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Backbench Business — Badger Cull

Part of Royal Assent – in the House of Commons at 4:27 pm on 13th March 2014.

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Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove 4:27 pm, 13th March 2014

Hazel Grove is in the northern part of Cheshire or the southern part of Greater Manchester, and Cheshire is on the frontier zone of the northern spread of bovine TB. We are officially an edge risk area. In Cheshire there were 143 outbreaks in 2013 and 829 animals were destroyed as a result. Based on DEFRA’s figures for the average costs, dealing with bovine TB in Cheshire therefore cost something over £4 million, and more than £1 million—more likely £1.5 million—of that cost fell on farmers. The House will therefore understand that I share a lot of the concerns that have been expressed by those representing agricultural areas, albeit mine is a suburban one, but of course I also get a very large number of e-mails and letters from those who are concerned about the culling of badgers.

I want to focus on the efforts I believe it is right to put into preventing the spread of the disease northwards. I have asked the Minister questions about this and I am working with Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the Cheshire NFU on how we might do that. It is feasible to have a vaccinated zone across Cheshire that acts as a barrier to the spread of infected badgers to the north and hence causes a reduction in the transmission of the disease to cattle.

At the end of last year I visited a badger vaccination project being carried out by Cheshire Wildlife Trust with the full support of the NFU, and with a 50% contribution to the cost by the Department, and I want to thank the Minister for the £250,000 fund that is in place for similar projects around the country. One of my questions to him will be whether he can do more on that front, because having a vaccinated zone in Cheshire is a pretty good guarantee of preventing the spread of the disease further north.

I also want to thank the Minister for the support that the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which is funded by the Department, is giving to the road-kill testing of badgers in Cheshire. That project is being run by the university of Liverpool, and I hope that it will provide us with more evidence on the prevalence of the disease among badgers, as well as assisting us in reducing that prevalence.

I thank the Minister and his predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr Heath, for the steps that they have taken to improve data sharing. One of the absurdities of the situation up to about 18 months ago was that data protection legislation was being used to prevent adjacent farmers from finding out about outbreaks. In Cheshire, where herds are frequently moved from one farm to another to exploit grazing opportunities, farmers were at risk of moving animals into an area adjacent to one in which infection had been detected. I am pleased to say that a little more data sharing is now in place, but I ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that data transmission is now at an appropriate level. I am meeting representatives of Cheshire NFU tomorrow morning, and I expect them to tell me how it is on the ground, so he might want to make sure that he has got his story straight.

I am very keen to ensure that we succeed in stopping the spread of bovine TB further north into Cheshire and beyond. That is why I very much encouraged the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the NFU to work together on vaccination. I want to point out that vaccination is not quite as simple as we in the House sometimes make it sound. There is a narrow calendar window during which the badgers can be vaccinated. They spend the winter months in their setts and are inaccessible. There is a narrow period of time during the day, too, when vaccination can take place. It has to be early in the day and they have to be trapped as they come out overnight.

The trapping is not simple: we do not want to catch rabbits or foxes; we want to catch badgers. The trap has to be laid in a particular way, and the bait has to be under a suitably heavy stone that neither rabbits nor foxes can move, but that badgers can, in order to shut the trap. I am impressed by the care and thought that goes into the capture of the animals, and by the professionalism that is needed to do it.

The day I visited a farm in the south of Cheshire, eight or nine traps had been laid, and they yielded four badgers. One professional gentleman had spent a whole day setting the traps, vaccinating the animals, releasing them and clearing the traps, and he got just four badgers. It is slow, complicated work, and of course that process has to be repeated each year. I am not decrying the process; I am simply saying that there is not a solution to this problem that can be achieved by waving a magic wand.

Will the Minister give the House an undertaking that those of us who live in edge risk areas—the frontier zones, as I call them—will have all the support that is needed for an intensive vaccination programme to prevent the spread of the disease northwards? Will he ensure that the data sharing relating to outbreaks is at a level that will really prevent the possibility of herds being unwittingly moved back into infected areas?

I also want to raise a point that was put to me by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. In carrying out the vaccination programme in south Cheshire, the trust discovered more or less the same thing that had been discovered in the culling areas—namely, that there did not seem to be as many badgers as people were expecting. Does the Minister think that the assessment of the density of the badger population, on which the whole culling exercise seems to have been based, is a realistic one? Is he satisfied that the calculations that spring from that assessment have been made on a sound basis? If, when we get to the capture of animals—or in the case of culling, the destruction of animals—the animals simply are not there, the whole calculation becomes different. For those of us in the edge zone—the high risk zone—the solution on offer is not culling but the creation of a cordon sanitaire. The problem is not easy to resolve anywhere, but we believe that there is a specific solution that will do exactly that, at least in our area, and I would like the support of the Minister in achieving it.