I beg to move,
That this House has considered Badger culling and bovine TB.
Bovine tuberculosis—bTB—is a disease affecting beef and dairy cattle herds in England and Wales. Scotland is officially free of the disease and Wales is increasingly considered to be bringing the disease under control, but its incidence is rising in England.
Bovine tuberculosis is caused by the organism Mycobacterium bovis, which is excreted by infected cattle on to the land they graze where it survives in the soil. It can be and is then passed to other cattle and other species, including badgers, rats, cats, deer, foxes, moles, hedgehogs, worms and, I understand, even flies. However, the predominant mode of transmission in cattle is nose to nose and of course through trading, which promotes it between herds.
In recent years, the disease has spread extensively northwards and eastwards from the areas of original prevalence in the south-west of England, and that spread continues. In fact, the number of new herd breakdowns appears to double approximately every nine years, and in the last decade alone the UK Government has slaughtered 314,000 otherwise healthy cattle in an attempt to control the disease.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and I will come to it shortly.
In 2013, more than 6 million bTB skin tests were performed in England in an attempt to identify the disease, leading to the slaughter of more than 26,000 cattle. These tests are only 20% to 50% effective. One quarter of herds in the south-west and west midlands regions of England have been placed under movement restrictions at some point, and in the last decade the rising incidence of the disease has cost the UK taxpayer more than £500 million. Today, 20% of all new herd breakdowns are detected in the slaughterhouse, such is the ineffectiveness of current testing programmes.
The hon. Lady is ahead of me. I am just coming to that point.
In 2014 the UK Government’s inability to bring the disease under control resulted in a cost to UK taxpayers of almost £100 million, with additional costs to farmers estimated to run to tens of millions of pounds annually. There is also a significant human cost. Bovine TB causes misery for farmers. I suspect that many Members here today will have heard stories of farms effectively being closed because of the disease, farmers being made bankrupt and, sadly, some farmers even taking their own lives, such is the impact on businesses of the failure to address the disease effectively.
If the UK Government do not begin to manage the rising incidence of this disease in England, there will be not only an increase in the number of beef and dairy herds affected, but further geographical spread and a consequent spiralling cost to UK taxpayers over the next decade of potentially £1 billion. That figure comes from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who is a colleague on the EFRA Committee, on securing this debate. It has been suggested that one way of solving the problem is to have more frequent cattle testing. How will that resolve the problem and eradicate the disease?
The hon. Gentleman flags up an important point, which again I will come to. We agree that this is a crisis that must be dealt with now. It affects mainly English cattle farmers, and their families and their communities, and the impact cannot be overstated. If the disease continues to increase unchecked in England, it will begin to threaten herds in other nations that are currently free of the disease, such as Scotland. I want to avoid that happening.
Inexplicably, some people hypothesise that the rising incidence of bovine TB in England is attributable to badgers. I say “inexplicably” because research shows that even in remote areas of England where bovine TB is rampant, 86% of badgers are clear of the disease, with just 1.6% of the badger population considered capable of transmitting it. The role of badgers in the transmission of bovine TB to cattle is controversial.
Badger culling was conducted under a number of schemes throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These included at different times the use of snaring, gassing, cage-trapping and shooting. Many thousands of badgers were killed prior to the introduction of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. However, no effort was made to evaluate empirically the effectiveness of badger culls relative to reducing bovine TB incidence in cattle until the Natural Environment Research Council initiated the randomised badger culling trial in 1998.
The hon. Gentleman talked about evidence. Does he agree with Professor Rosie Woodroffe of London University, who says that the mismatch between killing badgers and the spread of bovine TB is
“a huge disappointment for evidence-based policy making”?
It is indeed a huge disappointment. I spoke to the professor on that very point just the other day.
The field trial I mentioned ran for seven years to 2005 and was overseen by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB under the chairmanship of Professor John Bourne. The study found that reactive badger culling resulted in a significant increase in cattle TB to the extent that reactive culling was abandoned early in the trial. Proactive culling of badgers resulted in an average reduction of TB in cattle of approximately 23% in proactive culling zones compared with control areas, but an increase of approximately 24.5% on neighbouring land not subject to culling, which was thought to be due to the perturbing impact of culling.
The Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB concluded: badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the future control of TB in cattle; deficiencies in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in areas where TB occurs—that is, cattle are the disease reservoir; cattle-to-cattle transmission is the main cause of disease spread to new geographic areas; substantial reductions in cattle TB incidence could be achieved by improving cattle-based control measures; and it was unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continued to believe, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control. No substantial or respectable body of scientific work has ever been produced to contradict the conclusions of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB.
In short, scientific evidence does not identify a causal relationship between the presence of badgers and a rising incidence of bovine TB in cattle, nor do scientific data suggest that culling badgers reduces the prevalence of the disease in beef and dairy herds.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the Chamber. I presume that many hon. Members have a different opinion from him. In Northern Ireland, there has been a five-year programme costing some £5 million. After trapping, testing and vaccinating badgers and removing any that tested positive, it was decided this year for the first time—
I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is borne out by scientific evidence. Indeed, experience in Wales and the Republic of Ireland contradicts what he is suggesting. In fact, the data suggest that badgers are contracting TB from cattle rather than cattle contracting TB from badgers. Worryingly, there is a possibility that other species may also be contracting TB from cattle and that that this is not being monitored. It is an unavoidable truth that if the UK Government hope to control bTB in English herds and to protect the wider environment through culling, they should logically cull not just badgers and cattle but bats, cats, dogs, mice, moles, rats, hedgehogs, sheep, goats, llamas, slugs, worms and even flies, all of which are capable of sustaining the disease. That proposition is clearly ridiculous, but it serves to highlight precisely how ridiculous the current persecution of badgers is, and that is exactly why the Welsh and Irish Governments have abandoned badger culling and why the European Union has never agreed with the UK’s policy in this area.
Culling never actually occurred in Wales. The hon. Gentleman needs to be reasonably accurate about his points, but he also should take note of the fact that the incidences of TB within the vaccination area in Wales are exactly the same as they are on the outside. There is no distinction between the two areas, so before he paints vaccination as the answer, he needs to look at the Welsh result.
I am arguing here today that the UK Government must begin to protect beef and dairy farmers in England and alter planned programmes of action to begin reducing the disease in existing herds in England. Anything less does a disservice to English farmers and undermines their work in support of local economies.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the one animal that is attacking the hedgehog is the badger and that hedgehogs have declined by 50% over the last 15 years? What action can we take to protect them?
Just for information, I point out that I had a herd of Chital deer and we had to put them all down because of TB. I do not believe that badgers were the carriers; we think it was something else—probably a wild deer that came in. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be putting more funds into tracing what else carries TB?
I absolutely agree and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful point.
To make my point clear, it is worth noting that figures to May 2016 show that Wales has reduced new herd breakdowns by 14% without killing badgers, while at the same time bovine TB has increased in England by 26% along infection edge areas owing to inadequate testing, uncontrolled cattle movements and the distraction of killing badgers.
In 2015, the British Veterinary Association stated that there was a
“disproportionate focus on badger culling in the public debate about bovine TB”.
I agree and suggest that that focus is the result of the unscientific, ineffective, expensive and inhumane nature of culling policy; additional public concerns in respect of wildlife protection and welfare; and the inappropriate use of public funds.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has mentioned the skin test. How effective has he found it to be, from the evidence? From a Northern Ireland perspective, I have found that it has resulted in animals being put down that should never have been put down.
I will come to the skin test shortly, but I think that there are more appropriate alternatives to it.
Returning to the point about public funds, it is instructive that the UK Government have never published the total costs of culling to the taxpayer or farmers. However, we know that the first two years of the two pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucester cost the taxpayer more than £14 million; that includes policing costs. That equates to £5,766 per badger killed and compares with an estimated cost of just under £700 per badger vaccinated in Wales.
It must be anecdotal because it certainly does not appear to be borne out by the scientific evidence.
In 2016, the UK Government admitted that the full costs of culling in 2015 had not been worked out but that policing costs alone for three areas were just under £2 million. The additional costs to farmers of the cull repercussions have never been released. In January this year, it was reported that the European Commission had provided the UK Government with half the Commission’s entire budget of €62 million to tackle bovine TB: €31m, then worth £23 million, went on just four programmes. That money, earmarked for dealing with and controlling TB in cattle, as opposed to badgers, is obviously now at risk because of Brexit. In sum, the UK Government’s current policy wastes an estimated £20 million per month and will generate a cost of approximately £2 billion to the taxpayer by the 2038 target. In addition, the UK Government no longer collect data on humaneness. One wonders why. What are the actual costs, Minister, and what do data show on humaneness?
I am arguing not that we should do nothing, but that the UK Government should abandon the TB skin test as the primary means of identifying infection and new herd breakdowns and should adopt modern methods and technologies to address this disease. Specifically, the UK Government should adopt gamma interferon tests—that is, blood testing—and robust systems of biosecurity. Combined with a co-ordinated badger vaccination policy in high-risk areas for bovine TB in England and restricted movement, that course of action would be a more progressive and intelligent option than the relatively crude skin testing and redundant killing of badgers and would realise results within months. It would also be more humane.
I support further research into vaccination, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a global shortage of bovine TB vaccine? It is the same vaccine as is used in humans, it needs 10 times the dose, and it needs to be repeated every five years. There is no possibility of an injectable vaccine roll-out at this time, and the programme has even been suspended in Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that information. However, it does not address the fundamental point that killing badgers is not helping the situation, either.
Following the introduction in Wales of the regime that I have just identified, the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle has declined sharply: a 30% decline over a 12-month period was recorded in 2012. The sharpest fall was in the area where the disease was at its worst. In Dyfed, 36% less cattle were slaughtered over two years, with a saving to the taxpayer of £6.5 million in compensation, and of course untold misery was avoided.
It is the case that 84% of the public are against badger culling. Like scientists, the public know that culling badgers is cruel, unjustified and expensive. It divides rural communities, damages the balance of nature and perpetuates disease. It gives false hope to farmers and sets a dangerous precedent that we can ignore this disease. Minister, look to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Recognise the importance of cattle welfare and husbandry. Combine that recognition with rigorous blood testing regimes and effective movement controls to reduce the risks of cattle-to-cattle transmission, and introduce a centrally co-ordinated comprehensive badger vaccination policy in high-risk areas for bTB in England. Start to reduce the incidence of this dreadful disease and stop the regressive and medieval practice of badger culling, which diminishes our collective humanity.
I enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan), but he is about five years behind the times. To suggest that culling does not work and vaccination would be a substitute is unfair and unfortunate, given the evidence provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston).
The reason why we are all here is that bovine TB is caused by a species-jumping bacterium, and it affects people. That is why this is such an important subject, and it is no good saying that it is all about badgers. The Government’s record on it is superb. By identifying the edge areas, they have made it clear that a huge part of our country has badgers with no infection. There is a clear, healthy population of badgers, and they need to be protected from the badgers in my constituency, which have a high incidence of infection. If we lose sight of that, we do no favours to the people who love badgers or to the badgers that are not infected. We all know the reason why TB is a horrible disease, because the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), with his Chital deer, reminded us. These animals are our pets that we care about and that we like to see, and they need to be protected. By doing nothing we are being irresponsible and letting down both healthy badgers and the people whose livelihoods depend on cattle farming.
I have nothing but praise for my hon. Friend the Minister; he is doing what is right by protecting healthy badgers. We need to continue to look at the evidence, and I hope that the pilot schemes will start to publish successful evidence soon. During the recess I read that the incidence of outbreaks in Wales and in the edge areas where vaccines are being trialled has actually gone up, which is a disaster for those of us who want vaccines to work, but in among that gloom is a little sparkle of hope to all of those who voted to leave the EU, because when we are out we will potentially be allowed to vaccinate our cattle, which is illegal in the EU at the moment.
It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) for securing this timely debate.
Animal rights and welfare is an issue I am very passionate about. The culling of badgers to prevent the spread of diseases is not a new concept and has gone on across Europe since the ’70s, but it was largely abandoned in the UK during the 1980s and is now completely prohibited in many European countries. The 10-year randomised badger culling trial, which started in 1998, demonstrated the ineffectiveness of culling, but despite the evidence the Government implemented a full programme.
Yes, I completely agree, and I will come on to that in a while. The absurdity of such a process is that it directly contravenes the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which prohibits the wilful killing or injuring of a badger. Badger culling has time and again proven ineffective. Arguments against culling are not only emotive but factual: it is expensive, with the Government’s own figures showing it will cost more than it saves; it is not proven to work in any substantial or sustainable way; and Lord Krebs, who led the culling trials of the ’90s, has opposed further culling on the grounds that it is ineffective.
The Welsh Labour Government have rejected the culling of badgers as a means of controlling and eradicating bovine TB. However, as a rural country Wales is not without its problems in this area, and in a bid to control the spread of TB in 2012 the Welsh Government began a badger vaccination programme. That work has been targeted at an intensive action area, which has some of the highest incidence of bovine TB in Europe. Although the effectiveness of vaccination remains disputed, it is surely a better option than the equally disputed, and much more contentious, process of inhumane killing.
I am appalled that the current UK Government have not only ignored evidence, fierce campaigning and the experience of some devolved regions, but have actually taken the notion of culling even further, recently extending the programme to seven new areas across England. I urge the Government to reconsider their commitment to badger culling. How can the random slaughter of one animal to protect another ever be justifiable, logical or humane?
Three years ago I had the honour of being the mayor of my home town of St Austell, and one evening I went to visit the local sea cadets. I will never forget that memorable evening, because at the end of the evening, as I usually did, I asked the young people what they would like to see in our town that would make it a better place. I got all the usual answers—better shops, better leisure facilities, a skateboard park—and then one young man standing in front of me, who was about 12 years old, leant forward and said, “A badger cull.” I figured out very quickly that he was clearly a farmer’s son.
The point that I want to make is that this debate is about people; it is about the livelihood and wellbeing of beef and dairy farmers in this country. We must never lose sight of the fact that as we debate Britain’s biggest rodent, we are actually talking about the livelihoods of our farmers. Let us be clear that every time cattle are tested, our dairy farmers go through anguish. They stand there watching the test take place, not knowing whether this time it is going to be positive, and then many of them have to watch as their life’s work is destroyed as a result of a positive test. We must never lose sight of the fact that at the heart of this debate is our local farming community. I have spoken to many beef and dairy farmers in my constituency, and every one of them has told me that they are convinced we need to control the badger population to eradicate this disease.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Speaking as a farmer’s daughter, I understand how devastating TB can be in a cattle herd, but I also absolutely despise the shooting and culling of badgers. Will the hon. Gentleman identify the scientific evidence that supports badger culling?
I believe that there is a great deal of evidence from other nations that have eradicated TB, where part of the programme of eradication has been the control of wildlife that carries the disease. There is evidence from around the world that supports that view. Our beef and dairy farmers have a very clear view, and I have learned over the years to listen to those most closely associated with an issue when forming an opinion.
Let us be clear: controlling the badger population will not, in and of itself, be the silver bullet that eradicates this disease, but I am convinced that it has to be part of a comprehensive programme, including vaccination and controls on movement where appropriate, if we are to move towards doing so. I will continue to support our farming community, the Minister, who has great experience of farming in his own right, and the Government on this issue.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mrs Main. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan), who introduced it, and I obviously have different opinions. I want to express mine clearly in the two minutes that I have.
I have a deep interest in the rural community; I live in the middle of it, and most of my neighbours are milking farmers. They have large herds and depend on the stability of those herds for their incomes and those of their families. With that in mind, they want and need badgers to be controlled.
First, I want to refer to what we have done in Northern Ireland in a wee bit more detail. We are currently in the third year of a selective badger cull project to tackle bovine TB in Northern Ireland. The test and vaccinate or remove wildlife intervention research project—they call it TVR—is under way in a 100 sq km area around Banbridge in County Down. I live in an area that has some of the highest milk yields in the whole of Northern Ireland and the whole of Ireland. The project was involved in trapping badgers, testing them for TB, vaccinating clean badgers and removing any that tested positive for the disease. With all that research and information, this will be the first year that it has culled diseased badgers. Clearly the scientific method has not worked. With great respect to hon. Members, I hear some say that the scientific evidence is not there, but it is in Northern Ireland. The worldwide shortage of the BCG vaccine, which was used in years one and two, meant that it was unavailable for purchase in the third year.
As I have said before, my constituency has one of the highest levels of TB. It would be unwise and unfair of me not to come to this Chamber and say clearly that badgers need to be culled, because the cost to farmers and the £100 million in compensation over the last few years cannot be sustained. I want my farmers to be able to support and look after their families, and I want to make sure that the milk yield from my area can continue as well. That being the case, I am very sorry to say that I cannot support the hon. Gentleman.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on securing this debate. He laid out very clearly the science behind this policy area and exposed the Government’s wilful abandonment of it. First, they ignored the recommendations of the independent scientific review group. Secondly, they ignored and rode roughshod over the independent group that looked at the review of the first year of culling, and in particular its recommendations on humaneness. They have also ignored the BVA, which has made it clear that culling should not take place on the basis of controlled shooting. Now that farmers are free to shoot on a controlled basis, there will be very little caging and trapping. The Government have ignored all that, and now on top of that we have a significant relaxation of the criteria for the roll-out of culling areas.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the farmers are also casualties of the situation, as the reality is that the culling of badgers is not an effective solution to TB? Does she therefore agree that the Government should at least think again?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. What we are going to hear from the Minister is probably what we have heard in the past: first, that TB was dealt with in New Zealand by culling possums. Well, I will say once again that badgers are not possums, and this is not New Zealand; it is the United Kingdom and the ecology is completely different. Secondly, we will hear that TB has never been tackled effectively without tackling it in the wildlife reservoir. There is new evidence on the table to challenge that concept. It has been established that there is very little evidence of direct transmission between badgers and cattle, so that needs looking at again. Finally, we will hear a point about farmers, and that is exactly where I would agree strongly with the Minister. I agree that this disease has to be tackled, but we are doing farmers no favours by pretending that the policy of culling badgers, which is the linchpin of the Government’s approach to this awful problem, is going to work, because it is not.
What we have not heard at any point from the Minister—I would like him to address this in his closing comments—is answers to questions on two issues. First, at what point will we get a thorough and independent assessment of the outcome of the first two culls in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset? We are in the final year of the culls in those areas. Secondly, how will the Government assess the new research on transmission between badgers and cattle? Wil they look properly at that evidence and make sure that it is thoroughly investigated, and will Parliament be informed of the outcome?
I am not going to go over the pros and cons of the debate about culling; I want to be quite parochial in the couple of minutes that I have just to highlight the issue in East Sussex, which is not only a high-risk area, but an edge area along the A27. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) about the devastation that TB can cause for farmers and their families. Even so, East Sussex is quite low down the list of priorities for DEFRA. We have talked to the Minister about being a trial area for a vaccination programme and he has been very supportive of farmers in East Sussex. We would be ideal because we are an edge area and have support from our farmers, the National Farmers Union and our residents. We also have a trained and licensed group of volunteers ready to go, and the support of the Sussex Wildlife Trust.
Evidence from a vaccination programme from 2005 to 2009 in Gloucestershire showed that vaccinating can reduce the number of badgers testing positive by 54% to 76%. That would make a significant difference to my local farmers. I acknowledge that there is a shortage of vaccine and I take the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) that the badgers would need vaccinating yearly for a period of five years and need 10 times the amount of vaccine that a human would need. However, we need to do something. We would also be keen to look at the Northern Ireland programme of TVR—test and vaccinate or remove. We think there would be some merit in that vaccination programme for East Sussex, but we await the results of that programme.
Farmers in East Sussex, given that it is on the edge, are worried that it will stop being an edge area and become a completely high-risk area, so I would welcome further discussions with the Minister, who has been so supportive of the farmers in East Sussex.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on securing this important debate and on the clear and robust way he opened it. Like many MPs—I think there were 36 here at the start of this debate—I have received much correspondence from constituents about badger culling. My constituents feel outraged and upset that the Government are continuing with the programme of culls. Many say that the badger cull is cruel, costly and ineffective and I agree with them.
We have heard in this debate—this is one of the key points I want to make—that the Government have failed to take account of scientific evidence and advice on this matter. Culling is expensive, ineffective and in some cases is not being carried out in a humane way. The previous Labour Government carried out a 10-year randomised trial on badger culling, which concluded that culling will not achieve a lasting reduction in bovine TB. Indeed, the trial found that culling risked making things worse for farmers in neighbouring areas. I understand that new evidence released this year has called into question the likelihood of direct transmission of the disease from badgers to cattle.
As we have heard, the Government have failed to take scientific advice and assessments into account. An assessment of the first year of the pilot culls by an independent expert panel was highly critical of the Government’s practices and policies. David Macdonald, the former chief scientific adviser to Natural England, described the culls as an “epic failure”. The pilots raised significant concerns that badgers were being shot inhumanely, and the way the culls had been carried out meant that there was no chance that they could be effective, with a number of culls failing to achieve their targets.
Instead of reviewing the culling programme and accepting that other forms of intervention were necessary to prevent the spread of bovine TB, the Government disbanded the expert panel and continued with the culling programme. Professor Tim Coulson described the Government’s approach as “wilfully” ignoring the concerns of their own scientists. I think that is appalling.
Yes, indeed. I will end with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made: there are two important questions for the Minister to answer, particularly in the light of what I just said. When will we have a thorough and independent assessment of the two pilot culls? And when will the Government assess the research on transmission?
Mrs Main, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that states I am a farmer. I represent one of the country’s greatest agricultural constituencies; sadly, it is also one of the constituencies that is most badly affected by bovine tuberculosis, so I speak with some experience on this issue.
The choices we face are stark. TB is an indiscriminate and profoundly unpleasant disease. In 2015 alone, 28,000 once perfectly content and otherwise healthy cattle were slaughtered as a result of contracting this horrible disease. The Government have stated that the cost to the taxpayer was £100 million; on current trends that will be £1 billion cumulatively over the next decade.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) said, Opposition Members never mention the human stress caused to the farmers involved. Add to that the cost—
I am intrigued that an hon. Member from Scotland has secured this debate, because I did not realise that it was a problem in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman must have few problems with his own constituents to have time to bring forward this debate.
As well as the emotional stress for the farmers involved, the cost to them is tens of millions of pounds. Add that to the costs to the taxpayer and this is a really serious problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, the only legal vaccine for badgers is the injectable BCG vaccine. It is in such short supply that it is needed for human use and therefore the vaccination trial in a quarter of the area of Wales has had to be curtailed. I hasten to add that I believe DEFRA is right to budget tens of millions of pounds to try and achieve an oral vaccine for badgers. That is the nirvana and when we get that, we will really make progress.
My constituents in the new badger cull area in Gloucestershire, with whom I have worked very closely and to whom I pay tribute, have had to go through an incredibly rigorous process to get the licence from Natural England. They are responsible for all the training and recruiting of firearms experts—forgetting all the equipment. I say to Opposition Members that they would not go to that huge amount of trouble and expense unless they really believed that a badger cull was the answer, so I think the Government are exactly correct in their 25-year vaccination strategy. We have to use all the tools in our box.
I met people from Natural England a few months ago and they very much gave me the impression that the process was little more than a rubber-stamping exercise and they took their steer from DEFRA as to whether they would go ahead. It came across to me as a political decision rather than, in any way, an academic exercise.
I invited the hon. Lady, when she was the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, to come to my constituency and meet some of these farmers, and I invite her to come and meet some of the people who have been involved in this licensing programme. She will find out the hours, days and weeks they have had to spend on this to get a licence. She will be amazed.
I believe that the best way to cull badgers is with traps. Unfortunately in Gloucestershire, protesters have removed and damaged traps, which has made it essential to have free shooting in our armoury, as well as shooting badgers in traps. If there were no interference with the traps, I believe we could—as they have done in Somerset—operate culls on a much greater basis by caging badgers.
I repeat that the 25-year elimination strategy that the Government have announced is exactly right. We must use all the tools in our armoury, including ring vaccination, culls, vaccinations and, indeed, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, tightening biosecurity. On farms, we legally have to do so. Every year DEFRA has tightened biosecurity, the regulations on pre and post-movement of cattle and the regulations on skin testing. Those are the directions in which we need to go, but we need to eliminate this terrible disease.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) for securing the debate and for setting out a detailed position. It is a well-attended debate, which shows the significance of the issue to us all—to farmers and animal welfare advocates alike. The issue is significant to the public and forms a huge part of my mail bag, as I would imagine it does for many other MPs.
Some 150,000 people signed the petition and more than 70% of the population oppose the cull of badgers. We have heard that the subject divides rural communities. I also suggest that it has divided the House, although not officially. It is a devolved issue, so I will speak a bit about what we are doing in Scotland, and try to outline the main issues that various hon. Members have spoken about. The issue should not divide us because we must learn from good practice and from what works across the UK. We obviously have differing strategies in place currently and, therefore, we need to review the evidence and examine it closely.
In Scotland, the risk of bovine TB has historically been very low, and there is no evidence whatever of a wildlife reservoir of bovine TB. The Scottish Government have recognised a need for confidence on the issue and have introduced a stringent package of measures including tissue sampling at farm visits, an epidemiological risk assessment, tracing cattle, contiguous herd assessments, and two consecutive tests with negative results to retain bovine TB-free status. In October 2009, Scotland was added to the long list of European Commission member states and regions that are declared free of bovine TB. The Commission attributed that to the success of Scotland’s livestock industry working in conjunction with the Government.
I will attempt to summarise the issues that have been raised very briefly, as I am aware that I only have three minutes or so remaining. Some of the main issues appear to involve the crisis in farming. Farmers have already been significantly affected by pricing and they may be feeling the impact of Brexit. There are export issues and issues in being price competitive with comparators. Those problems are fundamental to the stress experienced by farmers.
The other issue is whether culling is effective. The independent scientific group has apparently stated that the culling is ineffective and the previous 10-year randomised trial, which was undertaken by the Labour Government of the time, also indicated that it was not effective. We must base what we do upon evidence. Some evidence indicates that cattle-to-cattle transmission is the main issue and that, in some instances, badgers may even contract TB from cattle. It is important to look at alternatives.
The experts have even cited a huge disappointment about the lack of an evidence-based policy, which is extremely concerning. It must be cost-effective but the UK Government’s route does not appear to be. Policing costs alone have been cited as £2 million, with culling at £20 million a month. The estimated cost by 2038 is £2 billion. However, there are difficulties because there is a shortage of vaccines, and that must be looked at within the scientific community. We must also look at the humanity of culling, as we have heard grave concerns about the relaxation of regulations and free shooting.
We are in a time of austerity. Our most vulnerable are suffering. The disabled are suffering. The bottom line is that any policy enacted by this Government must be evidence based. These are extortionate pilot studies. Culling has been described by professionals in the field as a wilful abandoning of science, and we are beginning to ignore independent outcome trials. We are going down the wrong route, and it is an expensive route that we can little afford.
I suggest a review of the policy, the research and the pilot evidence, which is, indeed, urgent. Policy must be evidence based. We cannot give farmers false hope by going in the wrong direction. We cannot base policy on desperation, anecdotes and experience. In all my time as a scientist practitioner in the NHS, belief has never equated to evidence. We are looking for evidence-based practice to ensure that we give the general public a cost-effective solution that works for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) for bringing forward today’s important debate.
Over the summer, I have been listening to the frustrations and concerns of those working with cattle about the ongoing risk that they continue to carry about the prevalence of bovine TB. They want solutions that work, which is why it is so important that we examine the evidence and look at the scientific research, which really does conclude that since 2011 when the strategy was put in place, research has moved on and we must move on with it.
The Republic of Ireland, after 32 years of culling, now recognises the flaw in it and has, therefore, switched to badger inoculation. In Wales, a fresh approach has been taken, which has seen 94.6% of herds TB-free and incidence continues to fall at a rapid rate—17% in the past year. I know that the Government want to be seen to be acting, but there are better ways of doing things. Therefore, they have a responsibility to farmers to ensure that they take an evidence-based approach.
There have been failings in the programme that has been put forward. Figures that have come from freedom of information requests show that the number of badgers culled has fallen far short of the Government’s criteria for an effective cull, so trapping has been used to support it. Therefore, when we trap a badger, why not inoculate it as opposed to exterminating it? The cull has failed on effectiveness and on humaneness. It simply has not delivered. Instead, we should take a different approach. This is about a public health issue and, therefore, we need a comprehensive health strategy and not just a simple sticking plaster to try to deal with part of the problem as opposed to the complete problem.
Bovine TB is a commutable disease. Understanding the pathogen transmission process is vital in understanding the associated disease management strategy. New research coupled with scientific analysis has unveiled more about the disease. Evidence-based policy making should engage with that. Ultimately, farmers are being let down if the Government do not act on the back of that. Research has shown that badger-to-cattle transmission is not through airborne routes and that it is likely to be through badger excrement, but more research is needed in that area.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that intervention about how we manage the environmental impact of bovine TB. Looking at slurry and manure spreading is one way of achieving that and it is an important point that I was going to come to later. However, cattle-to-cattle transmission is the key issue to address. Therefore, we need a comprehensive strategy that puts investment into more measures around biosecurity, which is really important to address the issue in a strategic way.
We also know that the culls that have taken place have not delivered the decrease in the badger population necessary to reduce the spread of TB, as identified by the independent expert group. As the years have progressed, scientists say that population estimates are becoming more inaccurate, so the effectiveness of culls is falling further year on year.
We also know that the new criteria, which seven out of 10 respondents rejected, will mean that the cull is less effective in years to come. We have therefore seen the prevalence of bovine TB increasing in the four culling areas, which clearly does not satisfy farmers. As the independent scientific review group has concluded,
“badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”.
We know that the cull has failed on effectiveness. The cull has failed on humaneness—between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers are alive after five minutes. We know that badgers are not shot in the target area—only 45% are shot in the target area. We know that the cull has failed on cost, and we have heard today that the vaccine costs a tenth as much as killing a single badger. That money could be repurposed to support farmers.
New measures need to be introduced on biosecurity and testing, and we have heard about the gamma interferon test, which has a far higher level of accuracy but is not being widely used. The DIVA test is coming on board, and it will clearly differentiate between infected cattle and vaccinated cattle. We understand that that will be ready in about five years’ time. We need to look at the vaccination programme and build up vaccine stock.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on securing this well-attended debate, which shows the importance of the issue.
Scotland, of course, has a very low badger population density. Scotland is also the only part of the UK to be officially TB free, but England, Wales and Northern Ireland have this big challenge. TB is a difficult disease to fight. It is a slow-growing, insidious disease. Diagnostics are difficult because the disease does not show up quickly. The only vaccine we have is the BCG vaccine and, despite decades of research, no one has come up with a more effective vaccine—the BCG vaccine is only partially effective. TB is having a huge impact on our agricultural industry and is causing huge trauma for farmers, with some 28,000 cattle a year being slaughtered.
We have put in place a comprehensive 25-year strategy to address bovine TB, and cattle control is at the heart of that strategy. Several hon. Members have said that cattle control is the answer, but I will explain what we have. We have annual testing in the high-risk area and four-yearly testing in the low-risk area. We have annual testing in the edge area and six-monthly testing in hotspots in the edge area, and we continue to consider rolling that out. We have contiguous testing in the high-risk area where there is a breakdown, and we have radial testing in the low-risk area, going out to 3 km, where we have a breakdown. We are now consulting on greater use of the gamma interferon test so that we can pick up the disease faster. We are also looking at what more can be done in other species. We are constantly trying to refine and improve our cattle movement controls, but I put it to hon. Members that for years we have been doing everything that everyone has said we should be doing.
We continue to work on vaccination. We are spending millions of pounds on trying to develop an oral vaccine for badgers because I believe that could give us an exit strategy from the cull once we have completed a reduction in the population of some areas. We are also continuing to work on cattle vaccination to develop a DIVA test. That work takes time and costs millions of pounds, but we are doing it.
In recent years we have set up an edge area vaccination programme, with a number of volunteer groups taking part. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, the World Health Organisation has asked everyone to stop using the vaccine we have on badgers, and we followed the Welsh Government’s lead in doing so. We will resume our testing when those stocks come back on stream.
We are doing a huge amount of work to improve biosecurity. In a few weeks’ time I will launch a cattle health certification standards—CHeCS—accreditation scheme to try to incentivise farmers to do more for biosecurity. We have grants available so that farmers can invest in water troughs that make it harder for badgers to gain access and in fencing to keep badgers away from farmyards. We are constantly trying to improve the management of slurry, and there is already a suite of measures on farmyard manure management. We are also looking at other novel things, such as genetics. Holstein UK is working on whether genetic improvement might be able to breed partial resistance into the dairy herd in particular. I have already asked our chief scientific adviser to find out whether further work could be done to enhance that.
The badger cull is just one part of our strategy but, as I have said before, there is no example anywhere in the world of a country that has eradicated TB without also addressing reservoirs of the disease in the wildlife population. A number of hon. Members have raised questions about the science. TB was first isolated in badgers as long ago as 1971. In 1974 a trial was conducted to remove badgers from a severely infected farm, with the result that there was no breakdown on that farm for five years. Between 1975 and 1978 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food funded extensive work that demonstrated conclusively that there is transmission and a link between badgers and cattle, and subsequent work in Ireland has reaffirmed that finding.
The Krebs review observed that between 1975 and 1979 TB incidence in the south-west fell from 1.65% to 0.4% after the cull, a 75% reduction. Subsequently, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, more extensive work was done in three exercises. One was in Thornberry, where the TB incidence fell from 5.6% in the 10 years before culling to 0.45% in the 15 years afterwards, a reduction of 90%. In Steeple Leaze there were no breakdowns for seven years after badgers were cleared. In Hartland the incidence dropped from 15% in 1984 to just 4% in 1985, a reduction of more than two thirds.
There were claims that those experiments lacked a control, which is why the randomised badger culling trial took place. Despite having the challenge of the foot and mouth crisis smack in the middle of it, the RBCT concluded that in the four years after culling there was a significant reduction in the incidence of TB. The RBCT supported what the previous trials had shown. In fact, 18 months after the culling ended in the RBCT there was a 54% reduction in the incidence of the disease, so I am afraid that hon. Members who say that we have not followed the science have themselves not read the science. The science and the veterinary advice are clear.
I will not give way.
This is an evidence-based policy. We cannot remove and eradicate TB without addressing the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. I would not sanction a cull of badgers unless it were necessary. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly expensive but I am also not the sort of person who wants to kill wildlife for fun. I would not sanction this unless it were necessary, and I believe that it is necessary.
I urge hon. Members to show some sense of perspective. I live next to Bushy Park and at this time of year, every year, a sign goes up on the gates saying, “We are afraid that the park will be closed for the next few weeks because we are having a deer cull.” Nobody bats an eyelid. They go somewhere else to have their picnic. We do not get protesters running around the park at night. Is that really so different? The level of scrutiny that we put on the culls and the requirements that we attach to licensing are incredibly thorough. We have rules on the distance that hunters have to be before they can take a shot and on precisely the type of rifles that they should have. We have rules saying that the badger must be stationary before a shot is taken. We are doing our utmost to ensure that the badger culling and shooting are done in the most effective way, more effective than for any other wildlife.
In conclusion, I believe that this is necessary. It is an evidence-based policy, which is why we continue to roll out the cull.
This has been a lively debate, but I think everyone in the room agrees that we must do everything possible to eradicate bovine TB in cattle. Everyone would also agree that the crucial issue is a human and a humane one. In Scotland we have introduced a stringent package of evidence-based measures that include blood testing and tissue sampling at farm visits, epidemiological risk assessments, cattle tracing, contiguous herd assessments and two consecutive tests with negative results in order to retain TB free status. The Scottish Government have also passed legislation that allows for certain specific non-bovine animals to be subject to the regime of bovine TB controls. Scotland, as we now know, has been officially TB free since 2009. We are proud of that, and we want to stay that way.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) will be interested to know—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).