Skip to main content

Badgers And Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2001

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Whether they have any plans to modify the present programme for the control of badgers with respect to the increasing incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, TB in cattle is an extremely serious animal health problem. The Government are dealing with the disease on a broad front and on the basis of sound science. Bovine TB is, however, continuing to increase while our research, including the badger culling trial, is in progress. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture has made clear that the Government are keeping the possibility of taking additional measures under review and will not hesitate to act if necessary.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. The Question was tabled some weeks before the present emergency. I apologise to the Minister if, for want of ministerial back-up, it places her in a difficult position. With regard to tuberculosis and badgers, does she agree that it will be some years before the Krebs-Bourne trials are completed? In the meantime, farmers—especially dairy farmers—and veterinarians are somewhat dissatisfied with the progress in the Krebs-Bourne trials. Indeed, the National Farmers Union has pulled out of the TB Forum set up in 1999. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good time, following the present emergency, to re-assess the Government's approach to badger control and tuberculosis in cattle?

My Lords, the Government's approach to badger control and tuberculosis in cattle does not rely only on the Krebs-Bourne trials. We are making progress with those trials. All 10 trial areas are involved. In seven of them there has been proactive culling. Reactive culling and survey work has taken place in the other three areas. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, will be aware that the Select Committee on Agriculture in another place looked at the issue recently. The Government will shortly be responding to its report. The committee concluded that notwithstanding its support for the trials, carrying them through and getting the evidence we need, it was also important that we assess policy options so that we have policies ready as and when results come out of the trials.

My Lords, I follow up the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, by asking the question which he so carefully did not ask: can badgers in fact spread foot and mouth disease?

My Lords, badgers are not a susceptible species for foot and mouth. Therefore, they cannot get it. Just as the noble Lord could spread foot and mouth on his shoes or anywhere else, badgers could do the same on their fur. But it is the movement of susceptible species that is the greatest danger.

My Lords, has the Minister any information about the possibility that an AIDS-type virus in cattle, which is prevalent in the South West, may be weakening cattle and making them more liable to tuberculosis? Might not that be more of a nuisance than badgers?

My Lords, we have a wide research programme in place looking at husbandry issues, cattle to cattle transmission and other possible wildlife sectors. In any disease situation the issue of potential susceptibility to disease is one matter we have to take into account. Therefore, the survey work that comes out of TB99, which is being done on affected herds, will be important in that respect.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that it has been known for a long time that TB, both in humans and in animals, is a disease of malnutrition? There is a known selenium deficiency in the soils in this country. Selenium is closely associated with the immune system function. Dairy cattle, which seem to be most prone to TB, are under huge stresses with the amount of milk that they are expected to produce. Therefore, can she say what research is being done in this field?

Furthermore, I understand that there is a child in Scotland who is suffering from bovine TB which is resistant to all antibiotics. I do not expect an immediate answer to this question, but is the immune status of that child compromised by his diet?

My Lords, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, is correct. I cannot answer that question immediately. There is close liaison between ourselves and the Department of Health. A liaison group is looking at the health implications of M. bovis. I stress that the number of cases of M. bovis in humans has remained constant for many years. It is not increasing. It is predominantly a disease among older people and is thought to be a recurrence of a disease that was contracted pre-pasteurisation. That is the current advice. The matter is being kept under review. So far as concerns the Scottish dimension, the Scottish Centre for Infection and Environmental Health sits on that liaison group.

In relation to selenium deficiency, I am aware that that is one of the issues that has been raised as a potential factor in TB. We have vastly different incidences of TB in different parts of the country. There is a wide programme of research which has been extended. Details of that are available on our website. I hesitate to say that, but I am afraid that it is true.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is 28 years since I took the Badgers Act through the House of Commons? The connection was known then and the measure took account of it. However, since that time, vast sums of money have been spent and large numbers of badgers have been destroyed. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have pursued a medical or veterinary alternative. Can my noble friend assure the House and make it clear that, in many parts of the country, this problem does not apply? In those areas, badgers ought not to be persecuted.

My Lords, I do not think that badgers are persecuted in any area. We are trying to find out what are the necessary and appropriate disease control measures if it is clear that we have a wildlife vector such as the badger involved in the spread of bovine TB. I must remind my noble friend—although I know that he is aware of this—that 8,000 cattle are slaughtered every year because of bovine TB. It is a welfare issue for cattle as well as for wildlife. However, my noble friend is absolutely right to remind the House of what I said earlier in my remarks; namely, that different patterns of disease are seen in different parts of the country. The whole thrust of our work seeks to establish solutions and policy options that will allow badgers and cattle to coexist in good health.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether a vaccine is available for bovine TB and also a vaccine for foot and mouth disease, which is causing such concern at the moment?

My Lords, I shall respond first to the second question put to me by the noble Baroness. A vaccine is available for foot and mouth disease. It is not used in this country or throughout the European Union because use of that vaccine would result in compromising fatally our disease-free status. It is then impossible to distinguish between animals with antibodies through vaccination and animals with antibodies through disease. For that reason, there are enormous trade ramifications. The advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer has been not to pursue a vaccination policy. However, obviously at this time we are taking every option into account, including vaccination.

No effective vaccination exists against bovine TB. A great deal of research is being carried out and considerable resources are being invested internationally to try to develop such a vaccine.