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Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 26 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any evidence about the impact of artificial insemination of cattle on the spread of bovine tuberculosis.

My Lords, there is, indeed, a debate among veterinarians on this matter. While the evidence does not provide a definitive answer, it is important to note that TB has been eradicated from Scotland and many other countries despite the use of artificial insemination and, furthermore, that bovine TB was already endemic throughout Great Britain well before the widespread adoption of AI in the 1950s.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I got the idea for this Question through talking to a local farmer in my valley in Cumbria? He told me that, although there were many badgers in the valley, there was no bovine TB at all, and that local farmers did not use artificial insemination. Given that there is at least some scientific basis for this, would it be right to pursue this rather than going for a badger cull for which the scientific evidence is doubtful?

The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with the last thing he said, but he might be interested to know that bull pedigree and TB data analysis of Holstein Friesian bulls, carried out by the Roslin Institute for Defra, have shown clear evidence of genetic variation to bovine TB susceptibility with a moderate heritability of 18%. However, no link was found in those studies between selection of bulls for milk yield and greater susceptibility to bovine TB. The study authors went on to conclude that,

“selection for milk yield is unlikely to have contributed to the current”,

bovine TB epidemic in Great Britain.

My Lords, is it not the case that the bulls chosen at insemination centres are kept to the very highest health standards and are not exposed to TB in any way, and that artificial insemination is probably safer than the ordinary method of insemination?

My Lords, artificial insemination has been a practice in this country in dairy cattle for more than 30 years, and I wonder where this suggestion has come from. There is very little evidence—no evidence whatever to my mind—that AI can result in the transmission of TB to cattle. I hope that the Minister will scotch that idea, because we have an amazing health record in this country for AI and tuberculosis control.

I am most grateful to my noble friend because he enables me to say, perhaps more categorically than I said to start with, that research indicates that there is no link between TB susceptibility and milk production traits.

Will the Minister accept my noble friend’s point that in many parts of the country there are plenty of badgers but no TB, and that one of the dangers is not the badgers bringing in TB to the cattle but cattle imported from other parts of the country being transferred into these areas?

My Lords, that is something on which we can all agree. Indeed, our strategy is based on TB being particularly rife in the south and west and moving northwards and eastwards, but in the part of the world that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, comes from it is not yet endemic in the badger population. What we find in the high-incidence areas is that it forms a reservoir in that element of wildlife, unfortunately badgers. As I say, our strategy is built on trying to slow the spread across the country.

My Lords, I declare an interest as somebody who has just sold a much loved White Park bull from Northumberland to Gloucestershire, where it promptly got TB and died. The lesson I have learnt is that in future I am going to use artificial insemination instead so as not to risk these animals.

My Lords, the Minister said that there is an ongoing debate about the role of artificial insemination, and therefore it could merit further research. I suggest that the Government could use the money they are putting aside to research the gassing of badgers, which was deemed inhumane by a Member of this House’s committee in the 1980s.

The Minister may well recall some weeks ago, in reply to a supplementary question which I raised, that I was told that about 50% of bovine tuberculosis was attributable to badgers and about 50% to other sources. Can the Minister tell the House roughly, in the last financial year or in any other meaningful period, how much money from public sources was spent in relation to non-badger-related bovine tuberculosis?

My Lords, perhaps I should clarify the answer I gave to the noble Lord. Research by Professor Christl Donnelly indicates that up to 50% of infections in the high-incidence area are due to badgers. Bovine TB can affect a wide range of species, including pigs, sheep, goats and camelids; it can affect wildlife—for example, badgers and wild deer—and pets, including cats and dogs, and of course humans. The key thing, however, is that in cattle and badgers the infection is self-sustaining. It is thought that most other species generally only act as spillover hosts.

My Lords, the Government’s strategy is obsessed by badgers and the transfer in what is a really difficult issue for farmers and is costly to the taxpayer. What are the Government learning from the recent outbreak of bovine tuberculosis in County Durham, clearly caused by cattle-to-cattle transmission?

I cannot accept the noble Lord’s first contention, but in response to his question about Durham, this is a beef-fattening unit, and it will therefore have bought animals in from elsewhere. That is why we introduced risk-based trading in partnership with auctioneers and the industry, to provide fuller information about TB status and history of selling herds to the market. Initially this is on a voluntary basis, but we will look at it again if necessary. We are also considering post-movement testing of cattle for those moving from high-incidence areas.

My Lords, when I arrived at the Ministry of Agriculture in 1999, I was told that a vaccine for bovine TB was 10 years away. I was quite enthusiastic until I learnt that every Minister for animal health during the past 40 years had been told that a vaccine was 10 years away. More than 10 years further on—and I suspect that the same message has been given ever since—could I ask the Minister what the timeframe is now thought to be?

That is a very interesting question, because we had the same discussion with the EU commissioner, Commissioner Borg, on that very subject and he, rather surprisingly, gave the same date. Developing both an oral badger vaccine—noble Lords will know that an injectable badger vaccine already exists—and a cattle vaccine remains a top priority for the Government. Since 1994, more than £43 million has been spent on developing a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine. We have committed to investing a further £15.5 million in vaccine development over four years, but it is an extremely complex issue, involving extensive field trials and so on.