Bovine Tuberculosis - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 12 December 2023.

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Photo of Lord Colgrain Lord Colgrain Conservative 3:01, 12 December 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards identifying a vaccine for eradicating bovine tuberculosis.

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I declare my farming and land management interests as set out in the register. A candidate vaccine, CattleBCG, has been identified. The Animal and Plant Health Agency, APHA, has also developed a companion candidate test to detect infections among vaccinated animals. This represents a major scientific breakthrough. Field trials are ongoing and, if successful, will move us closer to being able to vaccinate cattle in England against this insidious disease. Deploying a vaccine against TB in cattle remains a top government priority, but I am pleased to say that vaccinating badgers against TB is already a reality.

Photo of Lord Colgrain Lord Colgrain Conservative

I thank my noble friend for his positive and most encouraging reply. Bovine TB devastates both emotionally and financially those farmers who find that their herds contain positive reactors. It also hangs a Damocles sword over those neighbours who fear infection contagion, as we are experiencing with the current ever-expanding TB cluster in Kent. I ask my noble friend to agree with me that, given that deer are carriers of TB and the national deer herd is at a historical high and still increasing, we must accelerate all preventive measures at pace across all possible carriers, whether by way of the vaccine he has described for cattle or the contraceptive feed that has proved so successful with American white-tailed deer.

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of other species that carry bovine TB. Deer are not a protected species so, if evidence emerges that deer are involved in the spread of TB in a particular location, measures can be taken to control the population. In Great Britain, deer are generally considered to be spillover hosts of TB—that is, they are unlikely to sustain the infection within their own population in the absence of infected cattle or a wildlife reservoir.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Labour

I declare my interest as a farmer in Cheshire. Badger controls are an emotive issue. Does the Minister agree that where a policy based on science is found to work in practice, care should be taken before abandoning it? Over the four culling years between 2016 and 2023, across three subregions in Cheshire a reduction just short of 51% of herds under restriction was achieved. This is not to be dismissed lightly, when there is in fact little evidence in England of the effectiveness of a vaccine that has operational difficulties. Does it not make sense to allow all areas of England to undertake a cull to control disease in cattle, disease in badgers and stress in rural communities before introducing vaccination?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord is absolutely right on the 56% reduction in incidence in cattle; that was one of the statistics I had prepared for the Dispatch Box. With our culling strategy, we will continue to follow the science. Culling will remain part of our toolkit for tackling this insidious disease for as long as necessary. However, we are moving to the next phase of our long- term strategy, which will also focus on wider-scale badger vaccination as the primary TB control measure in badgers.

Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench

My Lords, a cattle vaccine will be a very valuable tool in controlling bovine tuberculosis, but it is likely to be several years before it is rolled out. In the hotspots of TB in the south-west of England, there is mounting evidence that outbreaks and breakdowns in herds are being linked to the continuing presence of infected cattle in those herds that are not detected by the current statutory tests. Will His Majesty’s Government urgently support the introduction, as a mandatory requirement, of additional diagnostic tests, which exist and are well proven, to aid the detection of such carrier cattle and their removal from herds? That would expediate the eradication of this terrible disease.

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I defer to the far greater knowledge and experience of the noble Lord, Lord Trees, in this area than my own. No diagnostic test for TB or other diseases is 100% accurate. The causes of recurrent cattle TB breakdowns in areas of endemic bovine tuberculosis are complex and manifold. The skin test is useful as a primary screening test and is supplemented by approved, ancillary tests where needed, based on stringent risk assessments. Defra supports the development of new diagnostic tests for TB and encourages test providers to seek World Organisation for Animal Health validation for UK regulatory approval.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, Scotland has maintained its status as free of bovine TB, despite minor outbreaks. It also has a population of badgers and deer. In the past, one Welsh farmer lost 500 cattle to the disease. An outbreak of bovine TB can have a devastating effect on a dairy farmer. Given the density of dairy cattle in the south-west, is it not time for the Government to take a much stronger line on preventing the disease spreading by speeding up the vaccination programme so that farmers can protect their herds and livelihoods?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I take on board what the noble Baroness said and agree with much of it. As we all saw from the pandemic, diseases and viruses do not respect borders. The Welsh Government are pursuing a different strategy and seeing the incidence of bovine tuberculosis increase in Wales; that goes completely against what we are doing. For cross-border livestock trading, this is incredibly worrying—I say that as someone who comes from Oswestry, a market town.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. I really appreciated the thoughtful contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, on alternatives to a cull; that has to be the way forward. How does the Minister anticipate that the government Bill to ban live exports, particularly given the exceptions that it includes, will tie in to the need to review existing trade standards for exports of vaccinated animals?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Defra is engaging with WOAH, the European Commission and international trading partners. On completion of field trials of the vaccine and the new DIVA test, we will submit a formal application to WOAH as part of the process of gaining international recognition. Many countries worldwide battle with bovine TB and will be interested in developments in England, but I cannot make specific mention of anything that will be included in a future Bill.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, farmers will appreciate what my noble friend the Minister said: the cull will continue, as scientific evidence shows it to be working very well. Can he also comment on the reported increase of ground-nesting birds in areas where the cull has been effected? It has increased biodiversity in those areas.

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend is right to raise this: biodiversity net gain is a key Defra priority. Badger culling has been linked with positive effects in some bird species, although recent studies by the British Trust for Ornithology, looking at the effect of badger culling, have not found consistent evidence for effects of the badger cull on breeding bird populations. Badgers are known to predate bumble bee nests, which is increasingly worrying. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is currently conducting research to investigate the impact of badger culling on bumble bee density.

Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench

My Lords, is it not about time that we put badgers more on the basis of deer—permissible culling throughout the country? People see deer old and diseased, and everybody realises what the problem is. With badgers, they have no idea of the cruelty going on underground with sick badgers, old badgers, badgers without teeth and badgers with broken legs. That is where that love of badgers leads. If we culled them generally, we would know where TB really was in the badger population, instead of just taking it out in these super-big culls.

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, as I explained earlier, we are moving to the next phase, a targeted approach to badger culling.