirement that any culling must take place over a minimum area of 150km2 so we can be confident it will have a net beneficial effect. This means that we would expect to receive licence applications from groups of famers and landowners rather than individuals. Applicants will also need to demonstrate that they have considered taking further steps to minimise the potential detrimental effect at the edge of a culling area. Culling licences will only permit culling by cage-trapping and shooting, and by shooting free-running badgers, carried out by trained, competent operators with the appropriate licences. We have ruled out gassing and snaring on the basis that we do not currently have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that they are humane and effective methods of culling.

I have looked carefully at the potential for using badger vaccination. Based on veterinary advice and the available scientific evidence my assessment is that vaccination will not be as effective as culling in quickly lowering the weight of infection in the badger population. Vaccination does not guarantee that all badgers are fully protected from infection and it would take some time to develop immunity within a local population. In addition, the fact that the first injectable badger vaccine was only licensed in March 2010 means that there is only very limited experience of using vaccination in the field and no hard evidence on the contribution badger vaccination would make to reducing the disease in cattle. However, vaccination is still likely to reduce disease risk and have greater disease control benefits than taking no action to tackle bovine TB in badgers. In addition, when used in combination with culling, vaccination could help to mitigate the perturbation effects of culling.

The Government’s highest priority are to reduce the deficit and it is vital that any new policy is affordable. This is why we expect the farming industry to bear the direct costs of badger control. Government will fund the licensing operation and monitor the impacts of the policy.

I do not approach these issues lightly. No one wants to kill badgers, but the scientific evidence and veterinary advice clearly suggests that this is the quickest and most effective way to bring down the weight of infection in the badger population and in turn reduce the rate of transmission of bovine TB to cattle. We also do not want to see culling for longer than is necessary and we intend to review how the policy is working after four years.

I have met with the Badger trust and separately with other interested stakeholders to explain the evidence and rationale behind the proposal. All have been offered the opportunity to discuss the consultation in further detail with DEFRA.

The consultation is available on DEFRA’s website (www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/tb-control-measures/index.htm) from today and will close on 8 December 2010. Copies are also available in the Libraries of both Houses. A decision on this policy will be made early in 2011, taking account of views provided during this consultation, and the available scientific and economic evidence.

The consultation document also highlights that we are planning a number of changes to existing cattle measures to ensure that that they are better targeted on the basis of disease risk. Most existing cattle measures will remain firmly in place; in some cases we will be looking to tighten controls where we know there is a higher disease risk; and in some cases we will be looking to reduce burdens on farmers but only where we are confident that this will not increase disease risk.

I am today publishing the report of a review of pre-movement testing which is available on the DEFRA website (www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/farmanimal/diseases/ atoz/tb/premovement/index.htm). This has concluded that the current policy has been successful in reducing bovine TB spread, provided a significant benefit for the taxpayer and a net benefit for the farming industry. The pre-movement testing policy will therefore remain in place, though we plan to look again at the current exemptions to see whether they are still necessary.

We will be making some minor changes to TB testing with immediate effect. These include reducing the testing of new and reformed herds, stopping the testing of young calves, rationalising post-breakdown testing in low-risk herds where bovine TB is not confirmed and rationalising the testing of herds neighbouring a confirmed TB breakdown. These changes will reduce costs to the taxpayer and the burden on famers without increasing disease risk, and will ensure we are not gold-plating EU legal requirements.

Over the next few months I also intend to make changes to TB terminology, strengthen controls on high risk unconfirmed breakdowns, reduce the number of tracing tests and extend the use of gamma interferon testing to all confirmed breakdown herds in the two yearly testing areas. And I will ensure better support for TB restricted cattle farmers by enhancing their options for selling surplus stock. Further details of these changes will be announced in due course.

The coalition Government are committed to dealing with this terrible disease and reducing its burden on farmers and the taxpayer as quickly as possible. A decision on our approach will be taken following the consultation on badger control being launched today. I intend to publish a comprehensive and balanced bovine TB eradication programme early in 2011.