T3. Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether his officials have looked into or are looking into how badgers become infected with TB in the first instance, given that, despite representing an urban constituency, hundreds of constituents have contacted her about the badger cull proposals. (AQT 1553/17-22)
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there. I have received a letter that, I think, has done the rounds with MLAs. There is a lot of inaccurate information in it. Our Department spent five years on a test and vaccinate or remove (TVR) exercise. It tested and vaccinated badgers and removed those that had TB. A considerable veterinary scientific experience was developed through that exercise and, indeed, through other engagements that other parties have had in dealing with the issue. If we proceed with it, we will probably be looking at the removal of hundreds of badgers per annum. At the moment, around 14,000 bovine animals are slaughtered early in life as a consequence of TB. People seem to care about only one aspect.
I point out to the Member that the badger is a predator and does not have any natural predators. As a result of badger predation, we have fewer hedgehogs, frogs and other species than we should have. Sometimes, a little control can help other species. The same applies to songbirds, for example: if we did not have crows and magpies being taken out, we would have fewer songbirds. We need to ensure that the actions that we take are for the benefit of not just agriculture but the wider environment.
Slurry has to be got rid of somewhere, and that is why I find putting it through an anaerobic digestion process, which heats the slurry and reduces infection, a much preferable route. As well as an environmental benefit, there is a benefit through the reduction of any potential disease spread. Some make the argument that TB can be spread by slurry; I do not think that we have convincing evidence of that at this stage.
I have no interest or heart in taking the life of any animal, but, in order to get on top of the problem and to ensure that we have a healthy population of badgers and bovines, we will have to engage in some form of elimination, in the first instance, and vaccination thereafter. We have to get on top of the disease problem and then offer vaccination, in much the same way as we had to do with COVID to stop its spread. We will have to do the same with this difficult disease, which has not been dealt with for 40 years. I understand why people find it offensive when we talk about culling badgers. It is not a Province-wide cull of badgers; it is only in areas where there are extreme problems with bovine TB. In areas where there are no problems with bovine TB, badgers will not be touched and will remain protected, as they are now. It is a difficult one, and I accept that it is difficult for the community. Nonetheless, £40 million is being spent on it, badgers are going through hardship as a result of catching bovine TB, and it is the best thing to do to ensure that we have a healthy wildlife population.