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Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what scientific evidence they have used in developing their proposals for controlling bovine tuberculosis by culling badgers.

My Lords, evidence of the effect of badger culling on bovine TB incidence rates comes principally from the randomised badger culling trial. The scientific evidence from the trial suggests that proactive badger culling, done on a sufficient geographical scale in a widespread, co-ordinated and efficient way and over a sustained period of time of at least four years, will reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cattle in high-incidence areas. It is the Government’s judgment that these results can at least be replicated by a farmer-led cull using controlled shooting. The two pilots will test our assumptions about the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of this method.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I should declare an interest as the instigator of the randomised badger-culling trial some years ago. I agree with the Minister that sustained, long-term culling could reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by about 16 per cent, but can he help me with two questions which are puzzling me concerning the Secretary of State’s announcement last week in another place? First, this pilot involves two areas. As a scientist, I know of no statistical technique for analysing the results from a trial involving just two areas, so perhaps the Minister could enlighten me on that point. Secondly, the Secretary of State referred to a wider rollout depending on the results of the pilot. Does that mean that the Government would consider rolling out this shooting policy to the 39,000 square kilometres of the English countryside affected by bovine TB, with the implication that one would end up shooting between a quarter and a third of the UK’s badger population?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that supplementary question, and I acknowledge the authority with which he raises these questions. The purpose of the pilots is to evaluate the effectiveness of the process, rather than to provide a scientific appraisal of the cull, which is designed to last over a four-year period, and I think that the noble Lord will understand that. At the bottom of this is the fact that we are hoping to monitor the humaneness and effectiveness of a shooting policy before we roll it out, and I hope that noble Lords will agree that that is right and proper. It is suggested that the pilots should be held over a series of areas, rather than one complete area, as that would defeat the object of trying to find areas that are viable. The pilots will cover an area of at least 150 square kilometres, perhaps extending to as much as 350 square kilometres.

My Lords, as a young doctor I saw the ravages of bovine tuberculosis, particularly in young children, many of whom suffered spinal tuberculosis with paralysis and infection of long bones. As that type of infection disappeared following the widespread pasteurisation of milk and the screening of cattle herds, is the Minister satisfied that a more extensive badger cull would significantly reduce the potential risk of the spread of this infection into the human population?

The answer to the risk of bovine TB being transferred to humans is, as the noble Lord mentioned in his question, the pasteurisation of milk. Milk is pasteurised to make it safe for human consumption. We are concerned about the incidence of the disease, which is crippling for cattle and, of course, for badgers, but I think that I can reassure the noble Lord that the purpose of this programme is not the fear of its transfer to humans.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the desperation of my neighbours on Exmoor, most of whom are under a restriction and are losing cattle at every retest? They are frustrated with science because year after year they have been promised that if they will only wait a little longer there will be an effective oral vaccine. They are still being told that. Is the noble Lord also aware of the welcome for the courage that has been shown by the Defra Ministers in this Government in finally starting to tackle this problem?

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for those comments and I shall convey them back to my colleagues. It is correct to say that, in a 12-month period, in some of the worst areas nearly a quarter of cattle herds are under restrictions. Clearly, that cannot be tolerable. It causes immense stress to farmers, particularly in highly infected parts of the country.

My Lords, the estimated costs for policing this eradication programme have risen from £200,000 to £2 million per cull area. What share of those costs will Defra meet with the Home Office and what budget lines will be cut in order to take forward this programme, which may well do more harm than good?

I would not agree with my noble friend’s last comments; I think she is misjudging the situation. I think this is a programme that we have to carry forward. Clearly, we have to allow for policing and Defra has agreed to meet half the costs.

My Lords, is the Minister suggesting that this policy is scientifically based and without controversy? Is he not aware that the approach of culling will occasion great consternation among a very large number of people in this country and, therefore, that it is bound to incur costs for the safety and policing of the project?

I think it is very much in the interests of this policy that noble Lords should be prepared to recognise the importance of going ahead with it. I cannot agree at all with what the noble Lord has said.