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

– in the Senedd at 5:37 pm on 31 January 2023.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 5:37, 31 January 2023

(Translated)

The next item will be a statement by the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd, on controlling BVD in cattle and scab in sheep. The Minister to make the statement. Lesley Griffiths

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. The negative impact of bovine viral diarrhoea and sheep scab on animal welfare and the sustainability of our cattle and sheep farms is of great concern. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of our livestock sector stepping up and working together to eradicate these two diseases from Wales. The control, local and, ultimately, national eradication of BVD and sheep scab are priorities of our animal health and welfare framework and are included in its 2022-24 implementation plan.

The Wales animal health and welfare framework, all of which are impacted upon by these two diseases: Wales has healthy productive animals; animals in Wales have a good quality of life; people trust and have confidence in the way food is produced; Wales has a thriving rural economy; Wales has a high-quality environment. Eradicating these two diseases moves us closer to achieving these goals and will hugely benefit the welfare of cattle and sheep in Wales.

Neither BVD nor sheep scab affect people, but we are taking a one-health approach to their control and eradication. This means addressing holistically animal, environmental and human health in all we do. So, our work will benefit the health and welfare of sheep and cattle, and it will also lead to improved environmental health and have a positive impact on the well-being of our sheep and cattle keepers. The one-health approach is more important now than ever as Wales moves closer to the launch of the sustainable farming scheme.

I will start with BVD. We must make every effort to eradicate BVD from our cattle. Many European countries are eradicating the disease, and I want Wales to maintain its status as a high-health producer and we cannot be left behind. This disease causes affected animals to suffer greatly because it is immunosuppressive, increasing susceptibility to diseases. When BVD is eradicated, all aspects of cattle health are improved, including their welfare and the need to use antibiotics. Features of the disease mean while it can and should be controlled at farm level, national co-ordination is required for widespread eradication. This emphasises the need for partnership working, and while responsibility lies with cattle keepers, the Welsh Government is supporting industry to achieve eradication.

I want to highlight the outstanding work of the Gwaredu BVD project. This industry-led voluntary scheme was launched at the 2017 Royal Welsh Show, with £9 million of funding secured from the Welsh Government rural development programme. By testing young stock, the programme has identified the herds infected with BVD and supported those farmers to find and remove infected animals. I'm delighted to say that the five-year programme successfully screened over 9,163 herds, representing over 83 per cent of the cattle herds in Wales. The programme has also identified over 1,000 permanently infected animals over its course.

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 5:40, 31 January 2023

One of the key principles of the Wales animal health and welfare framework is partnership working. The Gwaredu BVD programme is an excellent example of what can be achieved through such successful collaboration. I would like to recognise the importance of the veterinary delivery partners and surgeons who helped deliver this scheme on the ground. 

Following the success of the industry-led Gwaredu BVD scheme, its stakeholder steering group recommended the introduction of a compulsory programme, underpinned by legislation. The main challenge of the voluntary scheme has been the removal of infected animals from cattle herds to prevent the spread of BVD. This is an essential step towards BVD eradication, and I've always been clear: legislation would be considered following a successful voluntary phase and subject to appropriate evidence being provided to both shape and justify legislative control.

We have gathered the industry’s views on the proposal of a compulsory eradication scheme in Wales. Working in partnership alongside Gwaredu BVD and the BVD steering group, we launched our consultation last June, seeking views from the cattle-keeping community and wider stakeholders. We received over 100 responses from various representatives of the Welsh cattle industry, including keepers, vets, farming unions and auctioneers. I am pleased to note the industry’s overwhelming support on this important issue, and the consultation confirmed a desire for more stringent measures, with the majority supporting the introduction of legislation and compulsory requirements to effectively eradicate BVD in Wales. We listened to feedback, and as we enter the transition phase and prepare for future legislation, it is vital that keepers continue testing their herds against BVD and remove persistently infected animals as soon as feasibly possible.

The intention for a future scheme remains to provide a set of requirements to allow keepers to remove BVD from their herds and to keep it out through good biosecurity. Compulsory requirements would ensure the principles of effective BVD eradication are observed and the national herd can benefit from the long-term results of achieving BVD freedom. We will continue to build on the progress and successes of the voluntary phase of the scheme, and as we progress into its next phase, I would like to thank the cattle industry, delivery partners and keepers across Wales for their vigilance and efforts to date towards eradicating BVD.

Turning to sheep scab: as one of the most contagious diseases of sheep, scab is a significant threat to our sheep industry. This is due to the large number and size of flocks, to patterns of sheep movements and to extensive use of common grazing in Wales. Every keeper of sheep must recognise their responsibility to ensure their animals are kept free of scab. I have committed £4.5 million of rural investment scheme funding to be used to help support the industry tackle the disease. Eradicating this serious disease will protect the welfare of sheep in Wales, safeguard the reputation of 'brand Wales' and deliver significant economic benefits for the sector, at a particularly challenging time as we transition from our departure from the European Union.

In 2021 and 2022, I commissioned two sheep scab proof-of-concept projects to identify knowledge gaps. They successfully trialled three things: firstly, a new and innovative ELISA blood diagnostic test to identify scab in neighbouring at-risk flocks; secondly, treating affected flocks by professional mobile dipping to eliminate disease whilst ensuring there was no risk of the environmental harm from dip pollution; and thirdly, the projects facilitated local disease control groups to take ownership of outbreaks when they occurred and empowered sheep keepers to work collectively to stamp out the disease in their area. Additionally, we are funding free year-round skin-scrape testing for sheep scab, through the Animal and Plant Health Agency's Carmarthen Veterinary Investigation Centre for Welsh flocks.

Following these pilots, in July 2022 a tender went to the industry to submit a bid to deliver the £4.5 million all-Wales sheep scab eradication programme. The project provides considerable support from the Welsh Government to the sheep industry and our sheep vets to tackle and eliminate the scourge of sheep scab. We hope and expect the sheep industry will use this opportunity to put in place the necessary measures to stop scab spreading between flocks.

The strategic objectives of the programme are based on the principles of infectious disease control: keep it out—by significantly improving biosecurity within the sheep sector; detect it early—by using the novel ELISA test, which detects sheep scab two weeks before clinical signs are showing; stop it spreading—by encouraging informed purchasing of sheep and by taking the necessary biosecurity precautions whenever sheep are moved; and stamp it out—by treating infested sheep effectively and in an environmentally sustainable way. 

The programme is due to launch in spring 2023. The Welsh Government is doing its part, and now we must work in partnership with our sheep farmers, contractors, auctioneers, hauliers and all of our sheep sector to keep our 9.5 million ewes and lambs safe from the scourge of sheep scab. Diolch.

(Translated)

The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

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

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 5:51, 31 January 2023

Thank you very much for welcoming the statement this afternoon and the announcements around the eradication of both BVD and sheep scab.

I think, in relation to BVD, it was good to give the voluntary scheme some significant time. I think there's been a real push to go for legislation, and I absolutely understand that, because I think what the sector didn't want was to lose the gains that had been made. Clearly, there was a significant issue with just a few farms—a small percentage of farms—not taking up the voluntary part of the scheme. Sometimes, you don't want to use legislation to crack a nut—it's too heavy handed. We wanted the scheme to have the five years to look at the data, and I was absolutely clear that we would only bring forward legislation if the evidence was there to show that legislation was needed. I do think we've made such gains in relation to BVD eradication, and it would indeed be a shame to lose that, particularly, as I mentioned in the statement, because of the challenging times we are facing, particularly coming out of the European Union. You don't want other countries to go ahead of us in relation to eradication. 

In relation to sheep scab, I suppose what I mean by 'step up' is I think it's really important that the industry itself takes a grip of it, the ownership of it. I'm very happy to work in partnership. I had hoped to bring forward this scheme a while ago. I think it was back in 2019 I announced the funding, and that funding had to be repurposed then during the COVID pandemic for a couple of years. But I'd promised to bring the funding forward to have that all-Wales sheep scab eradication programme, although it's been a little longer than I'd hoped. We haven't really seen a lot of progress. So that, I suppose, is what I mean about it. I'm very happy to work in partnership. I think, if we're going to do anything, we need to work in partnership. 

I hear what you're saying about the ongoing Natural Resources Wales consultation regarding their regulatory fees and charges. You will have heard me say before that what that review is intended to ensure is that NRW does achieve full cost recovery, because those fees haven't been reviewed for a number of years. But NRW do expect the increased costs of licences to impact on a very small number of farms. At the moment, they issue, on average, about 37 permits a year, so you can see it's not a substantial issue for a lot of people. 

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 5:53, 31 January 2023

(Translated)

Thank you to the Minister for her statement. It's a long-awaited statement, and whilst there is much to be welcomed, I'm sorry to say that I'm also disappointed.

If I could start with BVD. BVD, as we've heard, is one of the greatest challenges facing the cattle sector in Wales, and indeed, across the UK. There are far too many of our cattle suffering this terrible disease, and it leads to concern about animal welfare, the welfare of rural businesses, and the well-being of our farmers and their families. But the truth is that the veterinary sector tell me that it's also something relatively easy to tackle. 

Ten million pounds has already been spent to tackle this disease. As the Minister mentioned, a large percentage—over 80 per cent—of herds have been treated. But I think it was Professor George Gunn, who is an expert in veterinary epidemiology, who said that the key to the success of any policy in tackling BVD is momentum. Unfortunately, from what I can see today, that momentum, which had been generated here in Wales, will come to an end. The £10 million of European funding will go to waste unless there is continuity here. The only real way of ensuring the continued success of this programme is through legislating, as we've heard. We need legislation in order to ensure that farmers continue to test. That's what I, vets and farmers were hoping to hear today. And although I welcome the ambition here, there is a very real risk that we will lose momentum unless we see a Bill introduced to this place

You mentioned building on the successes of the voluntary phase of the BVD project and moving on to the next phase. But the statement comes to an end abruptly there. I know that vets and farmers listening will be very frustrated indeed today, because where is the detail about the next phase? We don't know. I wonder if the Minister could tell us what the details of the next phase are, and how we're going to build on this work. How does the Minister expect farmers to continue to test on a voluntary basis? Testing costs money, of course. Where will that money come from for these tests? For how long will the next phase be in place? But more importantly, when can we expect a Bill in order to require this? Can we at least have a clear timetable for such legislation, please?

Finally, in turning to sheep scab, this is a positive development and I welcome it. But again, there is a fundamental weakness, which is the lack of statutory support for plans to tackle sheep scab. In response to a question from me some months ago on the pledge to give £5 million to a scheme to tackle sheep scab, the Minister said in her response that she had given a substantial amount of money, but that COVID had interrupted the programme. I understand that that wasn't entirely right at the time, and perhaps the Minister misspoke. So, could the Minister today confirm if the £4.5 million announced today is the same money as was previously announced, and, therefore, that it's not new funding, it's a restatement of something that's previously been stated, or is this entirely new funding?

Finally, the recent announcement by NRW that they are to increase the fees to get rid of sheep dip to 10 times the current fee has horrified farmers, and indeed, is likely to lead to reduced dipping, which will harm farms, rural businesses and animal welfare. This would be contrary to any ambition by the Government to tackle sheep scab. In the consultation, there was talk that NRW was willing to allow some of the fees to be reduced to control disease. So, will the Minister persuade NRW to ensure that this is done across the board for all farms dealing with sheep, in order to enable farmers to continue to dip safely, and to secure the welfare of their herds? 

Photo of Lesley Griffiths Lesley Griffiths Labour 5:58, 31 January 2023

Thank you. I'm disappointed to hear your disappointment, Mabon, because, as I said, we've made some significant progress—over 80 per cent of herds have been tested while we've had the voluntary scheme. And while there has been a call for legislation, you heard me say in my earlier answer to Sam Kurtz that it was really important that we had that evidence that was needed to go ahead with the legislation, and we are indeed having that legislation. You ask about a timescale, and it will be within the next financial year that we will bring the legislation forward. So, I do hope you will welcome that.

I would urge all cattle keepers to keep testing a small sample of their cattle. The cost is estimated between £50 and £150 per year, so it's not a significant amount of funding that's required. Obviously, the cost-benefit ratio of eliminating BVD is hugely positive, and, I think, a very worthwhile investment in any farming business. 

In relation to the sheep scab eradication programme funding, it is the same funding, as I said in my earlier answer to Sam Kurtz. I did make the announcement back in 2019 and I had hoped to bring the scheme forward much quicker than we have, but we did repurpose the funding during COVID, so that money was used then. So, it's the same money, if you know what I mean, within that announcement back in 2019. 

Again, you will have heard me answer the concerns around Natural Resources Wales. They do expect that increase to only affect a small number of farms. I wouldn't want that to be used as an excuse not to treat sheep scab, and make sure that everyone does take part in this all-Wales sheep scab eradication programme. The Government can't do on its own, and I can see that the industry can't do on its own, but it's really important we work in partnership.