8. Statement by the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd: Controlling BVD in cattle and scab in sheep in Wales

Part of the debate – in the Senedd at 5:46 pm on 31 January 2023.

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Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative 5:46, 31 January 2023

I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak on both BVD and sheep scab, two devastating diseases that rightfully require the attention of the Welsh Government. I'm pleased to hear the number of announcements you've made this afternoon, Minister, and welcome those that will help support the agricultural community in their own efforts to fight against these disorders, so thank you.

Your statement perfectly highlights why we must treat these issues with the utmost importance, and why a holistic and targeted biosecurity approach is necessary if we are to meet your ambitions and the industry's ambitions and have any chance of reducing and eliminating transmission of both BVD and sheep scab amongst Wales's cattle and sheep. These two diseases represent an escalating threat to our farmyards, from the economic burden sheep scab has upon our agricultural economy, to the individual per-cow cost that BVD has on our farms. These are two serious issues that have critical ramfications on the agricultural industry's ability to operate, trade and become a viable farm business model.

Focusing upon BVD, this is a virus of endemic proportion, and you're right to say that every effort must be made to eradicate BVD from our cattle. Cattle free of BVD are healthier, less susceptible to other illnesses and disease, and, as you rightly mentioned, Minister, reduce the need for antibiotics. Part of the recent success is due to the Gwaredu BVD project, a collaborative approach that has been adopted by the Government working with all partners—farming unions, individual cattle farmers, auctioneers and vets, as you mentioned—to develop a strategy that is both targeted and pre-emptive in its approach. And, Minister, I can tell you, I've been in the thick of it, tagging young stock with tissue tags to be sent away for analysis.

I think there are certainly lessons that can be learned from our successes in this strategy, especially the way that the whole industry has played a direct part in its development and the level of ownership the industry has in tackling BVD. That's shown by the high percentage of herds screened in the five-year project. I noted in your statement that you reference the preparation of future legislation, ensuring that livestock farmers continue to test their herds against BVD and to remove permanently infected animals as soon as feasibly possible. I'd like to ask the Minister: will farmers be compensated for the compulsory removal of their infected animals? With the move from voluntary to compulsory testing, and the failure of compulsory testing in relation to bovine tuberculosis, what assurances can the Minister give that the compulsory BVD testing too won't be a long-drawn-out extra burden for farmers and one that will deliver tangible results in the short term and near future?

Moving focus to sheep scab, I know the Minister recognises the scale of this parasitic disease. Two thousand farms across Wales are impacted, upwards of 3 million sheep, at a cost to the UK rural economy of £78 million, £208 million per year. But it's not the economic losses alone that should concern us. Sheep scab has a significant impact on sheep welfare and comfort and, as such, is a clear problem to Welsh agriculture as a whole.

I'm pleased to note your intention to launch an all-Wales sheep scab eradication programme later this year. The strategic objectives you alluded to in your statement ought to provide a clear basis to build a coherent and collaborative eradication strategy that seeks to provide considerable support to our sheep industry. However, I do take issue, slightly, with the notion that the livestock sector ought to step up and meet the challenges presented by sheep scab. Having met with representatives of Wales's sheep industry, I think it is clear that they're doing everything that they can to minimise its transmission amongst the flock, irrespective of the burdens in their way.

One burden the Minister will be sure that I was to raise in this statement is Natural Resources Wales's planned hike in fees and regulatory charges—a move that is set to substantially damage Wales's ability to combat sheep scab. Their proposed tenfold increase in the cost of new applications for land spreading of spent and unused sheep dip is a huge detriment, and will undoubtedly curb our ability to improve animal health. So, can I urge the Minister, once again, to work with her colleague the climate change Minister to ensure that the agricultural sector's animal health efforts are not hindered by these fees?

Minister, I share your recognition of the importance of dealing with these twin issues. It is vital that we keep a close eye on the success of these interventions, so we can tweak and change them if we fail to deliver at any one point along the journey. To that end, can I ask you how you will be feeding back to us as a Senedd, the industry as well—most importantly—and what opportunities will there be to review the successes, or potentially failures—whichever they may be—as we move forward? I really look forward to your response. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd