Some people have sent me identical campaign emails about the badger cull. Unfortunately I am unable to attend the debate on Monday 27 March. It is the case, however, that as it is a Westminster Hall debate it will have no effect on the law.
I was supportive of the pilot culls, even though I withstood a lot of pressure locally over that position - including threats against my home. I have always tried to cast my vote on this subject in the House of Commons based on scientific advice and at that time, advice was that the pilot culls needed to be tried. I thus supported the culls.
However, following the report on the pilot culls, there was a further debate in the House about the badger cull. I was at that stage, and remain today, concerned about the effectiveness of the culls as the study carried out on them did not give a glowing report.
I know that Bovine TB is a serious disease with greater incidence in England than all the other EU member states combined. It increased nine-fold between 1997 and 2010 and caused 26,602 cattle to be slaughtered in 2013 alone. The Government remains committed to using all available means to address it and is pursuing a comprehensive Strategy for England to become TB free by 2038: this involves a wide range of tools, and three key components.
The Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme is supporting badger vaccination projects in parts of the country that border the high-risk areas. This ‘edge area’ covers counties in the middle of the country, including parts of Derbyshire, which are most at risk from the disease spreading from the West Midlands. Vaccinating healthy badgers is intended to create a buffer zone to help prevent the spread of TB to new areas of the country where the incidence of TB is low. This I warmly welcome and hope that it will prevent any culls from having to take place in these areas in future.
International experience shows that to eradicate bovine TB, the problem must be tackled in both cattle and in any significant wildlife sources. In 2013, Professor Charles Godfray’s independent review of the science, which brought together leading UK experts, concluded that TB spreads within and between populations of badgers and cattle and that spread from badgers to cattle is an important cause of herd breakdowns in high-incidence areas. This is why badger control in those areas of England where the disease is rife is a vital part of any eradication strategy.
As a result of the difficult decisions which have been taken, the Low Risk Area, covering over half of England, is on track to achieve officially TB-free status by the end of 2019. This would be the first time anywhere in England has enjoyed this status.
The Chief Veterinary Officer’s current advice is that the results show that industry-led badger control can deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits. Last year, as part of the comprehensive strategy, seven additional licences for badger control have been granted for parts of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. This is in line with the CVO’s advice on what is needed to realise disease control benefits at a regional level.
Bearing down on the disease by tightening and extending cattle movement controls, as well as improving farm biosecurity, is a key part of the strategy. All cattle herds are regularly tested for TB, with those in high-risk areas tested annually or more often and any cattle that test positive slaughtered. This Spring the Government introduced further controls, including compulsory testing of cattle moved into the Low Risk Area of England from areas where cattle herds are tested annually (post-movement testing) and more rigorous testing of TB affected herds in the High Risk Area. The Government is now consulting on further measures, including more sensitive skin tests for herds in the High Risk Area and increased surveillance testing - to six month intervals - for all herds in the Edge Area.
The Government is continuing to promote risk-based trading to reduce the risk of spreading the disease associated with cattle movements and is working closely with farmers and others to deliver improved farm biosecurity, including a new TB Hub to provide advice to farmers on the actions they can take to protect their herds. Other initiatives due to be launched include an industry-led cattle health accreditation scheme for TB and training for vets to help them better advise their clients on TB biosecurity.
While badger vaccination cannot cure sick animals, the Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme (BEVS) supports vaccination projects in the Edge Area bordering the area where TB is most prevalent. The four-year package of support included funding of up to 50 per cent of costs, in addition to free advice from experts, free loans of equipment and free vaccine supply.
The first year of the six badger vaccination projects funded under BEVS was completed in 2015. However, the ongoing shortage of BCG vaccine and the need to prioritise available stocks for humans is impacting on the supply for badger vaccination. Following the advice of Public Health England, the Government took the decision to suspend attempts to source BCG vaccine for badger vaccination projects until the supply situation is resolved. This follows the Welsh Government’s decision to do the same.
I remain concerned about this strategy and whilst I am a reluctant supporter of culls, given that scientific advice appears to marginally support their use, I remain sceptical about their effectiveness as a means of stopping the disease. I thus continue to follow the debate with interest and will consider all evidence carefully should this come to a vote in the House of Commons again.