HC Deb 18 May 1954 vol 527 cc2053-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Conant.]

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

I want to switch the House from the zebra to the warble fly. I wish to draw the attention of hon. Members to the fact that the Warble Fly Order, 1948, is not being properly carried out.

In case some of my hon. Friends are not familiar with the habits of the warble fly, I would briefly mention that the adult warble fly lays her eggs, during the period from May to August, on the legs of cattle. From that stage they hatch into maggots, and the maggots bore through the skin of the cattle. In a very mysterious fashion they make their way right through the body of the animal and appear in January and February on the back, causing lumps. At that stage they want more air and they bore a hole through the bide of the cattle. They eventually emerge, fall to the ground, pupate, and in about six weeks' time reach adult stage.

In the process of boring the hole through the back of the cow, the warble fly spoils a considerable amount of leather. The damage thus caused to leather, which cannot be used for upholstery or any other purpose for which the leather is required, is estimated by the leather trade and others to be about £200,000 a year. But, besides this damage to the leather, there is much damage done by what is called "gadding," which is done by the fly, causing the cattle to become scared and to run about with their tails in the air, with a subsequent drop in milk production, and, with the irritation of these maggots in their bodies during the winter months, there is a tendency not only for milk production to be reduced, but for there to be an adverse effect on the meat which they produce.

Nobody is able to assess the damage which is done to milk production, or to meat, but it must be a considerable amount every year. In order to get over this trouble of the loss of milk and meat and leather, the then Government very wisely introduced in 1948 the Warble Fly (Dressing of Cattle) Order. This laid down that if any cattle were known to be visibly affected with the fly, the farmer or owner of the cattle, had to dress them with powdered derris root mixed with soap. This mixture has to be thoroughly scrubbed into the back of the cattle in order to have the desired effect and, according to the Order, has to be done between 15th March and the end of June, and, if necessary, in between at intervals of not more than 32 days. There is no doubt that, if this is done, it is very effective. It does not preserve the leather for the year in which the holes have been made, but it does kill the fly for the subsequent year, and may save meat and milk production for the ensuing months.

There is no doubt that it is an effective plan, but the Order is not being carried out, at least, not by all farmers who have cattle. Some do it, but it is very heartbreaking to find, after one has dressed one's own cattle, that neighbours have not done theirs. Infection comes in over the boundaries as soon as one has got rid of the trouble. Some farmers dress the cattle in their sheds, and leave it at that. They cannot be bothered to go into the fields and dress the cattle running about away from the homestead.

So, I appeal to farmers to remember that if they would only use this powdered derris root they would be helping themselves. They should also think of the obligations as between one farmer and another, and also their responsibility towards the community at large. Having made that exhortation to the farmers themselves, I now want to tackle the Parliamentary Secretary himself, but before doing it, I should like to congratulate the Minister on the publicity which he has given in the notices he has sent out recently and on the general way in which he has dealt with this matter. It is an asset for us to have a Minister who is doing so much about this problem.

The fact remains that I am not satisfied, and I think there are others who feel as I do. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he cannot do something to see that this Order is enforced. First of all, he might insist on a declaration being made by farmers that they have carried out the instructions contained in this Order, in the same way that they have to certify under the sheep dipping arrangements. If my hon. Friend says that that is impossible, then let us enforce the Order as it stands at the moment.

Of course, I know there may be some difficulties. Local authorities may say that (heir police are extremely busy and cannot do the work. But cannot the Minister arrange for spot checks to be made? He cannot have every farm inspected as there are not enough police to do that, but he could send them to a few. If there was any doubt about the Order being carried out the policeman could ask the farmer to prove that he had dressed the cattle by demanding the receipt for the derris powder bought to dress them. I think that no farmer would buy derris powder and not put it on his cattle. If the receipt system could be adopted, we should be three quarters of the way towards enforcing the Order.

Another suggestion which has been made is that a dye should be used so that it would be easy for two or three weeks afterwards to recognise cattle which had been dressed. There are other suggestions but it is difficult for the Minister to send his own officials round all the farms. That would cost too much money. It would be difficult to have a dressing service established at the markets. 1 think that the Minister must rely on snap checks of, say, very hundredth farm and a system of receipts for powder used.

Another suggestion I put to the Minister is that he should start to enforce the Order in special areas by means of his officials, say in the Isle of Wight, or Cornwall, to find out the expense and, if it is found exorbitant, it would be proved a failure, but, if it succeeded, and he thought he could save a great deal of money by following that course, it could be continued in other parts of the country.

A great many farmers think that much of the trouble is caused by cattle coming from Ireland. There is no compulsory order in Ireland and about 530,000 cattle are imported to this country each year. It is a great annoyance to people who think they have cured their own cattle to see cattle coming into the country untreated. If the Minister is not satisfied that cattle are not properly treated in Ireland he could have them treated here. If he thinks the Irish should do it, but says that he cannot interfere with other countries, he could send someone there to ask them to do the dressing and see that it is properly done. If he was still not satisfied he has only to threaten to refuse to take the cattle and I think he would get his way.

There are experiments going on in immunisation, and I ask the Minister if he is backing them with all his force. Is money being spent on them, and what are the results? Does he think that he should spend more money to wipe out the pest altogether?

If in the few words I have said tonight I have stirred farmers to realise their obligations, and if I have stirred the Minister by suggesting to him that he should either make it compulsory to declare that cattle have been dressed or that he should enforce the Order by a system of receipts, or to start in special areas, I shall be satisfied. I shall be satisfied if the Parliamentary Secretary tells me that he is doing one or other of those things. If he does so, I am certain that the result will be a saving of large sums of money, not only to the farming community, but to the rest of the people of the country.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)

I should like to support what has been said by the hon. Member for Ton-bridge (Mr. G. Williams). It is extremely important that this matter should be dealt with. I am satisfied that only a certain number of farmers do this treatment systematically. It is easy to forget the matter, to do it late, or to finish too soon. I hope the Minister will see if anything can be done to tighten up the precautions.

I have heard that scientists are working on new methods which will use injection. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us how far they have progressed. It would surely be easier to deal with the trouble in that way than by the systematic smearing of the backs of the cattle with derris powder and soft soap at intervals from March until the end of June. This latter treatment is one which can easily be forgotten in the hurly-burly of spring, the coming of the silage, and so on. If one, or even two, injections could deal with the matter it would be a great improvement, and there would be less excuse for overlooking the treatment. Really, there is no excuse for doing so now, but it is understandable that the treatment can be overlooked in the rush of work.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Hurd (Newbury)

I hope the Minister will recognise warble infestation as a disease and set about clearing up that disease in a way similar to the manner in which we are successfully clearing up bovine tuberculosis, by adopting the idea which the hon. Member for Ton bridge (Mr. G. Williams) put forward, namely, clearing up one area after another until we can say that the country is clear of the warble disease. I have had rather a bitter experience through bringing Irish cattle on to my farm during the last fortnight. They were horribly infested, or diseased, with warble fly. They ought to have been dressed in Ireland before being embarked, but it was obvious that they had not been. They were full of live warbles. I am afraid that some of the warbles have fallen on to my ground and that my cattle will again be infested.

This trouble is a serious matter, and we have to get it into the minds of farmers that they are dealing with a disease, and into the mind of the Irish Department of Agriculture that our farmers will not accept badly diseased cattle from Ireland. The Department must be made to realise that if it persists in sending such cattle they will be refused at the ports. I hope the Minister will follow up his campaign of pamphlets and posters with direct action of that kind.

11.49 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I would call the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to the fact that Australia will not accept cattle from this country during certain months. If we adopted the same measure with Ireland, she would see that her cattle were properly treated before they were sent here. We farmers objected when sheep-dipping was made compulsory. Now we accept that as routine, realising its value. The suggestion that there should be a certain amount of inspection to see whether farmers have complied with the Regulations is a good one. We ought to be compelled to send in a certificate to the effect that cattle have been dressed against warble fly, and the certificate ought to be signed by one of the men who assisted in doing it. The farmers would be more likely to do the job if a witness were available.

11.50 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ton-bridge (Mr. G. Williams) both on his good fortune in the Ballot and on his choice of subject this evening. I agree immediately that the enforcement of the 1948 Order is far from what we would like.

I will deal first with Irish imports. If my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) will give details to identify the batch of cattle which he recently imported, and the name of the port from which they were shipped, I will gladly take it up with the Irish Ministry of Agriculture to see if the cattle were treated before export. Recently we sent our superintending veterinary officer to Eire. He made surprise inspections at some, though not all, the ports and found that the treatment was being properly carried out.

We must recognise, however, that even if such treatment carried out at the Irish port is effective further warbles which were dormant under the skin on first dressing will appear a few weeks later. However, we shall certainly take up my hon. Friend's case if he gives us the details and shall also investigate any further instances which appear to show that the cattle are not being dressed before leaving Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ton-bridge correctly described the life cycle of the warble fly, its progress through the carcase of the animal, the annual cost of the damage to the hides and the further unassessable damage done to the animal in addition to that done to the hide. Treatments are being considered. Spraying the fly has been found to be perfectly useless. An alternative method is that of feeding to the animal during the winter months when the maggot is migrating through the body something which is toxic to the maggot but not injurious to the animal. Our veterinary officers at Weybridge have tried phenothiazine, but so far the experimental work has proved very discouraging. We are continuing in the hope of finding something which can be fed to the animal which is toxic to the maggot only. Such a method has the attraction that most of these animals are inside, or in the yard, in the winter, which would make such feeding relatively easy.

In this country there are about 9 million cattle and calves. Of those, about 3 million are dairy cattle and 3 million are calves. Dairy cows, being inside, can normally be dressed regularly, while the calves would not be affected until the end of their first year. The 3 million stores are the ones mainly affected, and we reckon that at least two-thirds of them—about 2 million of our store cattle—are probably infested with warble fly at any time. This is a very serious number indeed, and something which we must bear in mind in considering Irish imports. The actual number imported when the warble fly is prominent is only about 50,000. Of these about 30,000 are infested, so that if we are to make any progress in this matter we have not only to deal with the Irish importations but also our own troubles here.

The local authorities are responsible for enforcing the Order, and normally it is done through the county police. The difficulty is that it is physically impossible for them to maintain anything like comprehensive supervision of all animals in the country. The police simply cannot get round to deal with the enforcement of this Order as it now stands.

The outline of the problem is that we have a perfectly effective treatment. So long as it is done it is perfectly effective, and if it could be done for the 3 to 4 million cattle over a period of three or four years there would be no warble fly in this country. We have been carrying out a limited experiment on the Isle of Wight to see if we could exterminate or eradicate the warble fly from that part. Started rather late last year, it was showing promising results and, by the end of next year, we shall be in a position to realise the effectiveness of this treatment. With three or four years of universal treatment our troubles would be over. Our basic trouble is that from March to June most of these cattle are out in the fields and are left out.

Another of our basic problems is that the average farmer has just not appreciated the urgency of dealing with this infection, and it really is a disease, as the hon. Member for Newbury said. One of the proposals which was most carefully considered was one of voluntary notification of dressing by individual farmers to the local authorities. We have thought very carefully about this one, but it would involve a million notifications during the warble fly period and the County Councils Associations said quite definitely that they were unable to deal with such a volume of notifications. I am afraid that we must rule that out, at any rate for the present. I must also say that the National Farmers' Union is not in favour of compulsory notification. They are still of the opinion, optimistically to my mind—and they have based their hopes on it—that something can be found to feed to the cattle that will deal with the disease.

If any progress can be made, it will have to be piecemeal. It seems to me a possibility, and I am thinking rather on this line for the moment that it might be possible to run warble fly campaigns in areas where TB eradication is under way. When an area is declared free in that way, all the animals must be caught up in order to test them.

Even if the time of testing does not coincide with the warble fly month, farmers who keep their cattle on the hills have to make some arrangements for catching them up, and once they have made those arrangements, it is a much shorter step to get them to drive them through again in order to do the warble fly dressing. It is significant that the few prosecutions which have taken place have been mostly from attestation areas in Wales. It brings the veterinary officers in direct contact with the farmers and gives them a chance to point out to the farmers what big losses the farmers themselves are suffering through allowing the warble fly disease to exist.

I will undertake that we will pursue this thought to see whether it would be possible to run warble fly campaigns in areas which are moving up towards being attestation areas, and possibly to introduce compulsory notification in those areas in order to facilitate the exercise. We could start with one area at a time and see how we got on. That seems to me the only possible approach which has any promise at all. We certainly must do all we can to try to make progress with the problem.

In the meantime, we have intensified the propaganda and educational drive, and I was glad that my hon. Friend gave my right hon. Friend credit for that and for getting out to every farmer a leaflet describing the disease, the infestation and the measures to take. We have been greatly helped by the Milk Marketing Board in sending out the majority of these leaflets. We have also used widely a film which was published by the Hides and Allied Trades Improvement Society, and I think we have made some impression on farmers' minds, but we have a long way to go before we have convinced the average farmer that this disease is important enough to justify him in going to the considerable labour which would be involved if he were to do the dressing regularly for three or four years.

I think our best hope would be to try to proceed with a campaign synchronised with our attestation campaign, to see whether in that way we could make some progress. We will certainly examine that and see whether we can put it into action, and I will keep my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge informed on how the campaign proceeds.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes past Twelve o'clock a.m.