HC Deb 03 November 1995 vol 265 cc571-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]

2.30 pm
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

We all know that a Friday afternoon Adjournment debate is not well attended, because, by the time it is announced the previous week, most Members have already made their arrangements. Attendance is therefore thin this afternoon. However, I have received letters from 11 of my colleagues telling me that they are as concerned as I am about badgers and bovine tuberculosis.

I am delighted that you are in the Chair for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, as we all know that animal welfare is close to your heart.

It is time for us all to face facts and to accept that the badger is neither in danger nor endangered. Without doubt, it is the most protected mammal in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. Badger numbers are increasing dramatically. An exact count has not been taken, but best guesses are that the minimum number of adult badgers is 250,000, with 105,000 cubs being born each year.

If we make a rough estimate that half of those cubs are killed in the first year of life, we are still left with an explosion in badger numbers. My extremely rough guess is that there will be about 750,000 badgers by the year 2000. That is a frightening prospect. We all know that bovine TB is endemic in badgers and that the spread of the disease is clearly linked to the species, although as yet methods of transmission are poorly understood.

Most Members are jacks of all trades and masters of none, and I am no expert on badgers and bovine TB. As a result of my concern, however, I have attended two seminars organised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; the first was two years ago and the second was last month. I left those seminars—I cannot believe that any other person who attended them did not do likewise—with the certainty that badgers are a cause of bovine TB.

All too often, people say, "We must preserve every badger, so we must have a vaccine." It is my understanding, however, that we shall not have an effective vaccine before the year 2005, at the earliest, and that it is more likely to be 2010—and then only if enormous resources are made available and there is the closest co-operation with other countries in the meantime.

We must take action now because of the greatly increased number of herds to have tested positive in the past five years, especially in the south-west. I will give some examples. In Cornwall, there were 38 outbreaks in 1990 and 106 in 1994. In Devon, there were 26 in 1990 and 75 in 1994. Hereford and Worcestershire had one in 1990 and 12 in 1994. That shows that the disease is moving up the west line to the Welsh border. In Wiltshire, there were two cases in 1990 and 21 in 1994. I do not have any figures for Wales, but I know that there is increasing concern there about the spread of tuberculosis in badgers and about bovine tuberculosis.

My county of Dorset, for some inexplicable reason, has been lucky. It seemed that we were set on an upward curve for three or four years, but suddenly it seems to have levelled off. I would want to touch wood if I were to say that that will not change, in view of the vast increase in the number of badgers.

Each of the figures represents not only a slaughter of cattle but personal tragedy, financial loss and enormous stress for the individual farmers. I will give the House two examples—three, in fact, because I have added another only this afternoon.

First, there is Robert Bowditch, who is a friend and near neighbour of mine and farms at Netherbury. He writes: Our main problems started in 1988 with eight beef cattle at Brimley Coombe. In 1991, seven cows from Knowle dairy went down and one steer from Brimley. In 1993, two cows from Knowle dairy were taken out. Then last year two steers were taken out from Laverstock. This year we had a clear test, thank goodness. Behind those figures lies a story of heartbreak, concern and stress for the farmer. Mr. Bowditch continues: I will now try and explain some of the management and financial problems when a TB outbreak occurs. When you have a TB reactor it is necessary to retest every 60 days until you go clear—therefore no cattle movements. Each time we test 4 men and 2 full days work is required. You can't mix units where a reactor has been found and one that is clear of TB. This becomes a major problem when you need to get in calf heifers from a TB closed area into a TB clean dairy herd! If restrictions continue for months, as is often the case, major cash flow problems can occur. You nearly always miss the peak of one trade or another. There is also the constant personal worry when a test is due—one needs to plan stock numbers, sales and finances accordingly to protect yourself if things go wrong. The speed of MAFF badger men coming on to reactor farms is very slow which means disease is still being spread. 25 per cent. of badgers caught last time were positive. Also three cows from Knowle had TB lesions in the neck which is frightening. Behind that short account lie months of agony and heartbreak for everyone on that farm.

Another, smaller case involves the Fooks brothers of North Porton. They had TB movement restriction from April to September this year following the identification of four reactors. This prevented bull calf and beef animal sales, and they were not able to buy in any cattle. They are four brothers who farm together. They have 120 cows, and they farm beef, sheep, cereals and maize. This year, they have had an especially difficult time quite apart from the horrendous problem of bovine tuberculosis.

The problem involves badgers and the maize crop. The brothers planted 30 acres for winter feeding and estimate that one third of that has been a complete loss—destroyed by badgers. Some might say that the brothers should have protected their crops with electric fences. They did, but they did not work. Their wheat crop was also badly affected by badgers moving into ripening wheat and just crushing it down. It is difficult to put a figure on such damage, but the cumulative effect on an individual farm on top of a bovine TB problem must be dreadful.

There is one other case which has been drawn to my attention. We know that a large number of people believe that there is no clear link between bovine tuberculosis and badgers. After this debate, I am bound to get dozens—hundreds—of letters saying how disgraceful it is that I should make that allegation.

Another example involves Tyneham in south Dorset. Starting in 1966, that area experienced huge amounts of TB and in the five years between 1966 and 1971, 800 cattle had to be slaughtered. People do not realise the slaughter that follows an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis and its effect on people in the farming industry. In 1973 and 1974, badgers were gassed, and in 1976 all the badgers were taken out. Since then, the area has been re-inhabited by badgers and there has not been a single case of TB in the area since the clearance. That is proof positive, and it is borne out by tests that have taken place in the Republic of Ireland.

Many more tragic cases have occurred all over the south-west, which prompted the National Farmers Union to commission a study into the problems associated with badgers and bovine TB, and the effects of the badger population on the environment and agricultural operations. That excellent paper makes clear the need for better management of the badger population, not only in the interests of farming and animal health but for the long-term welfare of badgers. The foreword to the NFU study spells out the background.

The study was undertaken following reports of concern among farmers about the link between bovine tuberculosis and badgers in certain areas of the country, particularly the south-west. Although the vast majority of farmers wish to see healthy badgers in reasonable numbers, some are anxious about the increase in numbers and their effect on the natural environment, to the extent that it has a knock-on effect on agricultural operations, including hazards to humans and machinery. More than 90 per cent. of the farmers surveyed felt that badger numbers should be managed where appropriate. While I acknowledge and appreciate the concern of wildlife groups, their desire totally to protect badgers is likely to expose the creatures to an endemic infection with bovine TB.

The NFU believes that clear, objective thinking is needed, supported by facts, and that solutions must be found—that is the aim of the study. The study makes a number of recommendations, which I know my hon. Friend the Minister and her team will consider carefully. She knows only too well that the farming community wishes to support the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in all sensible measures.

The report makes it clear that MAFF is in a difficult position, not least because of public ignorance of the facts, and an instinctive desire among the general public and certain hon. Members to regard badgers as a special category and to find any excuse they possibly can for not taking action which we all know in our heart of hearts must be taken. That ignores the massive problems that are created not only for farmers and public health but for the badger population as a whole.

I cannot stress strongly enough that we are not in the business, as someone said this week, of disposing of the badger population or removing their protection. But where badgers have TB, something must be done, and it must be more than is currently being done. We can all help to get information through to the general public. The president of the NFU should circulate the study paper to Members of Parliament and to all candidates in rural seats, asking them totally to support its recommendations.

It is not that I have a suspicious mind, but it might be helpful if that support were given to the president of the NFU in writing rather than orally, so that we may avoid point scoring on party lines and be able to work together to solve a major problem which can only grow and become more dangerous for all our rural communities in the years ahead.

As we all know, the vast majority of people are far more attracted to and concerned about badgers than about cattle and the welfare of our agricultural industry. As we are only 15 or 18 months away from a general election, it is only natural that people should try to hold back from committing themselves to a course which they know to be right. Anyone who attended the seminar so kindly arranged by my hon. Friend the Minister the other day, where all the evidence was given by people who were experts in their field, who tried not to bamboozle or persuade us into a course of action but to deal with facts, will have been left with no doubt that there is a clear link, and it is somewhat disreputable for anyone to back off afterwards from any commitment to more positive action.

I hope that the Minister—and the NFU—will continue to urge all of us to take whatever action is necessary in the coming months to ensure that the present awful trend is reversed. If we do not, and if we go on for another five years at the current rate, our dairy herds will be decimated and there will be not 250,000 but more than 1 million badgers and the large number infected might then become a cause of genuine concern to every person in the country.

2.44 pm
The Minister for Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) for initiating this debate on a subject in which I know he takes a strong interest.

Although it is obvious from the figures that the disease has increased in recent years, it has stabilised, and fewer new cases were reported in south-west England to the end of September 1995 than in the same period in 1994.

Sir Jim Spicer

I apologise for intervening so early, but might there be a direct link between the drought this year and that fall-off in numbers? We know that most people would expect, and do believe, that the disease is transmitted through urine on grass.

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend is right to mention that. During our studies of that matter, especially in the south-west, we shall try to take account of all factors, including my hon. Friend's suggestion, when considering the overall trend in those figures. I was simply describing the position as we consider it to be this year.

It is incorrect to say, as some people have, that the disease is out of control and that there is a continuing acceleration in new cases.

However, I am worried about the impact of the disease, which is why I have started a series of informal consultations to explain the range of action that we are taking and to help us consider whether there is anything more that we can do. That began with a seminar, which my hon. Friend mentioned, for Members of the House with a specific constituency interest in the disease. I followed that up with a meeting with the National Farmers Union, which has presented me with the very useful document that my hon. Friend mentioned, setting out its ideas on the problem, which I am now studying.

We are trying to bring together everyone who is genuinely interested in the subject to discover whether any further measures may he taken to make us more effective in the way in which we tackle the problem that my hon. Friend rightly brings to the Floor of the House.

As a Member of Parliament representing a constituency in the south-west, I am aware of the serious problems that confront many farmers when they have outbreaks of disease. However, there is public anxiety in many quarters about the Ministry policy of trapping and killing a protected species, the badger.

I make two important arguments. First, there is clear scientific consensus that the badger plays an important role in transmitting tuberculosis to cattle. That is the opinion of scientists in the United Kingdom and in the Irish Republic who have studied the issue. In places in England and in Ireland where badger clearance operations were undertaken, there is a marked decrease in TB in cattle. My right hon. Friend rightly identified that in his part of the country.

Despite suggestions to the contrary in the media, many of our critics who are active scientists in that field accept that badgers can infect cattle. What they criticise is the effectiveness of our current control policies to break that link.

I must tell hon. Members of the House who have associated themselves with the opinion that badgers are innocent victims of cattle TB that science is not on their side. I am sorry that there is no representative of the Labour party or the Liberal Democratic party in the Chamber. Labour Members have put their names and signatures to early-day motions that do not recognise the science of the subject. Liberal Democratic Members of Parliament in the south-west have rightly felt it necessary to bring that subject to the House of Commons, but then have gone away and tried to sit on the fence—neither fish nor fowl—not saying what future action they prefer or even acknowledging the science as we have presented it.

The second important point that I should like to make clear, and which my hon. Friend also mentioned, is that we do not have a policy of killing badgers. We have a policy of removing the source of infection of bovine tuberculosis, which is a very serious disease of cattle, and indeed of people, although the general population is not now at risk from bovine TB, because of milk pasteurisation and meat inspection. The Government cannot ignore the problem; we must take action to eliminate infection in cattle, and in some cases, particularly in the south-west, that cannot be done unless the related source of infection in badgers is tackled.

We hear a great deal about the killing of badgers, and I regret that it is necessary, but to put the matter in perspective, I should say that, last year in Great Britain, we killed 2,773 cattle because of TB. My hon. Friend mentioned Tyneham, where cattle had to be slaughtered in large numbers. The figure of 2,773 cattle compares with the killing of 1,683 badgers—considerably fewer. The interesting statistic for those who may think that the badger is an endangered species—it is not—is that, over the same period, considerably more badgers will have been killed in road accidents in Britain, out of a total population estimated at around 250,000. We estimate that about one quarter of the British badger population resides in south-west England, and we recognise that important regional aspect.

Badger control operations are undertaken only after an exhaustive epidemiological investigation by a veterinarian has implicated badgers in the breakdown. In areas where there is no recent history of badger-related TB, no action is taken against badgers unless it is specifically sanctioned by an independent sub-committee of the consultative panel on badgers and bovine tuberculosis, which considers the evidence in each case before reaching a decision.

We do not take action against badgers lightly, but only where there is a clear link. I have made that point at some length, because I believe that the stringency of the examination before any action is taken against badgers is not always well understood. Equally, it is not always well understood just how devastating the impact of a TB breakdown on a farm can be. My hon. Friend mentioned several cases in Dorset that have been drawn to his attention and, as a west country Member of Parliament, I have seen at first hand just how serious the problem can be.

I am not talking simply about loss of profit and economics: I am talking about families being subjected to severe and sustained stress over a long period, particularly when the herd breaks down for a second, third or even fourth time.

I bow to no one in my desire to protect and respect wildlife, but I wish that those who are concerned about the taking of badgers were also concerned about the anguish—I make no apologies for using that word—of the farming families who are hit by the disease. I would find it difficult to walk away from the problem, as those who would support a cessation of badger control seem prepared to do.

I made it clear at the beginning of my speech that I was in the middle of a consultation period. I do not want to pre-empt that consultation by making any firm commitments today, but we did introduce, on a trial basis in 1994, a new policy based on the use of a serological test—the "live test"—for TB in badgers which was developed following a recommendation of Professor Dunnet's report in 1986. That test allows us to identify setts in which badgers test positive for tuberculosis; thereafter, we kill the badgers from those setts only.

In the trial using that test, we are extending the badger control area beyond the farm with the disease breakdown to the neighbouring area, to include the whole territory used by the particular social group of badgers involved. We are assessing the impact of that wider programme against the current policy which is based on the trapping of badgers only on the breakdown farm. It was made clear at the seminar for hon. Members in 1993, which was organised by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), that it would be a five-year trial.

The new policy was introduced in the winter of 1994 after a number of pilot projects earlier that year. Therefore, we are only in the early stages of the trial. I have to put it on record that I entirely reject the suggestions from some hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), that the new strategy has already failed. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here today, as he has expressed an interest in the subject. However, his response to what is being done was extremely negative, and certainly did not move in any way towards finding a solution to the problem. His statement showed only a complete lack of understanding of the issues. In Cornwall in particular, it is a matter of extreme concern to the farmers affected.

While the trial is in progress, we are continuing to apply the old interim strategy on farms outside the trial area or not eligible for the trial where there is a badger-related outbreak.

The long-term solution to the TB problem may lie in the development of a vaccine for badgers. My hon. Friend was quite correct to say that, although we are conducting a great deal of research into the matter, we are a long way from finding a solution.

Obviously, in respect of a wild animal species, it is not simply a matter of finding a vaccine that works; one has also to consider the method of delivery in the wild and make sure that one targets the right species so that something beneficial to one species in the wild will not be harmful to another. Developing such a vaccine will necessarily be rather a long haul, but we are putting resources into research and we are working hard to find a vaccine capable of being delivered in the field. That may take some 10 or 15 years.

We are consulting. We are concerned about the effect on the farming community whose herds have a breakdown of bovine tuberculosis. I intend to listen carefully to all interested parties. I hope that I shall have the support of all hon. Members who have personally experienced in their constituencies the devastation that the problem can cause.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we are all used to the cut and thrust of party political debate in the Chamber, but there are some issues—and I believe that this is one—where we need to address the science and find practical solutions to a difficult problem. I hope that all parties will unite in their support of what we are doing to seek a solution, to help the farming community and address a difficult problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock.