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Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 801: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by Professor Sir Charles Godfray A Strategy for Achieving Bovine Tuberculosis Free Status for England, published in November 2018.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Bovine TB remains one of our greatest animal health threats, causing devastation and distress for hard-working farmers and rural communities. We therefore continue to take strong action to eradicate the disease. Professor Sir Charles Godfray’s independent review of our strategy highlighted a number of potential further actions, while noting the level of challenge associated with eradicating bovine TB. We plan to publish a response in due course, outlining our intended next steps.

I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware that the Godfray report emphasised the importance of cattle-to-cattle transmission; and probably aware of the progress made at Gatcombe Farm in Devon, where a large dairy herd in a high-risk area has been transformed from persistently infected to officially TB-free, simply by tackling cattle-to-cattle transmission. The problem with the current arrangements is that the standard skin test detects only 50% of infected animals. It is therefore highly likely that a hidden reservoir of infection remains in cattle herds. At Gatcombe a battery of tests was used to detect infected cattle, as well as detecting TB in the environment. Does the Minister agree that the Gatcombe method appears to be effective and humane and, furthermore, that the Government should explore using that method on other farms to see whether it works on a more general basis?

My Lords, the noble Lord kindly briefed me on the issues at Gatcombe. However, the Government have already developed a five-point plan with industry: restrict contact between badgers and cattle; manage cattle feed and water; stop infected cattle entering the herd; reduce risks from neighbouring herds; and minimise infection from cattle manure. All these are tremendously important but, as Professor Godfray said, there are no easy answers for reducing disease levels. That is why we are undertaking a range of activities.

My Lords, it is more than 20 years since I invited the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, to carry out a thorough investigation of what the Minister rightly says is a very complex situation. In that time, the cost to the British taxpayer of compensation for cattle slaughter alone has been between £1 billion and £2 billion. This is an urgent problem in terms of public expenditure, as I am sure the Minister recognises. From what the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has said about the report on the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis-free status, cattle-to-cattle transmission seems probably as important as badger-to-cattle infection, if not more so. How can we go on justifying the slaughter of badgers in these circumstances?

My Lords, the Downs peer- reviewed scientific paper of 2019 showed a 66% reduction in TB herd incidence rates in the Gloucestershire cull area and a 37% reduction in the Somerset cull area during the first four years of culling, relative to similar comparison areas in which culling was not carried out. As I said, Professor Godfray made it clear that there were no easy answers. We are undertaking research. Unfortunately, oral vaccine for badgers has not proved successful, as he conceded. We have to keep a range of methods to tackle TB in wildlife and in cattle.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is no country in which tuberculosis in a herd has been completely eradicated without the need for a cull? Therefore, in a limited way, a cull must be part of the tools left at our disposal.

My noble friend is right: no country has achieved bovine TB-free status without having cattle controls and culling infected wildlife species. The Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and France have all used a range of methods.

My Lords, it is still unclear when the Government will release the data on the badger culls from 2019, but the number looks set to be the largest ever. What is the maximum number of badger culls that the Government are happy with?

My Lords, the cull is taking place in the high-risk areas, which is precisely on the advice and with the consent of the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Veterinary Officer. No one takes these matters lightly. This is about a disease that is prevalent in certain areas, and no other country has achieved TB-free status without undertaking something that may not be desirable but is necessary.

My Lords, leaving the EU will allow us to use a wider range of options and tools for the control of bovine TB which are not currently permitted in the EU. Will Her Majesty’s Government exploit these new-found options to control this terrible disease and, if so, to what extent might their use have an impact on our ability to export beef and dairy products, particularly to the EU?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The annual Defra budget for TB eradication in England is £100 million a year. We are investing in TB R&D because we know that we do not know enough at the moment. For instance, we have already found out that the oral badger vaccine has not been successful. We are continuing work on a cattle TB vaccine and associated test development and have spent more than £35 million on that programme already. He is right that we need to look at research. If there are any new ways in which we can deal with this damaging disease, I am sure that we will want to look at them.

The culls are taking place in areas where there is a high-risk zone. Badger vaccinations have been taking place in edge areas; this is why I talked about the range. We are undertaking badger vaccinations in those areas, and there are grants for that, because this is an honest endeavour as to how we eradicate a disease that is bad for both cattle and badgers.