I beg to move,
That this House has considered government policy on TB in cattle and badgers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Wilson. I realise that many of us in the House will feel that we have had enough of difficult subjects this week; this debate, I am afraid, will probably offer little relief.
This is a difficult subject for me: there are many farmers in my constituency, as well as plenty of wildlife lovers. Derbyshire is the site of the largest badger vaccination pilot, which is led by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, with its skeleton staff and dozens of volunteers who regularly get up at 4.30 am to vaccinate badgers; it has been a privilege for me occasionally to go with them. High Peak is also an edge area for bovine tuberculosis, and we have seen cases recently on local farms. That is very difficult for the farmers affected and for their families, and it is worrying for all the farmers in the area.
As well as having farmers in my constituency who are concerned about TB in their cattle, I have constituents who are concerned about the badgers. More than 500 constituents wrote to me—some of around 6,000 people across the county who wrote in—about the Government’s proposal to extend the cull area to Derbyshire. High Peak is a place where issues for farmers and for wildlife collide, so I am probably the last person who should have applied for a debate about this subject, but it is important to air and scrutinise the issues.
We last debated this topic in November last year, just before the publication of the Godfray report. That report made important recommendations, which I will come to. It is disappointing that, almost a year after the report’s publication, the Government still have not published a response to it, yet they have proceeded to license new cull areas and the killing of around 63,000 badgers. Whether they are considering badgers or Brexit, it is important that the Government make policy based on evidence, and I hope we can focus on that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate. I find it deeply distressing that 67,000 badgers have been culled over the past five years. Does she agree that the evidence about improving biosecurity, along with vaccination, is the most compelling of all?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate. I represent a constituency where the control of badgers is very important for the farming sector, particularly the dairy sector. In Northern Ireland we have an agreed approach based on the common ground between what conservationists and the farming community want. That involves trapping and testing badgers, vaccinating those that are healthy, and culling those that are infected—it is important that we do that.
Given that some studies show that TB incidence can rise in an area where a badger cull has taken place, as infected badgers move in from other areas, does the hon. Lady agree that the approach in Northern Ireland is much more sensible than simply culling every available badger in an area?
The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has vaccinated 192 badgers this year as part of its five-year programme, which covers an area of around 120 sq km, so healthy badgers are being protected by that vaccination programme. Just as the debate last November preceded the publication of the Godfray report, I hope this debate may be a prelude to the Government’s long-overdue response to that report.
We must focus on farmers. I pay tribute to the farmers in my constituency, many of whom I know personally, and across the country. For them, farming is not just a job but a way of life. They work very long hours in all weathers, caring for their animals—their livestock—and producing food for us. Farmers, possibly more than any other business, are at the mercy of events: of weather, prices, policy and disease. It can seem that they have very little control over the factors that influence their business.
The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way. She is right that this issue is massively important to farmers and farm businesses. Farmers care massively about the welfare of their livestock and, indeed, wildlife. Does she agree that the Government’s 25-year strategy, long though it is, is showing signs of having some impact and that we should not throw all the toys out of the pram and stop things as they stand? Does she also agree, though, that 25 years is a long time, and that if the Government do not continue basic payments through to the point when the new environmental land management scheme comes into effect, there may be no farmers left to protect by the end of the process?
Absolutely. Although farmers are at the vagaries of many things, we should at least try to set consistent policy so they know where they stand. That very much applies to farm payments to replace the common agricultural policy.
Bovine tuberculosis is one of the major unknowns and fears affecting farmers. Four fifths of farmers under 40 think mental health is the biggest problem facing their sector, and the fear of bovine tuberculosis is one of the major influences of that among cattle and dairy farmers. In High Peak we have sheep farmers, dairy farmers and cattle farmers, and sometimes all three are farmed together on the same farm. I pay tribute to our local National Farmers Union representatives, who provide an excellent service to support those farmers. They are practical and they are prepared to speak out, as I know only too well. I am sure Members across the House know NFU reps who are prepared to speak out on behalf of their members and their businesses.
Although the majority of farming in my constituency is sheep farming, we also have dairy and cattle farms. The number of dairy producers in particular is falling year on year: it dropped by 675 in the last 12 months across the country, although the sharpest reductions have been in the areas in the east of the country not affected by TB. The number of cattle slaughtered due to bovine tuberculosis in 2018 was the highest ever, at 44,656—an increase of 30% since 2010.
Does the hon. Lady agree that any strategy on bovine TB needs to use all the tools in the toolbox? In Wales last year, 12,000 cattle were slaughtered because of bovine TB. That casts a long, dark shadow over farming in Wales, and it is a particular issue in my constituency, where we have dairy and cattle farming. Does she agree with the assessment of NFU Cymru that we must use all the tools in the toolbox, including continuing vaccination at the same rate while also looking at targeted culls that are clearly engineered and clearly focused on high-risk areas?
I do agree that Governments in all parts of the United Kingdom—particularly in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where there are high incidences of TB—need to be able to look at all the tools in the box. However, they should also use the evidence. I hope that the Godfray report will be of use to the Welsh Government and the NFU there, as it is such a systematic examination of all the evidence and gives many pointers to the way forward, which I will come to.
It is important to consider the welfare of cattle as well as that of wildlife. Many cows are pregnant when slaughtered, and if they are unfit to travel they must be slaughtered on the farm. I welcome the use now of lethal injection instead of shooting, but farmers still have to see the slaughter of animals they have often bred and known from birth.
Farmers and their businesses are affected not just by the slaughter of infected animals but by the testing regime every 60 days, movement restrictions, extra costs, lower income and extra work. While compensation for each animal is now more generous, it still will not compensate for the most valuable animals. Farmers are left with a huge amount of financial and emotional stress. The Farming Community Network reported that although farmers are characteristically not ones to speak out when they feel under pressure, they can be led to feel stressed or depressed—in some cases to the point of physical illness or not wanting to carry on. We must recognise that, because farming is one of the most isolated professions. Some of those who are slowest to speak out may also be in most need of support.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on making a well-balanced and sensible speech, taking neither one side nor the other. I very much endorse her on mental health. This problem particularly affects places such as North Wiltshire, where 200 farms have been entirely closed down—many on several occasions—and entire herds slaughtered. The psychological effect on a farmer seeing his or her herd entirely slaughtered two or three times is horrendous.
Absolutely. Any of us who has had a pet put down knows how painful that can be, so a farmer having to put down a whole herd that they have built up does not bear thinking about. Bovine TB does not just have an emotional cost; it is also one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK. It costs the public more than £100 million a year in compensation, and it costs the farming industry about £50 million a year.
In Derbyshire, we are on the edge of bovine TB. Last year, 1,230 cattle were slaughtered in the county, compared to just 672 the previous year. The annual incidence rate in herds increased from 7.7% to 8.4%, mainly, I would argue, because in January 2018 the high-risk area of Derbyshire was reclassified as an edge area. The increase in cases was driven solely by the reclassified area, as the area that remained classified as edge area was reduced. In the new edge area, on the edge of the outbreaks, annual surveillance testing was replaced by six-monthly testing and the higher use of interferon gamma testing where TB-free status had been withdrawn. That replaced the skin tests, which we know are only 50% or 60% accurate, meaning that under those annual tests many more cattle go by undetected with TB. In 2018 in Derbyshire, 45% of infected cattle were identified by gamma reactor testing, compared to just 7% in 2017.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency report on TB in Derbyshire states that the interferon gamma test has a higher sensitivity than the skin test, so it discloses more infected cattle, often at an earlier stage, or those that may have been missed by the skin tests. In 2018, 2,400 tests were done, compared with 1,800 in 2017. This also applies to other areas, as gamma testing was introduced for edge areas from 1 April 2017. The number of new herd incidents fell slightly, from 4,700 in 2010 to 4,400 last year. More cattle are therefore being slaughtered but from a lower number of herds, with the average per herd increasing from 10 to 12. It is interesting that bovine tuberculosis has spread from areas with higher herd numbers to areas such as Derbyshire, where herd numbers have traditionally been much lower.
We come to the role that badgers play in the increase in bovine TB in Derbyshire. The APHA study states that, based on probability, 77% of infections come from badgers. However, only one case in 148 was confirmed to be definitely due to badgers. Alternative academic analysis suggests that between 75% and 94% of infections are caught from other cattle, not from badgers. It can appear as though badgers are being scapegoated while the evidence for residual infection within herds is being discounted.
Badgers are present throughout Derbyshire and on most farms. I pay tribute to farmers, who have been most helpful in the badger vaccination programme. However, testing last year of badgers killed on roads across Derbyshire by Professor Malcolm Bennett of the University of Nottingham found that only four out of 104 were infected with bovine TB—just 4%. It therefore seems surprising that they are deemed to account for 77% of cattle infections. Considering that the higher number and greater accuracy of tests has driven the increase in cases, it is surprising that only 5% of cases of bovine TB are deemed to be due to residual infection in a herd, especially when in 40% of all cases there had been a history of infection in the herd in the last three years.
I will have to make some progress, as there are several more speakers to come in. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make his point later.
It is acknowledged that the pattern of livestock markets facilitates the flow of cattle in Derbyshire from the high-risk area to the edge area and that the major risk to other edge areas adjacent to Derbyshire—Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicester—is mostly via cattle movements. When we say we must look at all the reasons why cattle are contracting bovine tuberculosis, we must look at cattle movement and infection in a herd.
The size of the herd was also a major factor. Herds of under 50, which account for about half of all cattle herds in Derbyshire, had only a 3% risk of contracting bovine tuberculosis. That rose to 27% in herds of 200 to 350 and 38% in the largest herds of 500-plus. It seems very odd that badgers would discriminate between small herds of cattle and large herds.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I have beef suckler herds and dairy herds, and they both have plentiful badgers in the area.
Professor Sir Charles Godfray looked at all the evidence when he chaired a review of the Government’s 25-year TB eradication policy—a sensible measure to ensure that the strategy was on course. Sir Charles reported in November last year. His report emphasises the importance of improving testing and recommends the more sensitive test for high-risk and edge areas; biosecurity measures on farms to prevent contagion among animals with endemic disease; and reducing risk-based trading, because cattle movements, which increase risk, are comparatively high in the UK.
Professor Godfray states that the presence of infected badgers poses a threat to cattle herds, but he also acknowledges evidence of the perturbation effect from culling, and the impact on adjacent areas when badgers move further as territory becomes available and they become disturbed from their setts. The report states clearly that TB control efforts have focused too heavily on managing badgers, when most transmission occurs cattle to cattle. He therefore states that moving from lethal to non-lethal control of the disease in badgers would be highly desirable—something we would all agree with.
Culling is expensive—it costs more than £5,000 per badger, compared with less than £700 per badger vaccinated. It also involves trapping badgers at night and shooting them with a high-powered rifle. In 2013, the Government’s independent expert panel stated that at least 7% of badgers were killed inhumanely and took more than five minutes to die. That panel was disbanded in 2014, but its former chair, Professor Munro, and 19 other vets, scientists and animal welfare campaigners wrote to Natural England last month to say that of the 40,000 badgers culled before this year, a minimum of 3,000, and as many as 9,000, would have suffered immense pain from that process. The same proportion of the 63,000 badgers licensed for slaughter this year would equate to between 5,000 and 15,000 badgers suffering. I have been out with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and seen the badgers in the traps, full after a night of gorging on peanuts and usually fast asleep and ready to be vaccinated. It is very hard to think of someone shooting them instead.
I have been out with Avon Wildlife Trust, which has an excellent badger vaccination programme. The cull is now being rolled out to Avon, and we have a ridiculous situation where badgers that have been vaccinated are now liable to be culled. Does my hon. Friend agree that that seems a complete and utter waste of money and effort?
Absolutely. We would not want that to happen in Derbyshire either.
In 2014, 20% of culls were supervised by Natural England staff, but by 2018 the organisation was able to monitor only 0.4% of them. That gives rise to safety concerns, particularly if protests are involved. Without even responding to their own report, last month the Government extended the badger cull to a total of 40 areas, including around Bristol, Cheshire, Devon, Cornwall, Staffordshire, Dorset, Herefordshire and Wiltshire. It was not extended to Derbyshire, however. That delighted the thousands of supporters of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and its vaccination programme, but not the Derbyshire farmers, 700 of whom had signed up to the cull in their area.
With infections increasing so much recently, and no other Government policy forthcoming, farmers feel that the badger cull is their only option to escape the real fear of TB. As has been said, however, there is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of the cull, and it is disappointing that Professor Godfray’s team was specifically asked not to evaluate whether ongoing culls are reducing TB in cattle. A recent report from the Animal and Plant Health Agency stated explicitly that the data cannot demonstrate whether or not the badger control policy is effective.
The Downs report shows some reduction in infections during and immediately after the cull, but infection rates are now rising again and TB is spreading among cattle. Professor Godfray stated that the only feasible alternative to control badgers is vaccination, and that leads me to the work of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust—the largest volunteer-led vaccination programme in the UK, supported by the National Trust, the National Farmers’ Union, Derbyshire County Council, the Badger Trust, RSPB, Derbyshire police and local badger groups. Derbyshire’s police and crime commissioner is also a strong supporter, especially after assessing the resources that policing protests against the cull would involve. DWT is supported by more than 100 volunteers, and that number is continually increasing. I thank the small band of professionals and all the volunteers who dedicate a substantial amount of time in the evenings and early mornings to trap and vaccinate badgers. They have vaccinated 742 badgers so far, including 218 this year.
Right. This is a much more popular debate than I had envisaged for 9.30 on a Wednesday morning, so I will make progress, Mr Wilson.
Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has vaccinated badgers over an area of 120 sq km, and that area is expanding since the wildlife trust reached an agreement with Natural England to start work on national nature reserves in the Derbyshire Dales. Government funding has been just £280,000 through the scheme over four years, given the much lower cost of vaccinating badgers instead of culling them. Derbyshire presents the ideal opportunity for a large-scale vaccination programme of the kind recommend by Professor Godfray. It has no cull, an expanding vaccination programme and a highly experienced professional vaccination team. Such research is vital to help to inform the Government about their bovine TB policy and the opportunity significantly to increase badger vaccination across the country.
There is currently no clear strategy or clarity about where vaccinations should take place or at what scale. Vaccination has not been pushed as a viable option to culling in any meaningful way, whereas the Government have been vocal in support of culling. There needs to be a level playing field. The current funding model provided by DEFRA provides only 50% of the funds needed to run a badger vaccination programme, and that is preventing other organisations from establishing programmes. If such a model is to be extended, it must be offered proper financial support.
The people of Derbyshire and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust seek assurance from the Government that the cull will not come to an area with such a high success rate in vaccination—that it did not this year is a positive step. When will the Government publish their response to the Godfray report? Will consideration be given to monitoring the disease status of badgers, as well as badger populations, within cull areas? As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that already happens in Northern Ireland. Why is there no systematic testing of culled badgers for TB? A key factor for farmers in my area is for them to get access to the tests they need to ensure that their herds stay as risk-free as possible. I look forward to hearing speeches from other hon. Members, and to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate. Like other colleagues, I thought her speech was incredibly well balanced and truly reflected the nature of her constituency.
The hon. Lady’s constituency is very different to mine. As hon. Members will recognise, I represent an urban constituency and I therefore would not pretend for a nanosecond to understand fully and appreciate the concerns felt by other colleagues who might represent more rural constituencies. That said, I was one of the few Conservative MPs who spoke and voted against the badger cull when it first came before the House, and I have been a longstanding opponent of the cull ever since.
As I have served as a Minister for three and a half years, this is my first opportunity to speak on this issue since 2015. Although I recognise—especially looking around the Conservative Benches this morning—that I am probably in a minority on this side of the Chamber, I believe it is important that I speak. In my first speech on the issue I spoke of my appreciation of the devastating effect on farmers, which has been reflected in the debate today. It is important that the issue does not become one of farmers versus badgers. We have enough division as it is, and it is important to reflect on that.
Because of my deeply held views on animal welfare I have had the pleasure of working on the issue alongside various charities and organisations. It is important to recognise that they, too, have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of badgers and bovine TB and to provide the Government with scientific evidence that could protect both badger and cattle numbers. The evidence is clearly important, and I have worked with those, such as the Save Me Trust, who have worked for years to try to show that the scientific evidence used by the Government is flawed. Working with a farmer in Devon, the trust has helped to implement a different strategy to tackle TB in cattle, called the Gatcombe method, developed by veterinarian Dick Sibley. The method focuses on maintaining standards in cattle herds such as cleaning up the birthing of calves, cleaning up excrement as soon as it is dropped, and not pumping cow slurry on to the feeding fields. That has given the farmer an officially TB-free herd for three years, without the need to slaughter badgers.
Success in tackling bTB is not limited to that farm. We have already heard that Welsh herds are 94% free of bTB, and that it is dropping significantly without the culling of badgers, so surely there is an alternative for tackling the disease in English farms. As the Save Me Trust makes clear, the reason badgers have not been culled at the farm is that the likelihood of badgers passing TB on to cattle is low. According to the randomised badger culling trial, 5.7% of bTB outbreaks have been caused by badgers, but other scientific studies have put the figure at less than 1%. As has been mentioned, the RBCT estimates that 80% of badgers culled in England do not have bTB; so they were culled unnecessarily.
We need to look at other methods and take a more holistic approach to tackling bovine TB. I appreciate that that would require investment of time and money. I think that it is something the Government can support. A suggestion that was put to me was a Government-led grant programme, for farmers to invest in aerobic digesters to remove bTB from slurry, protecting cows and the wider environment from contamination, and, better still, providing biogas to be turned into electricity.
If we are to eradicate bTB it is clear that the current system for testing cattle needs to be improved. At present the skin test is ineffective and many infected cows remain in herds. Experiments with blood tests have shown TB organisms in cattle—
Farmers in my constituency are experiencing the worst difficulties with bTB in their cattle anywhere in Cheshire—and Cheshire has been hard hit, with 2,331 cattle having to be slaughtered last year. The Animal and Plant Health Agency report for the year ending 2018 states:
“The burden of TB in Cheshire is considerable…it can prove difficult to source cattle to replace reactors which have been slaughtered”
“TB can have a significant economic impact resulting in cash flow problems…full market prices are rarely available for TB restricted cattle.”
It also states:
“The economic losses to dairy farms in the case of lost milk yield can be further impacted by financial penalties imposed by the dairies through breaches of contract and not meeting forecasted milk yields.”
However, those statistics can never fully describe the financial and emotional toll on farmers and their families from the impact and threat of bovine TB, which cannot be overstated.
Many farmers have told me about that and I will never forget when I sat in the kitchen, at a farm where infection had taken hold, and the farmer’s wife sat sobbing at the kitchen table. Another told me last week, “We literally live daily in trepidation of bovine TB infecting our animals” and another wrote to me this week:
“We have failed our TB tests and have our next test on 17th December…Cow movements are on hold which will damage us financially as there will be no income from sales, nor will we be able to buy cows in, which we have been trying to do”.
They are in suspense. That is why, on their behalf and as requested by many who have written to me and met me in the past few days, I am asking the Government to continue with their bovine TB eradication strategy, including wildlife control in endemic areas, to free our country from this awful disease.
I am a strong supporter of animal welfare, and for healthy cattle we need healthy wildlife. To those who dispute that the disease is spread by wildlife movement, I would point out that the Animal and Plant Health Agency report that I mentioned states, with reference to Cheshire:
“In the south…of the county there has been a large number of new incidents…which are not thought to be due to movements of undetected infected cattle...The farms are not related nor connected by cattle movements, there has been no contiguous cattle contact. Infected badgers are suspected to be the source of infection. In total there have been ten herds known to have been affected.”
The NFU says of the results of a 2018 TB epidemiology report for high-risk areas,
“the results concluded that badgers constituted 64.19% of the source attribution whilst cattle movements accounted for 12%”
“these results provide further evidence that by controlling the badger population the number of new TB breakdowns can be minimised.”
I agree that we need evidence-based decisions. A range of interventions is, indeed, appropriate, but, as the NFU says,
“no other major cattle producing country in the world has ever successfully dealt with BTB in cattle without addressing disease where it is present in wildlife to break the cycle of infection.”
Culling has been effective in the Republic of Ireland and the NFU has also said that after 1997, when all badger culling ceased, in subsequent years infection spread in wildlife.
The scientific evidence exists. The Downs report, which was peer reviewed in the journal Scientific Reports, published last week, and endorsed by DEFRA, deals with analyses conducted to compare the rate of new TB breakdowns in cull areas, compared with rates matched in areas with no culling. There was a 66% reduction in new TB rates in cattle in Gloucestershire after culling, and a 37% reduction in Somerset. A DEFRA spokesman said of the report that
“this independent and detailed analysis builds on previously published data showing strong reductions in the disease in cattle following culling in Gloucester and Somerset areas over four years compared to unculled areas.”
As the NFU vice-president Stuart Roberts has said,
“Controlling the disease in wildlife is a crucial element to tackling this devastating disease”.
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr Wilson, and also to the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for the reasoned way she introduced the debate. I did not agree with all her conclusions, but her demeanour and the tenor of her remarks were very reasonable.
I have experience of the matter because I grew up as a farmer on my mother’s dairy farm in the foot and mouth regime, where farmers around us had their herds slaughtered. It was a pretty devastating time, growing up. I know only too well the effect that TB can have on the agricultural community and indeed on farmers themselves. As the hon. Lady said, rural farmers live in isolated areas, in close-knit communities and families; the loss of even one cow, let alone an entire herd of cattle, can have a devastating effect.
In the past few days, numerous farmers have said to me that they would like the Government’s eradication scheme to continue. Mr Harry Acland, of Notgrove Farm, said
“the badger cull has been immensely successful here, from being shut down with TB on average for 10 months in the year we now only rarely have a break down (once this year) and matters are considerably improved”.
I have supported the cause of the eradication scheme for more than two decades, and worked with my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), when he was the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on the roll-out of the first, second and third cull areas in Gloucestershire, which have been transformational. In the first two years of the first cull, the TB incident rate was down 16%. After four years of the industry-led eradication scheme, between 2013 and 2017, the culling by farmers had reduced TB in cattle by 66% in Gloucestershire. Interestingly, while no change was found after two years in a 2 km buffer area around Gloucestershire, after four years there was a 36% decrease in the area. The so-called perturbation effect was not seen. Badger control licences now cover 57% of high-risk areas in the country. The efficiency of the licences has seen a 19% decline in TB incidence since the culling began in 2013, from 3,283 to 2,655. A comprehensive range of measures alongside the badger culling seems to be the most effective strategy for controlling the disease, with greater biosecurity, cattle testing and movement restrictions for TB-positive herds, and continued research into badger vaccinations, particularly oral ones.
Backing our farmers and ensuring a healthy, prosperous agricultural industry in Britain is a vital way to manage our sustainability. We cannot encourage people to buy local or in season if we do not protect our farms from devastation when TB infects entire herds. Grass-fed beef raised in this country has a far lower carbon footprint than importing foreign meats or plant-based products. Quite simply, we have the grass and climate to produce the best naturally-raised beef in the world. Eradicating this disease would be a quantum leap in increasing the productivity of British agriculture and provide a substitute for imports in a post-Brexit world. Jobs and livelihoods depend on it.
This is not a debate about wildlife lover against farmer; it is about healthy badgers being protected from a vicious and unpleasant infectious disease. It is all about stopping our healthy badger population dying from what used to be called consumption.
The genie is out of the bottle. The figures that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) just gave show a 66% decline in TB in areas that were culled in Gloucestershire. We can never again expect a cattle farmer in this country to accept that culling does not work. It is proven to work, based on the science brought about in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by the meddlesome right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) when he was Secretary of State.
The story of TB in cattle is one of delay. The chief vet stopped the culling in the 1950s, and then TB took a grip. We must not stop the scientifically-based cull that we have going on today in areas of high infection. To do so will be to create illegal culling. We all know that the problem with badgers is the perturbation effect; the minute we have a perturbation effect, we will have a terrible spread of the disease, so the culls we have at the moment must continue. They are working, and the science that they are generating is critical to the progress we need to make in stopping this disease, which of course can infect people as well.
I have heard that there is now a new mustelid vaccine—it is being tested on ferrets, because testing is not allowed on badgers—that is more effective than Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, or BCG. There are new tests that show a variety of reactions in cattle, so that we do not need just one indicator. They may show eight different types of reaction to Mycobacterium bovis, so we will not have the number of false positives or false negatives that have plagued the skin test. There is tremendous science coming along. The OIE—the World Organisation for Animal Health—is approving some of the tests. We have had a new test for camelids.
My question to DEFRA is this: “What are you doing to ensure that this new science can be brought in? We are still in the European Union. We need these tests approved so that we are internationally compliant in our fight against TB. We must ensure that sufficient funds go into that research. We need you to keep going on the science that you are currently applying, because not only is it working, but it is bringing results home to farmers in my constituency who love their cattle.” More than that, they love badgers too. Once we have beaten this disease, we will know that the whole UK badger population is secure, safe and likely to continue to provide the entertainment that people get when they see them.
However, people such as me who love their cattle want to know that they are safe from this horrible disease—not least because of the risk to farmers when they are testing and testing and testing. No cow likes to be jabbed twice in the neck, and they react dangerously when they are continually tested. For me, the worst thing that can happen is an outbreak—not just because I lose my animals, but because of the risk to my family when we have to perform those compulsory tests to go clear. I say to the Government, “Please do all you can.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate and the measured manner in which she spoke.
I take issue with the idea that there is a battle between badger welfare and culling. I have told numerous people this, and many of them laugh, but I am probably the only person in this Chamber who has had one pet badger, and I am definitely the only person in the Chamber who has had two pet badgers. I am very pro-badger. I am pro-healthy badgers. Ever since I began working on this, when I was the junior shadow agriculture spokesman, I have set in train, I hope, a series of policies to ensure that we have healthy wildlife living alongside healthy cattle.
There is not a single country in the world that I have visited—whether the problem is white-tailed deer in Michigan, wild feral cattle in Australia, the brushtail possum in New Zealand, or, in particular, the badger in the Republic of Ireland—where there is a reservoir of disease in wildlife that has not been tackled at the same time as it has been tackled in cattle. It is so obvious, and it has worked; when we had a bipartisan approach in the 1960s and 1970s, we got the disease down to 0.01%.
It is absolutely tragic that we threw that away, and it has caused great misery. The hon. Lady was right to highlight the hideous cruelty of shooting a pregnant cow, so that the calf suffocates, which is rarely mentioned. The Badger Trust always shows beautiful black-and-white photographs of badgers, like my dear old badgers—never a revolting picture of a diseased badger in the last stages of TB, covered in lesions, driven out of the sett, covered in bites and dying a horrible, long, lingering death.
There is also a human element. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) mentioned the mental trauma of being tested—the sheer trauma for farmers, the tension, the nightmare of waiting to see whether they will fail the test—and the physical danger. I am afraid that one of my constituents was killed while doing a TB test, when a young bull threw his head up and smashed my constituent against the crush.
All that is completely unnecessary if we can get rid of the disease in cattle and in wildlife, but we have to address both together. It is not either/or. We cannot go on with the expense: we are spending £1 billion on a disease that has been eradicated in other countries. The Germans take out 70,000 badgers a year. We can look at what New Zealand has done on the brushtail possum. My question is this: can we please acknowledge that this is working?
I was in charge of introducing the first two trial culls. We had intense saboteur activity, with hunt saboteurs coming from all over the United Kingdom, some of them with convictions for violent offences. I pay tribute to the farmers who, with incredible bravery, got those first culls going in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The Downs report shows a reduction of 66% in the cull area in Gloucestershire, where we had intense activity—we had saboteurs camping out on badger setts—and 36% in Somerset, where I went to a public meeting about 18 months ago to discuss what could be done on floods, and I had people coming up to me almost in tears, saying, “Mr Paterson, I just want to say thank you. We’d been closed up since my grandfather—for 40 years we’d been closed up. We’ve gone clear.”
My last point is to ask whether we can look at the basic reproduction number of this disease. Can we look at the level where the disease peters out, when we get the badger population low enough to have a healthy population? I would like the Minister to look at the basic reproductive ratio, R0, which represents the number of cases that one case generates on average over the course of its infectious period, in an otherwise uninfected population. Could we make it the target of our policy to get the disease down to a level where it is not sustainable in the wildlife population and end this hideous trauma for wildlife, cattle and our farmers?
I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on the very balanced way that she made her points. I was pleasantly surprised by the interventions from our colleagues from Wales, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Jane Dodds), and from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made similarly balanced points, as did our colleague from Cumbria, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).
We have heard that TB is a devastating disease. It is devastating for animals, for wildlife and for farming communities. What makes me angry is that we had beaten this disease. We had almost got on top of it, but then we had the perfect storm. We had the foot and mouth epidemic when, for obvious reasons, vets’ visits to farms were deemed to be a risk of spreading the disease, and at the same time we protected the badger—without, I must say, having done any real work on the effect that that has on other wildlife such as bumblebees, hedgehogs and other species. As we heard, last year almost 33,000 cattle were slaughtered in England, and we have had suicides, even this year, in the farming community because of the stress we heard about. We also heard that the only successful incidents of control or eradication involved controlling wildlife—in New Zealand, the brushtail possum, and in Ireland, the badger.
What should come out of the debate, as I hope the Minister will reaffirm, is that policy should be based on sound science and the latest research, which has shown that breakdowns have been reduced by 66% in Gloucestershire and 37% in Somerset. Vaccination, I am sure, has a role, but it should not replace wildlife culling. Infected badgers cannot be cured by vaccination, and those badgers cannot all be caught. Indeed, the vaccine itself is not a vaccine; it has a high failure rate. Caught badgers cannot be rapidly tested and then released if they are clear, or vaccinated or killed if they are infected.
Sadly, we had to curtail research on the oral vaccine, because we could not get a bait abrasive enough to allow the vaccine to get sufficiently into the bloodstream of the animal. Badgers can be caught and the backs of their mouths scratched, getting the vaccine to work to some extent, but, sadly, it is not possible to have an oral vaccine. Of course, the real holy grail would be a cattle vaccine that only protected cattle, with a blood test to differentiate between vaccinated cows and cows with the disease. We would then have to get agreement across our major trading partners, including the EU, to be able to sell meat and products from those animals.
What more can we do? We need more sensitive tests and, in some areas, more regular tests. The skin test is specific. An animal with a positive reactor has only a one in 5,000 chance of not being infected; three reactors give a one in 250,000 chance. That is a very specific test, but it is not sensitive enough. The gamma interferon test would give us the ability to detect more animals, but there would be more false positives, and farmers would have to accept that situation in certain parts of the country. We need enhanced basic biosecurity measures, and we need to look at what we can do on dealers, who are sometimes reckless in the way that they transport animals around the country. I would like the National Trust to look at the evidence that we now have and perhaps change its policy on allowing its tenant farmers to undertake culling in their areas.
We can control this disease only by using all the tools at our disposal. We must not respond to ill-informed representations in the pursuit of short-term, populist political gain. To do so would risk long-term misery for our cattle, our farmers and, indeed, our badgers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Wilson. There have been so many passionate contributions that, in winding up for the Scottish National party, I do not think I can mention them all; I presume that I have a limited amount of time as well. However, I will highlight three in particular.
I commend the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George), who secured the debate, for her nuanced and evidence-led approach to this clearly very sensitive and emotional issue. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch)—this point was made by other Members from across the Chamber, and I commend them for that—mentioned the importance of making it clear that this is not a farmer versus badger issue. She gave alternatives to badger culling, which I am sure the Minister will be interested in pursuing the details of, if he was not aware of them already, because they sound like they are achieving some impressive results. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke of a human aspect that we must never forget: the devastating impact that this disease has on farmers, their families and the communities around them. There were numerous other contributions from other Members who spoke with passion and often from personal experience.
I suppose I should make it clear that, despite the fact that I am a Brock, I have no conflict of interest. In spite of the name, I have no relatives who are badgers and I know no badgers personally. I will admit, however, to a general liking for the creatures, who seem amiable enough. I certainly have the occasional visit from badgers in my garden in Edinburgh.
I was reading the British Veterinary Association’s website recently, as one does, and spotted a report about the badger culling areas of Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset, using data from 2013 to 2017. The BVA clearly considered that this report showed that culling was effective in controlling bovine tuberculosis, indicating a 55% drop in bovine TB incidents. On the face of it, that is clear evidence that the policy is working.
However, it struck me that this is the removal of a species from an area, which in itself raises obvious questions about whether an effective solution is necessarily the best solution and, perhaps more importantly, about the effect of taking an entire wild species out of an ecosystem. What does removing badgers from these localities do to biodiversity? Their diet is mainly earthworms and insects, I think, but they also clean up carrion and windfall fruit and perform other similar housekeeping duties. I am not an expert—we will have to ask someone else—but I assume that their burrowing and hunting habits help to till the soil and move nutrients. An ecologist could no doubt educate us on the benefits to a local ecosystem of having a brock or two in the area; I imagine that there are multiple benefits.
The hon. Lady has, until now, been making a sensible speech. My memory from my upbringing in Scotland is that there was a scarce population of badgers —almost none at all. If she came down to Wiltshire, she would find a large number of badgers indeed. It is not one or two here and there; we are talking about dozens and dozens of setts absolutely crammed to the doors with ill badgers. These notions—the idea that there are one or two, and questions like: “aren’t they nice?”, “what about the biodiversity?” and “don’t they help till the soil?”—just show that she has absolutely no idea about what life is like in a badger area.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has greater experience of these things, given where he resides, but I assure him that there are significant brock populations now in Scotland. I will go on to speak about what is happening in Scotland around this issue.
Lastly on the point that I was making, I point to our experience of the effects of wiping out other species in large geographical areas, and to the fact that we often find conservation organisations trying to reintroduce the animals that we have hunted to extinction. England may continue down this road, and that is, to some extent, a matter for England to decide. However, it is worth remembering how much we criticise other nations for failing to protect their wildlife.
The cull is not about eradicating the badger. Typically, the population will be reduced to about 30% of what it was before. In areas such as Scotland and North Yorkshire, where we have low levels of TB, the badger population is not a problem. However, in areas where we have large numbers of badgers and high infection levels, controlling—not eradicating—the population at sensible levels might also have good knock-on effects for other species, such as bumblebees and so on, which have been crowded out by the badger.
That is an interesting point. As I understand it, culling badgers actually encourages them, in some instances, to roam further, because they are not threated by other setts in other areas, and that potentially encourages the spread of TB. I do not believe that Members have yet raised that aspect of it.
Scotland has, of course, gone down another route. The control of bovine TB in our country is a partnership working success, with the Scottish Government assisting the livestock industry in maintaining Scotland’s position as officially tuberculosis free since 2009. That might be unpopular around these parts at the moment, since it is an EU Commission recognition of how good Scotland is on this. There is a monitoring regime, with movement controls and quarantine where needed. The hon. Member for High Peak spoke about the big drop-off in monitoring by Natural England. Will the Minister help us to understand why that might have happened, and what impact the huge recent cut to Natural England’s funding—since 2014, I think—has had on its ability to monitor?
We have a monitoring regime, with movement controls and quarantine where needed, and that now includes other animals as well as cattle. It is about better animal husbandry, good biosecurity and high-spec testing. I say to my good English friends that that may be a better solution than killing thousands of animals. It has also been very important for trade for Scottish farmers. People cannot trade beasts across the EU, as many hon. Members will know, without their herds being certified as TB free. There are concerns about what will happen post Brexit, and perhaps the Minister can also address that. English farmers may also be concerned that the EU funding, stretching to millions of pounds, for TB control will not be there after Brexit. The question will be how and, indeed, whether it is replaced.
It is disappointing that neither the House of Commons Library briefing for this debate nor any speaker today, I think, has referred to the example of Scotland—officially TB free since 2009. Might I suggest to Ministers and to hon. Members concerned about this issue that they take the time to look to Scotland for some inspiration?
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George). What she said was very measured. [Interruption.] I do not know whether a debate is still going on—that is always better than comments sotto voce. My hon. Friend presented the case very well, so I will not go over what she said. Hon. Members will disagree on the way in which this terrible disease is currently being fought.
Of course, we are all in favour of eradicating bovine TB. My area has suffered from it more than most. I have seen what it does to both cattle and badgers, and anyone who does not believe that it is an awful disease does not know much about it. However, we will disagree on how we go about eradication—including the notion of when we will eradicate it, if we ever can. We have to hope we can, but that is at least questionable.
I shall start with what we know—and I will congratulate the Government. They were brave, given all the pressure that they came under, not to extend the cull to Derbyshire, because it is worthwhile looking at different models. I shall also start by saying that I think we could learn from what has happened in Wales. I heard what the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Jane Dodds) said, but the Welsh Government have taken a fundamentally different approach. I do not know enough about what the Scottish Government have done, but I hope that the UK Government are open to the suggestion that we can bear down on this disease in different ways. Wales, with its concentration on herd breakdown, has shown us at least some very different notions of what we can do.
Let me go back to what Labour did when we were in government. It is a bit of a myth that we did not spend an awful lot of time on this disease: we did, including through the work of John Krebs. I recall that one of Krebs’s conclusions was that killing badgers would make no significant difference to the spread of bovine TB in cattle. That was borne out by the independent expert panel, under John Bourne. We put serious resources into that, and it is where we got to understand the perturbation effect. All the scientists who were associated with it have come down very strongly against the current, privatised cull, given the potential damage that it does, with the spread outwards of this disease because of the perturbation effect.
I am grateful to my constituency neighbour for giving way. He is aware of the latest figures, which show very clearly that in Gloucestershire, far from there being a perturbation effect, the opposite has actually been the case: there has been a reduction in the level of the disease on the edge of the cull areas.
Let me come to that later, because I will point out something slightly different.
We have had the two articles, and they are articles; they are not necessarily anything other than a position taken by both Brunton and Downs. Brunton used the findings given to her by APHA and she made the point that
“to use the findings of this analysis to develop generalisable inferences about the effectiveness of the policy at present”
was at least questionable. Downs was more definitive and did say that there was some strong evidence, in her opinion, that the cull was working. But this is where I disagree with the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). The current figures from Gloucestershire have shown an upward spike, in both incidence and prevalence, in the cull area. This is the problem with this disease: it is not a disease that can easily be measured in terms of one policy. My fear about the Government is that they have gone along the badger cull route as the main policy.
With regard to where we are, the one real criticism that I have of this Government is that I think it is outrageous that MPs are not allowed to know where culling is taking place. I recently had an incident locally that was about culling on the edge of the Woodchester Park area. Anyone who knows anything, and certainly those who have studied the matter, will know that Woodchester Park has spent more time than most of us have had hot dinners in trying to understand how the badger population is affected by bovine TB and in looking at the relationship—the transmission mechanism—between badgers and cattle. Certainly we had some evidence that a badger was shot within that trial area. I know the police will not prosecute, but I hope that the Minister will give me every assurance that there is no possibility of culling, because that would throw away 40-plus years of how we have been studying those badgers, and we need to keep doing that.
I have been talking about where we are. This, of course, is a stress-based disease. That is why I am quizzical, and want to hear from the Government, about why they have not yet responded to Godfray, because it is right and proper that we do respond to Godfray. We need to understand this issue. My area had a recent incidence of TB caused by the way in which people were putting in a new pipeline. Because they did not move the badger setts properly, five farms have gone down, no doubt because of the stress on the badgers that were moved wrongly and on the cattle, which suffered accordingly. It is important that we understand that a number of different things are involved.
I welcome what the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) said about slurry. I hope that the Government are looking seriously at the work of Gatcombe, down in Dorset—on the Dorset-Devon border—where Dick Sibley has tried to do things.
May I just continue? I will never finish my speech otherwise, and the Minister will need quite a lot of time to respond because of the excellent debate that we have had, even if hon. Members do not agree on this issue.
I hope that we are looking at what Sibley has discovered in trying to eradicate this disease from a cattle herd. He has narrowed things down, again, to, dare I say, the impact of slurry being put out on farms. We need to know more about that.
With regard to where else we need to be much better, I think that the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) brought up the notion of the Enferplex test. We need to push forward on the different measures. I will be blunt: the SICCT—single intradermal comparative cervical tuberculin—test, the skin test, is notoriously unreliable. Far too often, cattle that have the disease are missed. Sometimes they are picked up with the interferon-gamma test. Again, Gatcombe is doing work with PCR and phage.
It is important that we know that these tests are much more accurate. We need to bear down on this disease. I do not want to kill cattle any more than I want to kill badgers. Far too often, cattle are killed that are clean of the disease. But sadly, there are cattle that are not clean of the disease and get through. We still have 14 million cattle movements. It is important that we understand that those movements could be a major cause of the spread of the disease, because if we do not know which cattle have it, as we may not know which badgers have it, and we allow those cattle to travel around the country, that is clearly a real threat.
We need to look at every tool in the box. We will not agree on how this disease is currently being fought, but fought it must be. The Leader of the Opposition offered with equanimity to work with the Government at the end of yesterday’s debate and I would like to work with the Government on this. I would love for the Minister to come to Woodchester Park and look at the implications of what researchers have found there over many years.
I agree with the Prime Minister about the need to end cattle movement—all live exports—in terms of what we send abroad. That could give us an opening. Much of the way in which we have fought this disease has been to do with the need to keep our trade policy “TB-free”. If we maintain that, it is important to understand that this might be a way forward. Thus far we have been within EU rules. That is something we could address.
In conclusion, I would like to work with the Minister. Sadly, previous attempts at cross-party work have not always succeeded, but I make that offer now—and I hope the Minister will take me up on it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this debate and, as several hon. Members have said, on the sensitive way she approached a difficult and contentious issue, particularly in her recognition of the trauma this issue causes farmers.
Bovine TB is one of our most difficult animal health challenges. It is a slow-moving, insidious disease. It is difficult to detect. None of the diagnostic tests are perfect. I will come on to that later. It can exist in the environment for several months. There is a reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population, hosted in badgers. No vaccination is perfect. The best vaccine we have is the BCG vaccine, which typically provides protection of around 70%.
As the hon. Lady said, bovine TB also imposes a huge pressure on the wellbeing of our cattle farmers and their families. As many hon. Members have said, including my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), it is a tragedy when farmers have a TB breakdown. Some farmers lose show-winning cattle. For many, their herd of cattle is their pride and joy, and it is utterly soul-destroying to see those cattle lost.
No single measure that will achieve eradication by our target of 2038. That is why our 25-year strategy, launched by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) in 2013, sets out a wide range of interventions. Cattle testing is the cornerstone of our current programme. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), suggested that we are focusing on badgers at the expense of other interventions. That is simply not true. We have a wide range of testing regimes.
There are regular surveillance tests, every four years in the low-risk area, every year in the high-risk area and every six months in hotspots. There are pre-movement tests. Recently, we introduced compulsory post-movement tests for cattle moving between holdings. There are trace tests on cattle that have recently been added to a herd. We have tests on a herd following a sale of cattle to another herd, where that leads to a TB breakdown. We have radial testing in some areas and contiguous testing in others, where there are implications from a neighbour’s farm with a breakdown. Where there are inconclusive reactors, we have re-tests. Recently, we dramatically increased the use of the far more sensitive interferon gamma test, to ensure that we detect the presence of the disease and root it out faster from our herds.
It is not correct to say that our policy is built solely on the contentious badger cull policy. The cornerstone of our fight against TB is and always has been a very thorough testing regime, to remove the disease from cattle. All the demands we place on farmers through testing, despite the trauma concerned and the dangers they pose, are crucial to our fight against the disease. We must continue to be vigilant on this front. That was one of the recommendations from the review conducted by Sir Charles Godfray.
Seven years into our 25-year strategy to eradicate TB, we feel that it is a good time to reflect on the strategy and think about other elements we might want to evolve. That is why the former Secretary of State asked Sir Charles Godfray to conduct a review around the five-year point of the strategy. That was published a little under a year ago. Several hon. Members have asked why the response has been delayed and when to expect it. All good things are worth waiting for. I envisage the response being published soon. I hope it will not be interrupted by an election purdah.
The response to the Godfray review is an opportunity for us to take stock and review the current strategy, seven years in. The shadow Minister offered to work with me on this. When we publish our response to the Godfray review, I will invite him and his team to meet me in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to go through what we are proposing. The tone of this debate has been slightly different to previous debates on the matter. While we will never entirely agree, I detect a sense that both sides can make a step towards one another and achieve a consensus on certain issues. I am keen to try to achieve that. This is a long- term fight—it is a 25-year strategy—so it would be helpful to have cross-party understanding and consensus on elements of it.
This debate relates to Derbyshire. As the hon. Member for High Peak knows, we took a difficult decision to pause a proposed cull in the south of Derbyshire. I understand that has caused great frustration to farmers. We did that to ensure that we can assess how we can have co-existence of badger vaccination and culling in parts of the edge area. That is why we chose to pause it for this year.
Badger culling is a controversial policy. We have powerful scientific evidence to show that the cull is working, despite passionate attempts by some to suggest otherwise. TB was first identified in the badger population as long ago as 1971. A series of trials in the 1970s demonstrated that a badger cull could lead to significant reductions in the incidence of the disease. That was borne out further by the randomised badger culling trial in the early 2000s.
Crucially, a recent independent peer-reviewed epidemiological study, published by Downs and others in the internationally-renowned scientific journal Scientific Reports, showed that licensed badger culling is leading to a significant reduction in the incidence of the disease in cattle in each of the first two cull areas. The study showed that there was a 66% reduction in TB incidence rates in Gloucestershire and a 37% reduction in the Somerset cull area, over the four years of intensive badger culling, relative to similar comparison areas. No significant changes have yet been observed in the third area in Dorset, but that is after just two years of culling. Furthermore, there was no evidence of an increase in the TB herd incidence rates in cattle located around the buffer area. One of the key findings of the report was that the so-called perturbation effect, which was a concern for some when the cull was launched, has not materialised in the culls so far.
The Government do not dismiss badger vaccination, but it is important to remember that the only vaccine we have is the BCG vaccine, which does not provide full protection. We do not have any hard, scientific evidence of how it works on a field deployment scale.
I may have missed something, but I noted from the Library report that was given to us that the Animal and Plant Health Agency was conducting an efficacy study and that the results were expected later this year. That is a research programme to identify an oral vaccine and a palatable bait. I wonder whether there is any update on that.
I think that was dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). In all my time in this role previously, I kept going and persevered with the research to try to identify an oral vaccine, because—in reality—if we want to deploy a vaccine on scale in the wildlife population, an oral bait vaccine would be the answer. I have had numerous submissions over the years inviting me to pull up stumps on that research, but I persevered.
However, I am afraid that in the end we could not get there, for the reason that my right hon. Friend pointed out, namely that a badger’s digestive system is too powerful and it breaks down the vaccine. All attempts to find other ways around that were unsuccessful. It is also the case that when such vaccines were deployed in the field, certain badgers would get a lot of the vaccine and others would get none at all, because there would be a propensity for some badgers to take up the bait but not others. So it is not something that we are continuing with at this stage.
I will pick up on a few points that hon. Members have made. The hon. Member for High Peak raised the issue of cows that were heavily pregnant with calves. She is right that it is an absolute tragedy to cull such cows and in fact a couple of years ago I changed the rules in this area, so that a cow that is in the final month of its pregnancy can now stay on the farm and be placed in isolation. We have even provided that a cow in the final two months of its pregnancy can be isolated, provided that the isolation facilities are sufficiently robust. So I have already changed the rules in that regard, because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire pointed out, it is horrendous when a cow that is about to give birth has to be shot on a farm.
The hon. Lady also raised the issue of the badger population in Derbyshire. The reality is that in in her area in the north of Derbyshire, where badger vaccination is taking place, incidence of the disease in badgers is quite low. However, that is not the case in south-west Derbyshire, particularly along the border with Staffordshire, where there is a high prevalence of the disease in the badger population.
We have a number of approaches. We do some roadkill surveillance in areas to identify where there is disease. Also, whenever we have a breakdown on a farm, an assessment is carried out by APHA vets to try to establish the most likely cause of that breakdown. So there are breakdown epidemiological reports.
The hon. Lady also raised an issue about herd size. In addition to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), the fact of the matter is that it is an epidemiological reality that the more cattle there are in a herd, the more interfaces there are with the environment and the more likely they are to pick up infection. I remember that some years ago our chief scientist in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs got very excited and thought that those with small herds must be doing something right. However, we concluded that it is simply a mathematical fact that a small herd has fewer interfaces with the badger population and therefore has a lower propensity to have a breakdown.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) raised an important issue about slurry. I can tell her that I have had meetings with Dick Sibley and that he has attended roundtable discussions we have had on this issue. However, as long ago as 2015 we launched a biosecurity plan that included slurry management best practice guidance, so this is an issue that we recognise and that we try to improve. The evidence is a little mixed, because the reality is that if we are testing and removing cattle, we would tend to remove them before the disease shows up in slurry, unless the test is ineffective and is missing those cattle. So this is an area that we are keen to look at further and, as I have said, we are in dialogue with Dick Sibley on some of these matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire made a point about diagnostic tests. He is absolutely right—we are now allowing the use of unvalidated tests and, again, Dick Sibley is using one of those tests. We have also dramatically increased our deployment of the more sensitive interferon gamma test.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire made an important point about epidemiology and, crucially, how we get daughter infection below one, so that we can put this disease into permanent retreat. The R0—the reproductive number that he mentioned—is notoriously difficult to calculate, but we have a track record in our own history of taking this disease from a very high prevalence in the 1930s down to zero in the 1980s. So there is a point whereby, if we keep going, we can put this disease into permanent retreat.
I will make a point briefly. Will the Government look at evidence from other countries, particularly Ireland, where the evidence is quite contrary to what the SNP spokesperson—the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock)—said, in that there is no intention of eliminating a species? This process is about getting the population per kilometre down to a level whereby the disease simply cannot reproduce itself, and then we will end up with a completely stable, healthy badger population, and this whole nightmare will go away.
We will look at that evidence, but this is a difficult issue. My right hon. Friend is right that our aim, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby pointed out, is to get the badger population down by 70% in the four years of the cull; it is not our intention at all to eradicate the badger population. This is an issue that we will continue to look at because, as we plot how to get from where we are now to being officially TB-free by 2038, it is clearly an important issue.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby also pointed out some of the challenges of vaccinating badgers and the further challenge that we have had with an oral vaccination. However, if we can use such a vaccination, there are also some advantages. It provides herd immunity and there is some evidence that cubs born in badger populations that have been vaccinated have a higher degree of resistance to the disease than other badgers.
Finally, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith asked about Scotland. The approach taken in Scotland is very similar to the approach that we take in a low-risk area elsewhere. Scotland does not have a large badger population and nor does it have a presence of the disease in the badger population, which is in common with the north of England. Therefore, the nature of the challenge in Scotland is very different to that elsewhere.
The badger population has more than doubled in this country over the last 20 or so years. In the cull areas, which we are targeting because the disease is rife there, we simply look to reduce the badger population by 70% for the duration of the cull.
The one thing that has not been mentioned—I should have mentioned it myself, of course—is cattle vaccination. Such vaccination was always 10 years away, but I gather that it is now five years away. Are the Weybridge and Pirbright research institutions still working on this vaccination and, if so, can they clarify where they are with that work?
I thank all the Members who have contributed to this very constructive debate and I look forward to the cross-party working with the Minister, and with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), and the rest of the shadow team.
However, I was disappointed that the Minister did not talk about the other measures that he will use as other tools in the box. I hope that he will consider scaling up vaccination and I invite him to come and visit High Peak to see the excellent work being done there by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, work that is really capable of being scaled up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government policy on TB in cattle and badgers.