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As a Member of Parliament for a constituency in Devon, I am well aware of just how devastating bovine tuberculosis is in cattle. It is the area of the country that has been most affected by this terrible scourge over a number of years. I do not represent many farmers, but I have had farmers come to my advice surgery telling me about the devastation of their herd. I am acutely aware of the devastation that that causes to their families and to farming communities, and we are all united in wanting to do something about it.
The IEP report, much of which is on the web for hon. Members to see, clearly states that culling is not suitable for preventing the spread of bovine TB. Instead, we should stick to the agreement, made at the beginning of the coalition, to fully consider the scientific evidence available before deciding on the best way forward.
The IEP reported that the pilot cull has not met two of the three criteria. The culls have failed to be humane, as up to 18% of the badgers killed took longer than five minutes to die, and have failed to be effective, as less than 50% of the badgers were killed in either pilot area, far less than the target of 70% for the trial. The report shows that the recent badger culls did not work and suggests that they have had a negative effect by encouraging the spread of the disease through movement of badgers as badger populations are disrupted.
As the randomised badger culling trial, managed by the independent scientific group between 1998 and 2006, witnessed, after killing more than 12,000 badgers there was an initial decrease in the level of disease by approximately 23% in the centre of culled areas, but an increase of 29% on neighbouring land. By continuing with a badger cull we are in danger of worsening levels of infection, and therefore we must carefully consider the viable alternatives to a cull.
Evidence from Wales, as highlighted by other hon. Members, shows that in 2013 a programme of badger vaccination, stricter cattle testing and movement restrictions, resulted in a 24% fall in the number of herds with bovine TB, compared with England where they fell by only 3%. Those options are realistic alternatives to a badger cull to prevent the spread of bovine TB.
Testing regimes in England need to be improved. Currently, a significant proportion of infected cattle are missed, so there is still a great threat that the disease will spread whether or not we continue to cull badgers. As DEFRA has recognised, the single intradermal comparative cervical tuberculin test can miss up to approximately 20% of infected animals that are either in the early or late stages of the disease. By using this means of testing, it is possible that infected animals can be present in a herd when movement restrictions are lifted and the officially tuberculosis-free status regained, even though herds may be infected.
Between the late 1980s and 2005, various changes to the testing regime led to a re-establishment of the disease due to major reductions in testing intensity, relaxation in movement controls, and a move to two, three and four-yearly testing, which fails effectively to identify and isolate cases of the disease. The testing regime can have an important effect on the level of bovine TB in cattle. For instance, after moving to annual testing in 2008, Wales has nearly halved the number of cattle slaughtered per annum since 2009. Without such a regime we run the risk of jeopardising any further work to reduce bovine TB. Beyond this, a better testing regime can be supplemented by improving methods of biosecurity, which includes area-to-area cattle movement controls and annual checks, as well as preventive vaccinations.
Attempts in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to reduce the levels of the disease through a process of rigorous area-by-area cattle movement controls and annual testing decreased levels of bovine TB to 0.01%. Those alternatives had a dramatic effect on the number of livestock slaughtered, which decreased from 25,000 in 1950 to 2,081 in 1970, without resorting to the slaughter of wildlife. The research of the Central Science Laboratory further concluded that suggested biosecurity exclusion methods could be up to 100% effective if used by farmers to prevent the transmission of bovine TB from badgers to cattle.
It seems peculiar that we could be paying to cull badgers, which causes an increase in the spread of bovine TB, before we have ensured that the biosecurity resources, which could only have a positive effect, are sufficient. That option is particularly appealing as DEFRA data suggest that the average cost of improving biosecurity for farmers is about £4,000. Considering the fact that the average cost of dealing with a TB herd breakdown in Great Britain is about £27,000, such measures would appear cost-effective when compared with the cost of a cull, which DEFRA estimates at £4.56 million a cull with an extra policing cost of £500,000 per area per year.
The cull is not the financially viable option and although it has been argued that vaccination options are too expensive to be efficient, that is not true. In fact, DEFRA has estimated the cost of vaccinating badgers at £2,250 per sq km a year whereas the cost of policing the first two badger culls was roughly £4,400 per sq km. Vaccination is cheaper because there is no need to dispose of carcases, it is unlikely to require as much policing and wildlife organisations have hundreds of volunteers who can be used as a resource to help with its administration.
Over the past 10 years, DEFRA has spent £10 million on research into badger vaccines and it appears a great waste of taxpayers’ money for the Government to drop that potential alternative. More than 1,200 badgers have so far been vaccinated in Gloucester and the Welsh Assembly Government continue to pursue a vaccination policy for their intensive action area in and around Pembrokeshire, the cost of which is estimated at £662 a badger. Although that cost is high, it is considerably lower than the estimates for the cost of the pilot culls on a per badger basis, so the UK Government should be considering the option seriously. The alternatives exist and are a realistic option to prevent the transmission of bovine TB.
In conclusion, as the IEP report has shown, culling is ineffective and inhumane. It appears completely wrong to jeopardise the welfare of badgers and taxpayers’ money when cheaper options are available to prevent this terrible TB infection in cattle.