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I have not come to this conclusion lightly. My hon. Friend might recall that when I first spoke on the issue in this House I had initially been in favour of the cull, because I thought that it was the right way to support farmers. Having looked at the facts and read the science, I completely changed my mind. I do not come to this on an emotional basis; I decided about it after reading the initial scientific reports that have been published.
I am enormously sympathetic, as is everyone in the House, to the farmers who have lost otherwise healthy cattle, because they have been compulsorily slaughtered as a consequence of bovine TB. The impact on farmers can be devastating financially and mentally. In England alone, the disease has cost the taxpayer £500 million in the past decade. I wholeheartedly support the Government’s belief that it must be tackled, for the benefit of farmers and for the animals that contract this awful disease. Today, however, we are here specifically to discuss the badger cull and whether it is the correct method of tackling the disease.
We need to remember that badgers are not the only transmitters of bovine TB. Cattle and other animals spread the disease as much, if not more, than badgers.
Yet, despite strong opposition in this House, two pilot badger culls have taken place, one in Somerset and one in Gloucestershire. The purpose of the pilots was simply to test controlled shooting as a method for culling. The Government decided that it must be tested against three criteria—effectiveness, humaneness and safety—in order to determine whether the method would be successful and whether it should be rolled out more widely and implemented as the policy to eradicate bovine TB.
It took a leak from the IEP for people to find out precisely what the Government’s measure of humaneness was. It was defined as whether a badger died within five minutes of being shot. The leaked IEP findings outlined that up to 18% of culled badgers took longer than five minutes to die, failing the test for humaneness. I am interested to know whether the published report will have those same figures in it, but we will wait and see. In addition, Natural England released a set of compliance reports that show some badgers were shot in the wrong body area, or were wounded and had to be shot a second time. Other badgers have been found outside the cull area with atrocious fatal injuries, but, to be fair, we do not know if they were shot by licensed marksmen or by those taking matters into their own hands. We have to be careful about some of the details suggested by some groups, which are nevertheless rightly concerned about the cull. On the first of the Government’s own criteria, however, the cull has failed. Those with genuine concerns about animal welfare are right to be upset by the findings in the leaked report.
I must stress that this is not only an animal welfare issue, however, and that leads me to the second of the criteria—effectiveness. Even after significant downward revision of estimated badger population numbers and the pilot culling periods being extended, the target of a minimum 70% reduction in badger numbers—needed to slow the forecasted rise of bovine TB by a mere 12% to 16%—was not achieved in either pilot area. In Somerset, the central population estimate was revised down from 2,490 to 1,450 badgers and the six-week maximum period was extended to nine weeks. In Gloucestershire, the population estimates were revised down from 3,400 to 2,350 badgers and the six-week maximum period was extended to just over 11 weeks. Initial estimates suggested that in Somerset 59% of the revised estimate of badger population were shot, a total of 940 badgers. In Gloucestershire, a lower figure of 30% was initially suggested, totalling 921 badgers. The leaked IEP report has revised the Somerset figure down further to 50%,
By removing fewer than the target number of badgers over an extended period, the pilot culls have deviated widely from the conditions of the RBCT, which determined the minimum percentage that needed to be culled to ensure it would be effective. That does not even take into consideration the effects of perturbation. The social structure of badgers means that when disturbed in this way, they are likely to flee outside the areas they would otherwise stay within, thus increasing the number of animals at risk of infection. It is likely that the pilot culls will have seriously perturbed the remaining badger populations in the two cull zones, which in turn could lead to an increase in the prevalence of bovine TB among the remaining badgers and a subsequent increase in the risk to cattle. The lower the percentage reached, the larger the effects of that. So not only have the
Government failed to achieve the second part of their criteria, but they have quite possibly worsened the problem through perturbation.
Leaving aside the additional policing costs incurred, which appear to be substantial, I believe that although there are minor concerns about the safety, there is, on the whole, no issue with that criterion being met. However, despite the Secretary of State’s premature declaration to the House last year that the pilots were a success and that all three criteria have been met, it appears that that is not the case and that only one was.
There is a viable alternative that has been proved to be effective, that is humane and costs less, with no unforeseen astronomical policing costs to be incurred: a vaccination programme combined with better biosecurity, and stricter testing and movements of cattle, as is currently being undertaken in Wales, with great results. In further support of that method, I looked back to our previous successes with tackling bovine TB. Roger Williams made the point that in the 1960s TB in cattle was brought under control using a strict and very high level of cattle testing, movement restrictions and biosecurity measures. Only when those measures were relaxed and then abandoned altogether did incidences increase again. Surely that is the appropriate way to bring cattle TB under control while we await a useable cattle vaccine.
A licensed injectable vaccine for badgers presents practical challenges in its administration, but it has been shown to be extremely effective, reducing the risk of becoming infected with bovine TB by 76%. Additionally, and importantly, it has a herding effect, which means that when more than a third of the social group has been vaccinated, the risk to unvaccinated cubs was reduced by 79%, as a 2012 study shows. Vaccinations not only have the potential to reduce the risk of vaccinated animals and their unvaccinated cubs becoming infected, but they eliminate the problem of perturbation and animal welfare concerns.
In conclusion, the pilots were an experiment to find an effective method for dealing with bovine TB. What is the point of doing an experiment if we are going to continue regardless of the results? The test has shown culling to be inhumane and ineffective, so I urge the Minister to reconsider the policy of culling and move forward with a more effective method, as has been done in Wales. However, if he intends to go ahead with the cull, he must prove he has the support of the House by bringing forward a motion in the name of the Government and giving Members the opportunity to vote for or against his policy, based not on emotion but on evidence, which he knows shows the culls to be the shower that many of us warned they would be.