Badgers — Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:44 pm on 9th October 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 3:44 pm, 9th October 2013

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they support the extension of the badger cull licences in Somerset and Gloucestershire and how long they would anticipate such extensions to last.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, the Somerset pilot cull concluded on 6 October and current indications are that the pilots have been safe, effective and humane in delivering a reduction in the badger population of just under 60%. Natural England is considering an application from Somerset for a short extension of the culling period, as provided for under the agreement with the company there. In doing so, Natural England will take into account the practicalities on the ground. It expects to make a decision later this week.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I declare my interest as a resident of the cull area, where the excellent police force is hugely overstretched as a consequence of the cull. The House will be aware that the Government have been unable to see the wood for the trees on this issue, ignoring their own scientific advice that a cull would be both costly and ineffective in tackling bovine TB, and I dispute the Minister’s statistics. As we now have new evidence that this ill thought-through policy is not working, does the Minister agree that extending the cull will only compound the Government’s error of judgment?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The purpose of the cull trials was to establish that this could be undertaken safely, humanely and effectively. The judgment on these will be made by an independent panel but our initial view is that they have been met. The contractors have worked under difficult conditions and considerable provocation and have been scrupulous in their attention to safety, which is the absolute number one priority. A figure of 60% is a significant achievement and the Chief Veterinary Officer endorses that this will lead to a reduction in the disease in cattle.

Photo of Lord May of Oxford Lord May of Oxford Crossbench

My Lords, this cull went ahead against the balance of advice from the scientific community, in particular that such a limited experiment was unlikely to yield much in the way of useful information. Does the Minister agree with me, however, that we have indeed learnt something important? We have learnt that those responsible for this so-called experiment are so incompetent that they could not even make a reliable estimate of the number of badgers.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I simply cannot agree. I repeat what I said in answer to a similar question earlier this year. The report following the visit to the United Kingdom by the European Commission’s bovine tuberculosis subgroup in March 2012 stated:

“It is however of utmost importance that there is a political consensus and commitment to long-term strategies to combat TB in badgers as well as in cattle ... There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle”.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

My Lords, is it not very early days to be saying that this experiment is not working? The trial has only just begun. Surely we have to wait until some time after the cull has ended to see whether the incidence of TB in cattle has dropped. At that stage, will the Government also look at other forms of wildlife and see whether there is a recovery in the numbers of hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds which have been ravaged by badgers in the past?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My noble friend makes an important point. As I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, these judgments will be made by an independent panel. However, as I also said, our initial view is that so far the humaneness, safety and effectiveness tests have been met. I am grateful to my noble friend for his suggestions.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

Will the Minister give an assurance that hedgehogs do not encourage tuberculosis in cattle?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is an extremely interesting and important question, so much so that I will have to write to the noble Lord. I thank him for raising it.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Minister said that the culls can be regarded as a success because they have met the criteria of being “safe, humane and effective”, but they have not been effective. The pilot culls have now failed one of those three in that they were set up within six weeks to meet the legal licensing target. What evidence do the Government have that any extension of the cull could increase TB infection, which would add weight to the calls to abandon these pilot culls?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, my Lords, I am aware of no such evidence. Indeed, as I said just now, the Chief Veterinary Officer endorses that what has happened so far will lead to a reduction in the disease in cattle, and that any more we can do will further contribute to a reduction.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, I accept that badger-borne bovine TB is the despair of the agricultural industry, but has the ministry ever made any calculation of how much bovine TB is non badger-borne? If it has not, how can it possibly indulge in detailed experiments, including culling, unless this information is to hand?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful for that question because it gives me the opportunity to say that work by Professor Crystl Donnelly has shown that as much as 50% of the incidence of TB in high-risk areas can be attributed to badgers.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, does not the Minister have to reflect on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord May? We were told by the experts that there were 2,700 badgers in the area concerned, and we are now told that the experts think there were actually fewer than 1,400. If the experts who supported the policy got the numbers so wrong in the first place, does that not undermine public confidence in the policy as a whole?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not think that it should. Our policy is evidence-based and we have taken every opportunity to acquire the latest and most up-to-date information from the pilot areas to refine the estimate of the badger population. All wildlife population estimates have uncertainty around them. Appropriate steps were taken to audit the process, including data checks and independent audits of these figures.

Photo of Lord Rotherwick Lord Rotherwick Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise the vulnerability of deer in deer parks? Does he agree that they have to be looked at separately from the way that you look at cattle that succumb to TB? You cannot lock up deer from a deer park in a shed and humanely shoot them; they have to be slaughtered by high-powered rifles. What is my noble friend doing about the situation regarding the vulnerability to TB of deer in deer parks?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My noble friend asks a specific question and I will, if I may, take it away to consider the point about deer in parks. As regards the suggestion that deer may be a reservoir of TB in wildlife as well, we have established that badgers are a particularly good—if I may use that word—host for TB. They are the part of wildlife on which we really have to focus.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there is general scientific agreement that the badgers that are left after a cull have a greater propensity to carry over and pass on TB to cattle and that it is a fine balance between the numbers killed and those that survive? Is he aware that there is deep concern that the figures we are provided with are not robust and that the result may be an increase in TB, not a decrease?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, with the greatest of respect, I do not think that the noble Lord’s proposition is correct. The randomised badger-culling trials showed something quite different, which was that above a certain percentage of badgers culled—indeed, the first-year trials in the randomised badger culls were in the 30s of per cent—there was nevertheless a significant effect on the incidence of TB in cattle.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, can we add the humble bumble bee to the list of animals and creatures that are being threatened by the badgers? Bumble bees nest underground, are a great source of delight for the badger to eat and are under threat.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very interested in what the noble Earl has said because he will know that we will be launching a national pollinator strategy later this year. Perhaps we can discuss what he suggests in the context of that.