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Agriculture: Bluetongue

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they have taken to protect United Kingdom farm livestock against bluetongue infection.

My Lords, our bluetongue control strategy, which was developed with a core group of industry stakeholders, aims to control and contain the disease spread. In conjunction with movement controls under this strategy, vaccination is the only tool available to protect animals from bluetongue. The UK was the first country affected by the outbreak to order vaccines; we ordered some 22.5 million doses and we have recently ordered 13 million more. So far, more than 11 million doses have been made available to keep us in the protection zone.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Defra and the industry have done well in getting to this stage, but I am sure that he will recognise that there is no accurate audit trail and that we do not know the precise number of animals that have been vaccinated to date. Does he agree that there is a strong case for vaccinating all farm livestock, at a cost of about £30 million? Surely that is a better solution than the original Dutch and Belgian voluntary scheme. Losses in Belgium have been calculated to be about £80 million. There is no proactive surveillance in the UK under the present voluntary scheme. Has the time now come for a 100 per cent vaccination policy to swing into action? We must keep out this disease and avoid massive consequential losses.

My Lords, the noble Lord is overegging the situation. If we had gone, as originally was forecast, for the European compulsory scheme, it would have caused massive bureaucracy for our farmers and massive extra cost to them. Along with the industry, we decided to go for the voluntary scheme. So far, in the relevant zones, some 70 to 83 per cent of animals have been vaccinated. Of course, farmers are doing this in the main, so we do not have a precise count, as the noble Lord said. Our aim is to get 100 per cent vaccination, which is the message that we are giving to farmers.

My Lords, first, with the change in the boundaries that was announced yesterday, will cattle be able to go to the Royal Show? Secondly, how can we get the message over to farmers and to veterinary surgeons that all animals must be given the full dose of vaccine in order for it to be effective? You cannot do just a few animals on a farm or, as I heard yesterday, give llamas half the dose because you think that they are smaller than cattle.

My Lords, as the noble Countess knows, sheep and cattle can be vaccinated by farmers. Other ruminants that are susceptible to bluetongue can be vaccinated, but that should be done by a vet on a prescription. Everyone understands the situation. I repeat that the only defence against this disease is vaccination. There has been a massive take-up by farmers and massive co-operation from the industry. I am very grateful for what the noble Lord said about my department, which is working in conjunction with industry. As the 2008 version of bluetongue is probably just around the corner, it is vital that we do not cut any corners relating to the shows at this time of year. I realise that there is a disturbance, but we will have to live with that this year.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister recognises that there is a particular problem with the movement of stock now that the agricultural show season is on us. Naturally, the restriction of movement causes a lot of confusion. The organisers of the Royal Show told me only yesterday—of course, the changes took place as of yesterday—that they were told early in June that they would be in a protection zone, so they told the exhibitors that early on. Yesterday, they were told that they were in a restriction zone. That has added a lot of confusion; 500 calls came in yesterday saying, “What do we do now?”. Farmers are told that they can still bring the animals if they are blood-tested. This has caused a lot of problems in cattle classes, many of which have been cancelled. Why does Defra make the situation worse and yet more difficult and confused?

My Lords, I am sorry, but I do not accept that. The Royal Show organiser said on “Farming Today” on 24 June:

“Defra are playing it by the rules and doing it exactly right”.

We are not prepared to cut corners for shows. It is as simple as that. We are not making it worse. We were the first country to order the vaccine, for heaven’s sake. No one else did that. The farmers are using the vaccine on a massive scale—the range of figures is between 70 per cent and 83 per cent. Defra is not making this difficult at all. Yesterday, we announced that from tomorrow, 27 June, the protection zone will be extended to Cornwall, including the Isles of Scilly, and the Welsh Assembly Government will declare the current restricted zone in south-east Wales a protection zone, because they are getting their share of the vaccine. All that is progress and good news. There is a problem with some of the shows. People will have to live with that, as we are not prepared to take the risk of having the disease spread in those animals simply because they are moved out of one zone to another when they should not be.

My Lords, in Devon, I, too, have heard much appreciation for the way in which Her Majesty’s Government have responded to this latest threat to livestock farmers. Vaccine is being distributed across the county to all who have applied for it and there is strong encouragement for 100 per cent take-up, given our large population of wild deer, which are also susceptible to infection. However, is the Minister aware that there are concerns about the consequences of vaccination before insemination? This is an unknown factor, on which further work is urgently needed. Can he please give an assurance that such research will be undertaken and responded to as quickly as possible?

My Lords, deer can be dealt with only by a vet; a farmer cannot do it. It is as simple as that. One has to assume that vets are following the rules and understand them. I will certainly take extra advice on what the right reverend Prelate said. Our advice to the industry is: “Don’t hesitate, vaccinate”. If there is a problem with a species that is not sheep or cattle, the vet must deal with it, and one assumes that the vet will follow the rules.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister and his department on a successful campaign, as there has not been an outbreak recently. The outbreaks occur in June and July. What precautions is the department taking to ensure that there are enough Defra staff to deal with outbreaks that could take place in July and August—which might destroy the Minister’s holiday plans? Last weekend, I was up in Northumberland, where we are having an amazing midge season—you get eaten alive—so it will be a real issue this year.

My Lords, currently we have had breakouts at 136 premises. All those relate to last year’s outbreak. We have not had any evidence of a new outbreak either from midges from across the Channel or from midges that have overwintered. However, we are on the cusp—the end of June and early July—when we will pick it up if it is going to happen. There is extra surveillance. I understand from taking advice this morning that there are far more reported cases going to Defra officials and the vets. That means that farmers are doing exactly what we want them to do: checking their animals.