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Badgers

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they still plan to carry out their proposed cull of badgers.

My Lords, we are using badger culling as part of a package of measures to tackle bovine TB. Two pilots will be undertaken this summer to assess the methodology for delivering an effective cull. This year there will be intensive monitoring of the effectiveness and humaneness of controlled shooting. A panel of independent experts will review the resulting report once the pilots have concluded. Only then will Ministers decide whether the policy should be rolled out more widely.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but will she go a little further and say more about the criteria which the Government are using? Why does she believe that it is effective, humane and safe, and when exactly will the culls take place?

The noble Lord will know the scale of the problem that we seek to tackle and the difficulty of using the various measures that we have. That is why we are using a range of measures. The open season dates take account of the breeding season, so the assessment could happen any time from the beginning of this month on. Operators will be required to follow best practice guidelines, and it will be very carefully monitored. A number of organisations are involved in this.

Will my noble friend remind us how many cattle have had to be slaughtered because of bovine tuberculosis in recent years? Is the number growing and what has been the cost of compensation?

My noble friend is absolutely right to highlight this. Last year 28,000 cattle had to be put down. Through this cull, we are looking at reducing the number of badgers by 5,000, so noble Lords can see the scale of this. The cost to the taxpayer over the last decade was £500 million for the cattle destroyed, and that could reach £1 billion in the next decade.

My Lords, as the Minister will be aware, the scientific assessment published on Defra’s website—I declare an interest as I was part of the panel that contributed the assessment—shows that culling badgers has a modest effect in reducing the incidence of TB in cattle; it is estimated to be 16%. Does the Minister agree that rolling out culling as a national policy to control TB in cattle is not really credible? Furthermore, will she tell us what assessment Defra has made of the reasons why 40% of farms in the highest-risk areas of the country do not get TB in their cattle?

The noble Lord has, of course, huge expertise, having been such a power behind the earlier, randomised controlled trials into this, which established the 16% figure that he has just talked about. That is why, faced with this enormous challenge, we are taking a range of measures, including more cattle testing, greater biosecurity and investing in research in vaccines. I noted his point about the herds that do not seem to be suffering from TB yet are in TB hotspots. I point him to the £250 million fund for new vaccination projects. It is undersubscribed. I suggest that he directs his research students to it, and I look forward to the enlightenment that he and his students bring on bovine TB, in the UK and around the world.

Will the data from these trials, alongside the criteria against which free shooting will be judged humane or not, be published at the same time that the Secretary of State announces whether badger culling will be allowed in future?

The Government expect to be able to announce a decision on the reports in the early part of next year, when the information is in. I can assure my noble friend that the outcome of the monitoring of the pilot culls will be published. In the mean time, of course, other measures to seek to control bovine TB will also be taken.

My Lords, when the animals are killed, will there will be post mortems on their carcasses to see whether they are carrying TB or not?

My Lords, following what is now known as the Krebs trial, it is quite clear that alternate approaches are now necessary. What are some of these alternate approaches to controlling tuberculosis in wildlife and domestic livestock? This country is well known for its ability to sedate wildlife, take samples and all the rest of it. An approach based on the sedation of badgers, for example, would be a good way in which to approach this issue. One could take samples, vaccinate and all the rest of it. Has the Minister considered any of the approaches that I have mentioned?

I can assure the noble Lord that the Government have considered all approaches, welcome all suggestions and welcome research. Cattle measures are the foundation of our control programme, and ultimately we wish to be able to use vaccination for cattle and badgers. As I mentioned, there is much investment into research. The problems lie in the challenges with the vaccinations; the research that is being conducted at the moment has not produced a vaccine that can be used in the immediate term, either for cattle or for badgers.

My Lords, it is vital that we find a workable solution to the spread of TB from badgers to cattle. The science strongly suggests that a cull is not workable, even if this pilot to test whether a cull is humane is successful. In Wales, an intensive effort to vaccinate badgers looks more hopeful, because vaccination does not risk spreading the disease through the perturbation effect of culling. Given that the vaccination trials in Gloucestershire are being carried out at a third of the cost of vaccination in Wales, is it not time for Defra to reduce the cost of mandatory training for vaccination, so that it is at least as cheap as the training needed to shoot badgers?

I will, if I may, follow up my previous answer. There is an injectable badger vaccine, to which the noble Lord has referred, which is being used in Wales. He will also know that this has a lot of practical difficulties. It has no effect on already infected badgers, it requires the annual trapping of new cubs to vaccinate them, and so on. We therefore look with interest at what the Welsh Government are doing. We note the enormous cost of that and are aware that an oral badger vaccine, if there was one, would indeed be quicker and easier to use. I therefore refer back to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and his students and hope that there will be further research.