I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 333693, relating to badger culling.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Given the recent events in Ukraine, it feels odd to be standing here talking about badgers. That is not to say that they or any other issue discussed in Westminster Hall debates are unimportant, but when a war breaks out on the other side of Europe, that puts everything we do here into perspective.
At the same time, the war has shown that these debates are more important than ever. What are Ukrainians fighting for if not the right to continue having a democratic Government who listen to them? Petitions are one of the most direct ways that citizens in the UK can interact with Parliament. They draw our attention to issues that the public feel strongly about and require a response from the Government. In this case, that issue is badger culling.
It would be an understatement to say that the policy of badger culling has caused considerable controversy in the near decade since it was announced. Anti-cull campaigners such as Wild Justice, who started the petition, believe that badger culling is cruel and, most importantly, ineffective. For example, last week a peer review study by three anti-cull scientists found that rates of bovine tuberculosis did not differ inside and outside cull zones, and that rates in high-risk areas began to fall before culling began.
On the other hand, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and farmers say that culling is an important part of England’s overall strategy to achieve official bovine tuberculosis-free status by 2038, and that it has helped reduce bovine TB rates by half in some areas. Despite the reduction of bovine TB rates, some 30,000 cattle are still slaughtered each year. As the Government’s response to the petition noted, that represents a significant loss to farmers. If not controlled, bovine TB could also pose a danger to the UK’s agricultural sector.
Managing bovine TB has been a challenging issue for farmers and DEFRA for many decades, with no easy solutions. In the early 1970s, badgers were first identified as a potential wildlife reservoir of infection for cattle, but we still do not fully understand what role badgers play in transmission to cattle. Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the Government implemented a series of strategies to reduce bovine TB. Following the 2011 pilot in two areas of south-west England, badger culls were extended to other high-risk areas in the region in 2013. Last May, the Government announced the next stage of their plan to reduce bovine TB in England, which will see badger culling phased out.
As I mentioned earlier, culling is only one part of the Government’s strategy for achieving official bovine tuberculosis-free status for England by 2038. The strategy also includes measures to strengthen biosecurity on farms and increase bovine TB testing for cattle. Vaccination of both badgers and cattle might also have a role to play, although I understand that it is not ready for widespread use yet. Nevertheless, after the past two years we are all more familiar with vaccines and know what a difference they can make in reducing infection.
Since last May, over 1,400 badgers have been vaccinated. Of course, badgers are responsible for only a portion of the infections in cattle, but reducing infections in badgers is expected to cause a subsequent fall in cattle TB incidences. The early results of field trials for badger bovine TB vaccinations are encouraging, with one study showing that vaccinated badgers are between 54% and 76% less likely to test positive for bovine TB. It also found that vaccinating a third of a group of badgers reduced the risk of infection to unvaccinated cubs by nearly 80%. Two other studies reviewed by DEFRA indicate that badger vaccination after culling could help maintain a lower level of bovine TB as effectively as continuous culling in the long term.
So far, bovine TB vaccines for cattle have been used only in research studies. I am aware that the Animal and Plant Health Agency began field trials of a cattle vaccine and skin test last summer, with a view to its eventually receiving market authorisation in the UK. Will the Minister ensure there are no delays once the results of the study are published, so that vaccines and accurate tests can be used on any farm where there is a risk of bovine TB?
I have spoken to the petitioner, Mark Avery, and his main request is whether, should the Government continue with culling, it can be carried out more humanely. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill has just gone through Parliament. Surely that attitude to improving animal welfare should be reflected in our approach to TB reduction. Trapping and then killing is far better than wounding a badger and then letting it die a slow, painful death.
I recognise the steps that the Government have taken so far on controlling bovine TB without badger culls. Last year, DEFRA announced that no new licences for intensive badger culls would be provided after this year. That is not exactly what the petition is asking for, but it is certainly progress. DEFRA has also said that the length of existing licences could be reduced from five years to two years, without the option to renew them.
Most importantly, the Government are developing a monitoring system to track the badger population and disease levels, which will enable future policy decisions to be made based on better information than was available in the past. Nobody wants to cull badgers unnecessarily, but we must also think of the cattle and the livelihoods of our farmers. We all want the same outcome—the eradication of bovine TB—and hopefully by 2038, if not sooner, we will achieve that.
It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to speak in a debate on this important topic, secured by petition. I also declare an interest, because I have sponsored a badger. I named it Dennis, after the former hon. Member for Bolsover, who was an excellent help to me when I first arrived in this place. He gave me some tips about its peculiarities and how to try to get on top of it and do my best by my constituents. He was respected across the House.
It is a shame that we are not allowed to bring props into Westminster Hall, because alongside my sponsorship of Dennis I have received my very own personal fluffy Dennis, who now watches over my constituency office while I am here down in London. I will post a picture of Dennis at some stage today. He is a kind beast of Cheshire and a law unto himself at times, and he is passionate about scurrying around Cheshire. People will see a picture of him in his natural habitat.
I sponsored Dennis after visiting the Cheshire badger vaccination programme—or CBVP for short—a volunteer group that, after receiving professional vaccination training, works with landowners and farmers to map locations of badgers and trap them over a 10-day process. It is labour-intensive and includes some very early mornings—my office manager had the pleasure of going on one—but it means healthy badgers, healthy cattle, which is vital, and humans happy in the knowledge that they are avoiding badger culling in favour of a more humane approach.
Badgers, unfortunately, do not respond well to national public health campaigns to get them vaccinated. We do not see them marching down to their local vaccination centre; the CBVP informs me that peanuts placed in traps works much better. The CBVP does excellent work, working together with farmers and landowners to protect livestock and create a long-lasting, stable population of TB-resistant badgers in the Cheshire area. Bovine TB is an incredibly difficult disease to counter, as Nick Fletcher mentioned, and we lose tens of thousands of cattle to it every year.
I represent a semi-rural constituency in Weaver Vale, with many farmers as well as many wildlife lovers, and I am keen that we should work hard to find a solution that protects cattle, livelihoods and local ecosystems, as well as protecting wildlife welfare. We also need to be mindful that the evidence points towards direct transmission from badgers to cattle making up only a minority of transmissions—I think the hon. Member said about a quarter. Ensuring that cattle are vaccinated, as well as healthy, will ensure that we rid the countryside of TB. Not only does culling not respect animal welfare, but it disturbs the overall composition of badger communities, meaning that badgers are likely to move more frequently and over longer distances, which risks higher disease transmission between badgers and cattle.
We need to take into account the cost of culling, which was £6 million in 2020 alone. The Derbyshire badger vaccination programme estimated that killing a badger costs £1,000, compared with £82 for vaccinating each badger that they trap. It is clear from the amount of support that the Cheshire volunteers receive, as well as the number of constituents who have contacted me and other hon. Members who are in the Chamber, that there is support for the badger vaccination programme, and more than half the public oppose culling. There are even deeper concerns, particularly about the shooting of badgers. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us specifically how the Department plans not only to phase out culling quickly, but to stop the use of culling licences altogether.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and to follow Mike Amesbury. I was delighted to listen to his speech. I also pay tribute to and thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for bringing the petition to Westminster Hall for debate.
The debate is about banning the shooting of badgers immediately. That is an important point to note because, although the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 already prohibits the shooting of badgers, section 10 of the Act outlines where licences can be issued by Natural England in specific circumstances. We are in Westminster Hall to debate and share views on one of those specific circumstances, and that is the culling of badgers mainly for the purpose of eradicating bovine tuberculosis.
My constituency is West Dorset. It is a south-west constituency, and I am very much aware of those constituents who signed the petition and shared their views on it. It is also important to note that the south-west is one of the areas with the highest rates of bovine tuberculosis, not just in the county of Dorset but in the wider south-west and up towards the west midlands. My contribution is not to support the petition, but to emphasise the work the Government are already doing, given these circumstances, and provide a voice in the debate for the farming community.
In 2020, 38,000 badgers were culled. Also in 2020, the Wildlife Trusts estimated that 50,000 badgers were killed on or near roads. The agriculture and farming communities are significant, and their role in animal welfare is often underestimated. That is why I wanted to share these thoughts this afternoon. I am sure that regardless of where we stand on the issue, we have two shared objectives. The first is to eradicate tuberculosis completely both in badgers and in cows. The second is to stop the intensive culling as a result.
My understanding is that it is the Government’s intention to eradicate TB by 2038. I was pleased to hear from the Minister’s colleagues that the stopping of intensive licences will take effect this year. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will not mind if I take a little bit of her thunder, but it is important to note that the Government are making good progress.
I want to emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale about vaccination, and I think few people would disagree with him. The difficulty of vaccination is that it does not deal with or cure the cases that we already have. I am afraid that, often, members of the public do not see that in the same way. The AHPA says that 64% of new TB cases in cattle are transmitted from badgers, but that is in high-risk areas. That statistic is a little different from that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, as it is specific to high-risk areas such as the south-west. That statistic leads to 28,000 cattle being slaughtered every year. I am not saying that badgers are completely responsible for bovine TB in cattle in this country, but they have a significant role to play. The cows culled may be cows that are in calf, which we see all too often.
It is important to note that the whole experience is extremely distressing for the farming community—not just at the point where slaughter is required but through the whole testing process. Mr Hollobone, I hope you will forgive me as I should have declared at the beginning of my speech that I am a farmer’s son. Although I am no longer active on our family farm, I have a clear understanding of the area. I have personal experience of how deeply distressing and worrying that whole period often is for our farmers in this country.
To those who genuinely believe in an immediate stop to badger culling, I would say that, in the long-term, it will be worse not just for cattle but for badgers. The priority is to reduce the number of TB cases in badgers and cattle. We know that vaccinations do not work for badgers that already have tuberculosis, but they work for those who have not had it yet. If we stop culling immediately, the threat could, in due course, be existential.
World Tuberculosis Day is this week, which puts into stark contrast the number of TB cases and deaths across the world. It is important that we understand and recognise that TB is the most deadly infectious disease. Although I have not come to the debate furnished with the statistics about transmission between badgers and humans, it is important to note—particularly this week—that that is an important matter.
I declare an interest, as the owner of a farm—not worked by us but by our neighbours—of beef and dairy cattle. As a representative of a rural constituency with a large number of farms, I am very well acquainted with this topic through my farm, my neighbours’ farms and farms all around the Ards peninsula. We have the second largest milk production in Northern Ireland—second only to East Antrim. Across the Ards peninsula, mid-Down and my constituency, we have a large number of farmers who depend on having a bovine TB-free herd to be able to progress their business. That is why I adopt the same attitude as the hon. Member for West Dorset. I respect and understand the reasons for the petition, but it would be remiss of me not to put on the record that I support the control of badgers.
I represent a constituency where the control of badgers is very important for the farming sector—it is crucial. My farmers tell me regularly that they have had tests done. Hopefully, in most cases, the reactor test is not inconclusive, and they do another test and get the free rein that they hoped they would have. On occasions, however, it has not worked that way. Therefore, it is very important that the dairy and beef sectors are protected. Given that 276 cows are slaughtered every week in Northern Ireland after reacting to a bTB test, this is a matter of great interest. I know it is not the Minister’s responsibility—this is a devolved matter for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—but we in Northern Ireland would like DEFRA to work in tandem and partnership with DAERA back home.
Although it is true that farmers receive a financial payment for the market value of their reactor cattle, there is no compensation paid for the loss of any production. We should not think that the financial end of things compensates totally for what is lost, because it does not. Some farmers who come to me to regularly have some of the most incredible pedigree herds in Northern Ireland, so if they lose stock, they do not just lose that animal; they lose production and the pedigree of that animal, perhaps for a generation. I also have many farmers who take their cattle across to the mainland to sell—I know that the Northern Ireland protocol has made that a wee bit more difficult but, by and large, farmers have been able to manage the system over the last period of time—so I am conscious that bovine TB strikes fear into them.
Many hon. Members represent constituencies with farmers, and farmers love their animals with a passion and want them to do well. Ultimately, their cattle will either produce milk or end up in the food chain in one way or another, but my point is that farmers look to protect their animals, and they need to protect them from bovine TB.
Lakeland Dairies in my constituency is probably one of the largest producers of milk powder, which it exports all over the world. In my constituency, and across the neighbouring constituencies of Lagan Valley, South Down and North Down, we need to have a good product that is safe, so that we can export it. Some 80% of our agrifood products are exported across the world. My farmers are heavily involved in dairy and beef cattle and want to protect their herds from bovine TB, and it is important that we do everything we can. Although I respect the petition and understand the reasons behind it, I respectfully say that we also need to have control. It is a bit like how we control the foxes so that they do not kill all the birds. We also control magpies, greyback crows and so on. We do those things to keep the balance in the countryside and, hopefully, to help our stock to progress and do well.
Much of Northern Ireland has been running a vaccination and selective elimination programme. The disappointing 2021 data saw an increase in the number of bovine tuberculosis reactors removed from farms in Northern Ireland. In total, 14,355 reactors were compulsorily slaughtered because of a reaction to a test. We should be under no illusion how much of an impact that can have on our farmers and the job they do.
Our agrifood exports from Northern Ireland are so important. We export 80% of what we produce—we cannot use it all in Northern Ireland—so it is important to have a top-class, bovine TB-free herd. Worryingly, however, the figures have increased by 11% since 2021, and almost 9% of herds in Northern Ireland had the disease by the close of 2021.
As I said earlier, I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, and I want to quote it:
“The movement trends of these figures continue to demonstrate that despite the current programme to control/eradicate bTB that the current measures are at best treading water or dare we say”— this is the UIster Farmers Union talking, not Jim Shannon—“sinking slowly.” It continues:
“For the first time in generations, there has been a story of hope given to our members over the last number of months.”
It is always good to recognise something to hold on to—some hope—and to see farmers, and the Ulster Farmers Union, which represents them, encouraged. The Ulster Farmers Union goes on:
“The revised bTB strategy brought about the suggestion of change of approach. This detailed document, although containing some points which are not acceptable to our members, showed intent to tackle the burden of bTB on our farms. Meaningful wildlife intervention has been proposed as a precursor to entering a vaccination phase in later years, within the preferred method.
UFU’s goal is ultimately to deliver to farmers a healthy cattle population alongside a healthy wildlife population.”
There is a balance to be struck, and the farmers are committed to that as well.
The Ulster Farmers Union continues:
“Having witnessed the success of wildlife intervention in England firsthand, UFU continue to support this proposal”,
and it urges our DAERA Minister back home, Edwin Poots, who is the equivalent of the Minister here today,
“to deliver an announcement on the intended way forward with the upmost urgency.
For generations, our members have presented their animals for testing within the required timescales to comply with regulations. Reactors have been and continue to be taken from farms in all corners of NI. Despite this, distress and heartache still continue to burden farming families because of bTB. The time for change is now.”
I reflect that opinion of my farmers back home and across the whole of Northern Ireland. The Minister always responds—I mean this honestly—to an issue. It is my hope that we in Northern Ireland can work alongside her here at Westminster, because, when it comes to addressing this issue, I believe that it is something that we can do together better.
I am very pleased to represent my farmers and my neighbours—farmers across the Ards peninsula, Ards, mid-Down, Strangford and indeed the whole of Northern Ireland. Although I will never advocate cruel and barbaric mechanisms for TB control, I do advocate very strongly that the farming industry must have a part in finding the solution to the problem, and any discussion on this topic must take in the needs of those who provide our food in an environmentally sustainable and cruelty-free method.
We have an issue with TB; that cannot be denied. It can be detrimental to our farming sector, and that, too, cannot be denied. Although badgers are important and must be handled compassionately—I think that is the thrust of what we are all saying today—so, too, must the cattle, and we must get this right. One of the major agrifood sectors in Northern Ireland must be able to continue to deliver jobs and an economic boost for Northern Ireland. As I said, 80% of our produce is sent overseas. That indicates the importance of this petition. It also indicates the importance of our farmers and our farming sector being protected. For me, that is the most important thing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on securing this debate on behalf of the petitioners. I took one of his sentences to heart, which was that we should at all times avoid a “slow, painful death”. I quite agree with him on that.
I would also pick up the point my hon. Friend Chris Loder made about tuberculosis. This whole debate started with tuberculosis in human beings, and it is helpful for people to be aware that there are 10 million cases of human TB annually around the world and that 1.5 million people died of TB in 2020. This disease is a killer.
I then listened to Mike Amesbury, who talked about his pet, Dennis and said that it was lucky he could not bring his pet here. At that point, I felt that I should share with this august body the death of my pet on Thursday. His name was Free Fallin’, after the Tom Petty song. He weighed about 1.25 tonnes. He was the best bull in the UK for estimated breeding values—or certainly one of the best. I am not going to cry or anything, but it is upsetting. I lent my bull to a friend who is serving abroad with the Army. His neighbours got TB and it soon spread to my friend’s herd. He could not have artificially inseminated his cattle, because he was not here. Unfortunately, the TB spread to my bull. The Government rightly insist that any animal coming back to a farm from another should be tested, so I insisted that before my bull left he be tested. He failed. I think he is still alive, but he will not be for much longer. It is really upsetting. That was the first time it happened to me.
When we talk about our pets, it is helpful to recognise that as owners we have a responsibility to our animals. If they get a fatal disease—which tuberculosis certainly is—we have to do the right thing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, no animal should have a “slow, painful death”, be it a cow, badger, deer or sheep. We must do the right thing by our pets, whatever they are. The right thing is to put them out of their misery before they suffer. I am sure the hon. Member for Weaver Vale would do the same if his badger were ill with an incurable, fatal disease.
In this debate, the emotions escape from the realities. Every year, around 30,000 cattle and about 24,000 badgers are culled in the high-risk, high-infection areas. Last year, 28,000 cattle were culled, of which 1,400 were in Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The last Labour Government were reluctant to use gassing, but recognised that sick creatures need to be put down, out of their misery, and that the spread of TB could not be halted without some form of culling. Shooting by qualified marksmen was deemed by the last Government to be the most humane option. The alternative was gassing, and I do not think that anybody would like us to go there. I support the Government’s 25-year eradication strategy and their goal to be free of TB by 2038, but I would like it to be sooner.
The Government must learn lessons from the covid-19 pandemic. There are valuable lessons to be learned in how we deal with TB. We cannot beat this bacteria. It is not a virus; it does not respond as well to vaccinations as viruses do. We will not beat it unless the R number is below 1. We have all learned this from watching TV the last couple of years. Work is being done to approve the proposed deployable vaccine, with field trials starting soon. That is nice, but we have been talking about this for years. When is this vaccine going to be rolled out? With covid, we did not unlock until the vast majority of the population was protected. Stopping the cull now, before the necessary protections are in place, would be counterproductive, irresponsible and impossible to justify.
The evidence shows that the cull is working. My constituency is in a high-risk area for TB. It received its first licence to cull in 2015, and 80.5% of the land in the county is now covered by licences. That is funded and supported by local farmers—not by DEFRA or the civil service or the taxpayer. It is funded by local farmers who think this is the right thing to do because of the point I made earlier that animals, whether badgers or cattle, must not be allowed to suffer from this disease.
Data shows confirmed breakdowns to be the lowest they have been in the county since 2006. Importantly, fewer animals are being slaughtered—down from a high of 3,505 in 2005 to 1,341 last year. This shows that the cull is working—it is not necessarily helpful to people who love badgers, but it does work. It also stops illegal culling. That is critical for perturbation, which is when badgers are frightened and so leave their traditional areas. If they are infected, they spread that disease to healthy badger populations. The healthy badger populations on the eastern side of the UK need to be protected, just as much as healthy cattle. The evidence from Somerset and Gloucester shows, respectively, falls in disease of 37% and 66%, so this works.
The whole House agrees that TB needs to be eradicated, but the majority of respondents to the Government’s consultation felt that revoking, or reducing the durations of, the badger disease control licence would reduce the effectiveness of the strategy and result in regression in the progress made over the years. The problem is that the people doing the culling are volunteers—local people, not civil servants. They cannot be switched on and off; they cannot be re-employed. When they stop, they will stop, and it took an enormous amount of effort to set up those groups. They are doing a tremendous and extremely difficult job for which they have to be highly trained.
Paragraph 5.6 of the Government’s response states:
The people who did not accept it were the conservation groups, and it is worth pointing out that including the cost of policing the cull zones distorts the credibility of some of the sensible points that have been made. We cannot add the costs policing of protesters and then acknowledge that the protesters have got the figures right—it does not seem quite right.
The Government have promised a cattle vaccine, which is not approved. They have monitored the data from the cull area and proved that culling is working, so until other viable alternatives are place, we cannot change the policy without doing untold damage to cattle and badgers. Bovine TB is a serious disease for people, as well as for badgers and cattle, and my fear is that, without proper control, sick badgers will infect the healthy badger population. I do not see why we should allow badgers to die slowly and in agony from consumption—that was the old word for TB, because it consumes your body. As these badgers become ill, they are driven out of their social groups and move into other badgers’ territories, where they will fight. Of course, a scratch from an infected badger can pass on the disease, so it is critical that we keep the badgers in the high-risk areas, away from the healthy badger population.
It is important that we look forward to a time when culling is no longer needed—I look forward to that very much. There will be a time when both badgers and cattle can be vaccinated effectively in a proven campaign to defeat M. bovis, but sadly, today is not that moment.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair again, Mr Hollobone. I thank Nick Fletcher and the Petitions Committee for bringing this important debate before the House. I do not think this subject has been debated in this Chamber for some time and it is clearly of considerable public interest, as we can see from the numbers who signed the petition, which the hon. Gentleman introduced in a very sensible and balanced way.
We have had some good contributions to the debate. I enjoyed the account from my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury; I am not sure I have ever quite seen Dennis Skinner as fluffy, but I am sure my hon. Friend’s badger is suitably fluffy. The points he made about perturbation were important, and were of course picked up by Sir Bill Wiggin.
I am not surprised that there are differing views on this issue; clearly there are strong views, which are represented in the debates taking place across the country. The one thing we can agree on is that we all want the same outcome, which is for bovine TB to be eradicated and the badger cull to be brought to an end. It is a truly horrible disease, as hon. Members have described, and no one should underestimate the stress, hurt and financial hardship it causes farmers. The accounts from the hon. Members for West Dorset (Chris Loder) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and indeed the account from the hon. Member for North Herefordshire about his favourite bull, were very moving.
There is also a significant cost to all this. DEFRA and the Welsh Government found that the median bovine TB-related cost for cattle farmers was £6,600; for farms with herds of more than 300, it rose to £18,600. It costs farmers in cash and mental anguish, and it costs the taxpayer many millions a year in compensation payments. However, the crux of this afternoon’s debate is, “What is the solution?” The sad truth is that the answer is less than clear, and I do not think it is quite as clear as the hon. Member for North Herefordshire suggested, as I will come to in a moment.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Badger Trust has been calling for significant investment in cattle vaccination for more than 10 years. The trust feels that the delay in vaccination investment is unnecessarily being paid for with badgers’ lives.
I will come back to that point. As has already been said, it is amazing what can be done quite quickly when scientists really get behind something. I suspect many would agree with the point made by the hon. Lady.
The argument is frequently polarised: those who believe that culling badgers is the answer and those who disagree both believe that they are following the science. The problem is that the science is not entirely clear; statistics that appear to back both sides of the argument can be found and quoted. It is worth putting on the record that the Godfray review, commissioned by the Government back in 2018, set out this issue in its opening statement:
“The deeply held beliefs of people who cannot countenance culling badgers deserve respect, as do the beliefs of people who argue that sacrificing badgers is justified to reduce the burden of this disease on livestock and farmers. The decision whether or not to cull badgers must be informed by evidence which provides important information on likely outcomes. However, final decisions have to take into account the irreconcilable views of different stakeholders and so inevitably require judgements to be made by ministers”— and different Ministers will make different judgments.
Labour would stop the culling of badgers. Our bovine TB control strategy would be based on vaccination, testing and better biosecurity measures, and we believe we have public support for that position. However, no one should be in any doubt that we are absolutely determined to put an end to the spread of bovine TB.
If we had a vaccine that allowed us to differentiate between a vaccinated animal and an infected animal, that policy would stand up. However, until we have that vaccine, the only alternative is to continue culling, which has proven successful in getting on top of the disease in areas such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend Sir Bill Wiggin.
I was very pleased to see the right hon. Gentleman walk in because I expected him to make exactly that intervention; we had a similar discussion during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020. As I am sure he will appreciate, the DIVA test is well advanced. He is right to say that we need to make progress, exactly as Dr Cameron said. Science moves; I am, perhaps, more optimistic about the pace of that movement than others.
The petition has a significant number of signatures. It focuses on the killing of badgers rather than the bovine TB issue, which I shall return to. The view expressed is that the shooting of badgers is poorly monitored and inhumane. Anecdotally, one is certainly told of cases where badgers are not shot cleanly and are left with injuries. According to Natural England’s compliance monitoring report for 2020, badgers were shot at but not retrieved in 11.4% of cases, but only one case of a badger being shot at but wounded and lost was reported; presumably some of the rest may not have been found. As with all such figures, the situation is not clear. I suggest that there is some cause for concern.
Can the Minister say why the number of badgers culled through free shooting rather than cage-trapping has changed so dramatically? According to the figures in the very good briefing prepared by the House of Commons Library, those numbers have increased from rough parity in 2014 to around four in five in 2020, creating a greater risk of inhumane culling. What is the reason for that? It seems that that is directly relevant to the question raised by the petitioners.
The wider question is about the future of shooting badgers in general and the continuance of the cull. I remember when the Government finally responded to the Godfray review while we were sitting on the Agriculture Bill Committee. By complete chance, they responded on the very day that Labour happened to have tabled an amendment addressing this very question—it was one of a number of cases when Government statements appeared miraculously on certain days during the course of the Agriculture Bill’s passage through Parliament. What we took from the Government announcement, the headlines and the spin was that the cull was to end. However, what we have seen since has shown that that was not the whole story.
Despite the points made by the hon. Member for North Herefordshire, given that the cull has been going on for 10 years or so, it is worth asking what the Government’s policy on badger culling has done to get this horrible disease under control. One thing we know for sure is that it has killed a lot of badgers—more than 140,000. That is not in doubt. Every year since 2015, the number culled has grown, with more than 38,600 killed in 2020. Last year’s figures are due any time; they are expected to be larger still.
The Badger Trust tells me that in some areas of Gloucestershire and Somerset, badgers are now all but extinct. It also predicts that, by the end of the cull, the number of badgers in England will have been halved. As I reflected on earlier, the sad truth is that some of those badgers will have had unpleasant deaths. There are then the financial costs. Again, the Badger Trust estimates that, between 2013 and 2019, the cost of the cull was around £60 million—although I hear the points made by Government Members.
I was thinking about what the hon. Gentleman said about how half the badgers in the UK will have been lost. If he looks at a map of the country, the western side is where the cattle and badgers live, and that is where the infection is. It is not about losing half the badgers in the infected area, but protecting the other half on the eastern side of the country.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, he will know, full well, that others will disagree that that is what is actually going on. The worry expressed by the petitioners today, and by many others, is that this looks like a massive cull of an iconic species in our country.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the economic boost that comes off the back of cattle no longer being lost? Protections should be taken to ensure that they are not lost. I know the hon. Gentleman has a love of and interest in farming, but there really must be a methodology to protect the cattle, the industry, the sector, and the jobs. Sometimes, that has to mean the culling of badgers.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s points, because I think that the crux of the question is, “Does the culling of badgers achieve the desired result?” That is one of the points at issue. I find it slightly surprising that there are no tests once badgers have been culled, so we do not really know the ratio of infected to healthy badgers being killed. Perhaps the Minister could explain why those are not done.
Staggeringly—to many of us—the current system is set up so that, in some instances, badgers that have been vaccinated will then go on to be culled. A couple of years ago, I visited the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and its volunteers to see just how badger vaccination works, and to meet a badger. I am grateful to Debbie Bailey and her colleagues for letting me join them—I must say, very early in the morning—to see how it is done. It is painstaking work, carried out by volunteers, and with financial support from the Government. However, as I say, incredibly, those very same badgers, vaccinated at taxpayer expense, are then sometimes shot as part of the cull. Can the Minister explain how that makes sense?
I warned earlier that the statistics can be read in many different ways, but I would also point out that, during the past decade, the number of cattle slaughtered due to TB has remained fairly consistent, at between 26,000 and 33,000 per year. In 2021, the number of cattle slaughtered decreased by only 1% on the previous 12 months to 27,581, with more cattle slaughtered in 2021 than in 2013, the year that the culls started. Herd incidence was at 8.8% in 2021—down only 0.6% on the previous year—and has also remained fairly static throughout the cull, at between 11% and 8.6%.
As I have been at pains to point out, different people will read those figures in different ways. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire will perhaps see them as a great success, while others will look at them and say that there are many other variables, and that there has not been sufficient progress to justify a Government policy costing millions of pounds and resulting in the deaths of close to 150,000 members of a protected species.
I would appreciate it if the Minister explained what she takes from those figures and whether she considers the cull to be a success so far. To mix my metaphors, I would say that the Government have placed too many of their eggs in one basket—each year, ramping up the killing, licensing more and more cull areas, but to insufficient avail. The science around this has long been contested. I think we have heard accounts of that. It has been looked at on a number of occasions.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that, if one looks at New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, where culling the wildlife vector was so effective, we can see how the policy is based on clear science and clear examples, from other countries around the world, of how effective it can be?
I always bow to the right hon. Gentleman’s superior knowledge on this, but my recollection from reading the Godfray review is that other factors were involved as well.
Part of the problem with the whole debate is trying to separate out the different issues with the governance structures, the New Zealand example and so on, so I suspect we are not going to agree on this. But from the evidence I have seen and had explained to me, cow-to-cow infections are far more significant than those from badger to cow. Indeed, the Godfray report described the benefits of the cull to the farming industry as “circumscribed” and raised a range of other potential ways forward.
In 2020, Labour welcomed the Government’s announcement that they were finally planning to phase out culls, with the end date set for 2025. Despite saying that no new licences would be granted after 2022, in late 2021 seven new licensing zones were announced. In answer to a written question, the Minister said the culling of badgers will remain an option
“where epidemiological assessment indicates that it is needed.”
Can the Minister clarify that the Government do not intend to allow a perpetual culling of badgers by the back door and that the commitment to end the cull by 2025 remains in place?
Our Labour view is that we are more likely to beat bovine TB through better vaccination, better testing and better biosecurity, particularly when it comes to testing pre and post movement of cattle between farms, together, as I have already suggested, with a much bigger push into researching and administering effective TB vaccines for both cattle and badgers.
To conclude, I return to the Godfray review of 2018. Can the Minister say what happened to some of its other proposals? It queried the current governance arrangements, saying that, in its view, too many Government bodies were involved, and it suggested a single bovine TB authority. What is the Government’s view on that? To some extent, the review was looking at the New Zealand example. The review recommended moving to using a more sensitive test in the high risk and edge area. Does the Minister agree with that? It argued that a key problem is the high level of cattle movements in England, and that risky trading should be disincentivised. Again, does she agree? If so, what does she plan to do about it?
The review recommended mandatory post-movement testing and using the most sensitive test; the Minister’s comments on that would be welcome. It describes the number of “no regret” biosecurity options being taken up by farmers as “disappointingly low”. That was back in 2018, so can she tell us if there has been any progress since then?
As always, there are many questions, but there are many ways to tackle bovine TB. The Government and Members on the Government side clearly believe that shooting badgers is the preferred option, but in our view the evidence of efficacy is unclear. On the Opposition side, we would take a different path, as I outlined earlier—but let me clear that we will be absolutely steadfast in our resolve to eliminate bovine TB.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for bringing forward the debate, and I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who took part in it. We have aptly demonstrated how difficult this issue is, and I gently say that we cannot have a solution to a problem until that solution is available.
Our beef and dairy industries contribute billions of pounds to the UK economy, as Jim Shannon laid out. We want them to continue to do so, and have to ensure that they can—particularly as the UK enters a new trading relationship with the world. As arguably one of the most pressing animal health problems in the UK today, bovine TB represents a constant threat to that success. We heard about the difficulty that we have here.
I appreciate both sides of the argument, as Mike Amesbury did when he laid out the challenge. Bovine TB continues to be both emotive and controversial, but what is not controversial is that badgers are implicated in the spread and persistence of bovine TB and in its particular prevalence in certain areas of the country, such as the south-west. We have set out how we are going to deal with that.
I would agree with much of what has been said. Badger culling has led to a significant reduction in the disease, but, as the Godfray review laid out, and as I think every single Member has said—both those who farm animals and those who represent those who farm animals—nobody wants to see the cull carry on longer than necessary. However, we need the right tools in the toolbox to ensure that we can deal with the situation, because nobody wants to see the disease take hold, particularly in areas with animals that not only add to our economy, but, as my hon. Friend Sir Bill Wiggin laid out so poignantly, are valued members of the family as well.
One of the most poignant things I ever did in this place was to watch a farmer who had had his entire herd destroyed. He had his arm around his 10-year-old and he wept because his father had entrusted the farm to him, and he no longer had the farm to pass on to his son. We need to protect the badger and the farmer, and we need to make sure that we have the tools available to do so.
Every year since the first badger cull in 2013, Natural England has closely monitored and reported on the accuracy of shooting activities through direct observations in the field. Annually, we disclose those details. I am very sorry that Daniel Zeichner doubts that, but we need to be transparent, and shooting activities are directly observed. We know that the cull has reduced bovine TB, as demonstrated by the publication of independent, rigorous research and past studies.
National statistics show how a holistic TB eradication strategy is working, but we do not want to see a protected wildlife species culled for longer than necessary, so in 2021 we started phasing it out. The next stage of the bovine TV strategy will include replacing culling with badger vaccination and disease surveillance. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire said, “When?” Well, in 2021, DEFRA awarded funding of £2.27 million for a five-year badger vaccination programme in the TB-endemic area of east Sussex. The project features vaccination by the farming community, because, as has been pointed out, they are the people who know both the badger community and their herds. They are working on the frontline to help develop and refine future developments of the models so that we can vaccinate on a large scale to protect badgers, because that is where we want to get to.
On that point, in Cheshire it is farmers, landowners, volunteers and the general public who support vaccination. It is exactly right that that important mix has to be behind the programme.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The Government have invested over £40 million in vaccines and tests. As set out in the Godfray review—again, this is in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire—our aim is to have a deployable cattle vaccine by 2025. Field trials began last year. My right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill mentioned that the challenge is having the sensitivity to make sure that we deal with the matter properly.
May I share my disappointment that the oral vaccine that DEFRA was keen to roll out proved too unpalatable were it to be made abrasive enough for it to work on the badger, and now we are stuck with having to trap and vaccinate badgers? Unfortunately, some badgers are too clever to get caught. It tends to be the same badgers getting in the traps all the time because they know there is food there.
I am interested in what the Minister said about 2025. The Labour party would need to win the next election to bring in its policy: it sounds like it will not be able to do that by 2025. She also mentioned East Sussex, which is the perfect place for a test because it is not surrounded by infected badgers, but that is not an alternative to the culling regime. The alternative is the DIVA test and a cattle vaccination. Is she sure that 2025 is the date that we will get that?
That is the date that I have been directed to. As my hon. Friend knows full well, as do I as somebody who worked in the Department of Health and Social Care during the pandemic, these things have a habit of not always coming through. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, something might be deemed unpalatable or it may not have the degree of sensitivity we need, but it is right that we try to ensure that the vaccine for both cattle and badgers is where we are getting to, so we can drive down and deliver on what the Godfray review said—that we should replace culling with vaccinations and disease surveillance.
We are developing several schemes and initiatives to make it simpler for those who are suitably trained to start vaccinating badgers. There is no single measure that will eradicate bovine TB in England by 2038. That is why we have to continue to have a wide range of interventions. We need to strengthen cattle testing and movement controls, which the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned. We have to improve biosecurity on the farm and when trading, and we need to develop that cattle vaccine, in addition to building our support of badger vaccine. Cattle controls and measures continue to be the foundation stones on which our TB eradication strategy is based.
I was, in fact, due to go tomorrow, but I am now unable to. I dare say those conversations will happen in short order. I know that my Northern Ireland equivalent is looking at this issue at the moment, and it is hoped that we can learn from one another. We can certainly get those conversations where we can all be enabled to make the right decisions as swiftly as possible.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale pointed out that culling causes badgers to move, and perturbation, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire said. Taking that into account is important. That is why we need a gradual, monitored, evidence-based approach, so we do not risk perturbation and the disease getting a hold. We need the areas that can cull to do so while we build the vaccination capability and a vaccinated population.
The strategy is rooted in routine and targeted testing of herds, movement restrictions on infected herds, rapid detection and removal of cattle testing positive. My hon. Friend Chris Loder said that it is particularly stressful when a calf is involved. We do have an isolation policy so that a positive cow is pulled out in order that the calf can be born.
Measures such as the statutory testing of cattle, movement between farms and surveillance at the slaughterhouse also apply. Over the last 12 months, we have compulsorily slaughtered more than 27,000 individual head of cattle in England to control the disease. Many of us represent rural constituencies, and we have heard today from virtually every Member about the misery that both sides of this bring to people. The cost to Government of dealing with the disease is about £100 million a year; it is a huge burden for the taxpayer.
One of our top priorities, as I have said, is to develop the vaccine for cattle so that it does not interfere with the TB testing regime. We hope to get that introduced within the next five years. It is expected to be a game changer in providing a strong additional tool to help to eradicate the disease. It is important that we look at the trials that are ongoing at the moment and we get the evidence base. There is not a single answer to the scourge of bovine TB, but by deploying a whole range of policy interventions, we can turn the tide on this insidious disease and, we hope, achieve the long-term objective, which I think everybody shares, of ensuring that we make England officially TB free by 2038—sooner if we can make it, but definitely not much later.
May I remind the Minister that in North Yorkshire we have very healthy badgers and very healthy cattle? Contrary to what many people think, the badger is not an endangered species; indeed, I think that in our part of North Yorkshire there are probably four or five times as many badgers as there have ever been before. It is the hedgehogs, bumblebees and ground-nesting birds that are feeling the pressure, from the high numbers of badgers, and that is having an effect on the ecosystem as well.
I did not ask my team how they knew that there were 424,000 badgers in this country, because as far as I am aware, we do not do a census, but we probably do a fair assumption of how many are out there, and we do have one of the highest populations of badgers in Europe. It is important that we protect them, and I think we are all of one mind about that. But it is also exceedingly important that we put our shoulder to the wheel and allow all the tools in the toolbox to be used for the next few years to ensure that we can keep this insidious disease under control.
It has been a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Minister for her response and thank all hon. Members for taking part in the debate. There is a wealth of knowledge in the room, and I have learnt much myself. I thank the petitioners for bringing forward the petition. I hope that they believe that they have seen a good debate; I certainly think that it has been. The simple thing that has come out of it is that we all want to eradicate bovine TB, and 2038 is definitely a goal for us to reach to. Obviously, if we can bring that date forward, we should. It seems to me that testing and vaccination may definitely be the way forward. We have said that quite a few times in the past couple of years, so hopefully we can learn from that.
The story that we heard from my hon. Friend Sir Bill Wiggin was devastating—I am sorry that he had to go through that. The personal responsibility that my hon. Friend has shown is an example to everybody who has to go through it. Obviously, nobody wants to see the culling of animals or the slaughtering of cattle like that, but for the farmers, it is also about their livelihood. We heard this from the Minister. Livelihoods are literally being taken away.
I think that this has been an excellent debate. I thank all hon. Members again. We just all need to work together to do all we can to eradicate this terrible disease.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 333693, relating to badger culling.