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Badger Culling

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2022

[Peter Dowd in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: e-petition 333693, Ban the shooting of badgers immediately; and e-petition 310307, Stop culling immediately and start widespread vaccination of badgers now.]

I will call Tracey Crouch to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on badger culling.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. After many years of debate in this place, colleagues will be well aware of my views on the badger cull. My primary motivation for speaking out against the cull was and always will be the tragic and indiscriminate killing of more than 150,000 badgers since the first two operational culling zones opened in 2014. My view is often reflected in national polling, which continues to show opposition among the general public to the cull—not least in the two e-petitions that have been attached to this debate, respectively signed by 106,000 and 35,000 people, including from my constituency of Chatham and Aylesford.

Since first becoming involved in this debate through the lens of wildlife protection, I have often heard with great sadness about the immense financial and emotional pain that bovine tuberculosis causes farmers up and down the country. The devastation for a farmer when a skin test comes back positive, virtually condemning their herd of cattle, is utterly heartbreaking. The fight has therefore become just as much about protecting badgers—an iconic species in the UK—as ensuring that farmers are supported by the Government in implementing the wide array of countermeasures to prevent TB that help to target transmission within species, which has been shown to lead to far higher prevalence of the disease than transmission from one species to another—in this case, badger to cattle.

I sincerely thank Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and their officials for the work they have done over the past few years to explore other ways to tackle this devastating disease. I welcomed the Government’s response to the Godfray review and the subsequent strategy, and I welcome the more humane approach against TB in targeting vaccination for both cattle and badgers, increased testing frequency and—most welcome—the gradual phasing-out of intensive badger culls.

To that end, I am pleased that no new intensive badger culling licences will be issued after this year, although I remain concerned that culling will remain an option and continue to be licensed by Natural England. As we have seen with the Government’s authorisation of emergency applications of neonicotinoid insecticides, despite their ban via EU retained law, it seems that the announced end is not always the actual end. I am sure the Minister will therefore understand the scepticism among those of us who want culling to cease.

The hon. Lady is a champion on this issue and I congratulate her on securing the debate. Does she agree that it is absolutely key that the Government fund both more cattle vaccination and a much larger programme of badger vaccination, to provide farmers with the evidence that badger vaccination can actually work at scale? That will give them the confidence to embrace it. Ministers have a real role to show leadership in getting farmers on board.

I agree. I appreciate that it is very easy for us as Back Benchers, without the controls of the Treasury, to always call for extra funding, but I do think there is real merit in ensuring that we fund these things exceptionally well.

On vaccination specifically, in their response to the Godfray review the Government announced a move to vaccinate both cattle and badgers. With a large-scale badger vaccination trial currently taking place in East Sussex—the hon. Lady’s area, I believe—the Vaccinating East Sussex Badgers, or VESBA, project will vaccinate badgers across 250 sq km of east Sussex every year for four years, with an annual vaccination target of 675 badgers. Although East Sussex is in the edge area, the Cuckmere valley in the county has long been a TB hotspot; I understand that the first vaccination waves have primarily been focused there. I hope that such a Government-backed study can independently determine whether the vaccination of the wildlife reservoir will in turn reduce TB numbers in cattle. I would be grateful if the Minister indicated whether the Department has already seen evidence of movement in the early stages of the trial.

From an animal welfare perspective, I would much rather see badgers vaccinated than shot. However, the process of identifying badger setts, laying bait, setting traps and then vaccinating the badgers is an exercise that is not only costly and time-consuming but cannot effectively be expanded throughout the country. May I impress on the Minister that if we are going to vaccinate, let us vaccinate the cattle? By contrast to the wildlife, we know how many cows we have and where they are. Will the Minister update us on where we currently are regarding the research studies announced in response to the Godfray review of the candidate cattle vaccine and subsequent improved skin test, with the ambition of introduction within the next five years?

Back in 2019, I spoke in a similar debate in Westminster Hall on the badger cull. That was before more positive announcements from the Government that were welcomed by animal welfare organisations and charities alike. In that debate, I spoke about the success of the Gatcombe strategy used at a farm in south Devon, where the farmer Dick Sibley has worked with the animal welfare group the Save Me Trust to change a farm rife with TB into one with an official TB-free status in just three years. The core element of the strategy is based on identifying and cutting off the roots of infection in the herd through enhanced testing, which is much more sensitive than the notorious skin test. This allows the farm to identify the infected cow and remove it before the disease takes hold of the herd.

Such tests are, of course, more expensive for famers than a traditional skin test, which I believe costs around £5 a cow. Can we look at supporting farmers with the cost of administering the most reliable tests available? That makes much more economic and scientific sense in the long run and would help to identify the hidden reservoir in the English cattle herd. The improved testing techniques used by the farm both on cattle and on their immediate environment pointed to slurry in the farm harbouring harmful levels of TB and contributing to the cycle of transmission within the herd.

In response to these points about testing and improved husbandry in cattle in farms, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), told me that he had met Dick Sibley and that from 2015 the Department had had

“a biosecurity plan that included slurry management”.—[Official Report, 23 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 22WH.]

However, at that point the data was “mixed” in confirming the links between slurry and TB in cattle. My right hon. Friend confirmed that the Department was still in “dialogue with Dick Sibley” at Gatcombe Farm and the Department was “keen” to look at evidence that could show a link between slurry and cattle. Will the Minister confirm whether such work is still being carried out by the Department and whether guidelines for farms will be updated to try to minimise TB outbreaks through measures on farms?

As I have made clear, I welcome the move to gradually withdraw from culling, although I remain concerned that high-intensity culls will continue to be allowed in the already approved areas. I am encouraged by data in Wales, which has ended its badger cull and seen similar levels of TB reduction to cull areas in England.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and I offer my support for her work in this important area. She is speaking eloquently about this ongoing and serious problem that affects one of our largest land animals, a species that makes such an important contribution to biodiversity in the wider environment and is under enormous pressure. Her point about the culls, in particular, is very well made. I understand from former civil service colleagues who have worked at DEFRA—I was a civil servant myself, albeit not in that Department—that the debate around culling has been very contested for some time, that many scientists have had deep concerns about culling for a long time, and that it is seen as quite cruel to badgers.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. One of the sad things about the badger cull debate is that it has been quite divisive: two groups have been pitted against each other rather than working together. We have moved forward significantly since the start of the badger cull debate, with those who care passionately about wildlife respecting the challenges of bovine TB in herds and, equally, farmers being keen to move forward and not be seen as people who do not care about wildlife, which they do enormously.

We have come together much better and converged on a much more congenial atmosphere and conversation, but the badger cull still continues. The whole point of today’s debate, I hope, is to stress the importance of bringing the cull to an end and starting work on a whole variety of different measures. I know that the Minister will refer to the proverbial toolbox; it is clear that there is a whole host of ways of dealing with bovine TB. I am sure she will make those points in her speech.

The data from Wales is really encouraging. The devolved Government have announced a new approach and are targeting cattle as the victims and main transmission source of the disease. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the UK Government are in dialogue with the devolved Administration and whether they are monitoring data from that strategy to support the fight against TB in England.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill is going through Parliament at the moment. I intervened on the Secretary of State on Second Reading and spoke about how gene editing may improve disease resistance in livestock. He said that there is already work going on to breed natural resistance and select, for instance, dairy cattle with a higher resistance to bovine TB. I hope the Bill will enable scientific advances to be made far faster so that cattle and farmers can be protected without harming our wildlife.

Despite the announcement in May 2021 of the phased end of culling, Natural England issued 11 new supplementary badger culling licences the following month, and announced seven new intensive cull areas in September. I am concerned that, despite DEFRA’s mantra, new areas will continue to be approved. Will the Minister outline how many new supplementary intensive culling areas have been approved this year?

Will the Minister assure me and the many other Members who care passionately about this issue that the Government are serious about phasing out the cull and are investing in a diverse armoury to tackle the disease, including accelerating work to develop an effective cattle vaccine, improving husbandry measures such as herd health plans, restricting cattle movements, and ultimately enabling financial incentives so that farmers can use improved and reliable testing to remove infected cows at source?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to participate in this important debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She is extremely well supported in her long-running campaigns on these issues by the Badger Trust and the Save Me Trust, which are the sources of much of the information she shared. I agree that we have moved forward. The tone of the debate has become far more measured, and indeed better for tackling the problem.

This is a very personal problem for me. My grandfather died from TB, and I gave up my Longhorn cattle 10 years ago because of the prevalence of TB up our valley. I was keeping cattle for pleasure rather than serious business purposes, and I really did not want to infect next door’s precious Jersey herd. For me, TB has very personal connotations, and I know well that it is a very dangerous disease in all species—human, bovine or badger.

Bovine TB definitely represents a threat to the cattle industry. Over the past 12 months, we have compulsorily slaughtered 26,000 cattle in England to control the disease. We all agree that badgers are implicated in the spread and persistence of bovine TB. We know, and we have seen the evidence in the Downs study—although not all agree—that the badger cull has led to a significant reduction in BTB in the areas in which it has been carried out. We also know that many people hate the idea of culling badgers, and of course nobody wants to see a protected species culled more than necessary.

As my hon. Friend said, there is no single answer to the problem of bovine TB. It is a very costly problem for the taxpayer: we spend about £100 million a year on testing, compensation and culling cattle. We are open-minded in DEFRA about how we should continue to tackle the problem, and of course we work closely with the devolved Administrations and scientists further afield to look at what solutions are available to us. It is important that we retain that open-minded view as we look to the new stages of this dreadful disease.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister and DEFRA are working with the Welsh Labour Government and that there can be a process of learning from how they have moved on from culling. I appreciate the economic pressures that farmers are under at this very difficult time. I hope there can be consensus so that we can move forward, and I am grateful to the Minister for working on that basis.

It is important that we continue to work with our partners in the devolved Administrations wherever we can. There has been a certain amount of angst up the border between England and Wales as a result of the difference in policy—it is a very high-incidence neighbourhood—so it is very important that we work together wherever possible.

The tools available to us include culling where necessary—I have no doubt that it will be necessary during outbreaks; I make no secret of the fact that, where there is an outbreak, culling may be the only answer for both badgers and cattle—and vaccinating cattle, which for me is the goal. Many of us received the vaccination in school; it is not that different in humans. What we need to do is develop a test that does not give a false positive reading if a cow has received a vaccine. The test is currently being trialled and worked on. We started field trials in June last year and hope to have them completed this winter. The results are not yet published. We are still hopeful, though, and we are very much working towards 2025 as the date for having a real vaccine for cattle that can be rolled out widely. For me, that will be the game changer.

Vaccinating badgers is also a solution. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said that the Government need to put some welly into this, if I may put it like that. I say politely that the Animal and Plant Health Agency now has 28 full-time vaccinators working hard to vaccinate badgers in the vaccination window, although not all badgers need to be vaccinated. We need to be clever about this.

As hon. Members can imagine, vaccinating badgers is a very difficult process. Initially at least, it has to be done annually, to make sure that the vaccination is effective. If there has been a significant cull, the badgers that are left can be vaccinated in a targeted way. We vaccinated about 1,500 badgers last year and expect that figure to be higher this year. We have introduced a simplified licence to cut the administrative burden for those who wish to vaccinate badgers.

Vaccinating badgers is definitely one of the tools in the toolbox, but is not a simple thing to do, nor is it entirely great from an animal welfare perspective, because badgers need to be attracted, trapped, vaccinated and then released, and then trapped again, which is not without its difficulties.

I appreciate the Minister’s points about vaccination. I appreciate that there are no silver bullets, but vaccination is probably a lot better than culling. Could she clarify one point? The Government have promised an end to badger culling post 2025 but reserved the right to cull beyond 2025 in certain epidemiologically important conditions. What are the criteria for those conditions? My concern is that that is a very big loophole and that, when there are Ministers in post who are perhaps less concerned than she is, it could be used to continue the cull in a rather more indiscriminate way than I think she intends.

I do not think I am able or indeed qualified to give the hon. Lady the reassurance she seeks. If a cull were to be licensed, that would be done with the chief veterinary officer, who would be able to advise the Minister at all stages of that process. What I would say is that, certainly as I see it, we are currently experiencing a decline in bovine TB in high-incidence areas and we are pleased by the way the graph is going, although we are by no means happy with the situation. TB remains a real scourge for our cattle farmers, but things are going in the right direction.

If there is an outbreak, it seems right that the Minister, whoever that is, or the chief veterinary officer, depending on the circumstances, is able to take the decision to cull cattle, badgers or other species where necessary, as is the case with other prevalent and harmful diseases. I know from my family experience that TB is a peculiar illness that can manifest itself in different species, at different times, at different speeds and in different ways. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to set out what would cause angst to the chief veterinary officer at any one time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to husbandry, which is also important. We have worked on strengthening cattle testing and movement controls. We have worked to improve biosecurity on farms and when trading, as well as simply keeping badgers away from food and water troughs where we can. We have looked at different forms of double fencing, to ensure that there is not cross-holding contamination. The ibTB website enables farmers to look at the history of the cattle they are buying, and at the disease status of nearby farms.

We have all learned a great deal from the covid pandemic, probably not voluntarily. We have learned to use a range of measures to control disease. It is not all about washing our hands thoroughly and “hands, face, space”; it is about vaccines, lockdowns, antivirals and treatment methods. We need to retain our learning from the pandemic when considering the scourge of bovine TB. I am pleased with the reductions we have seen in high-risk areas, but this remains a difficult disease for the farming industry to cope with. I am determined that we continue to work on all fronts to come up with the right solutions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.