HL Deb 21 October 1982 vol 435 cc295-309

7.58 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that thousands of badgers gassed since 1975 under the requirements of the Ministry of Agriculture for the purpose of bovine tuberculosis control have died painful or miserable deaths from starvation or slow asphyxiation, during which period the public have been led to believe that this was a humane method of destruction; and what are the full facts about the discovery of this massive cruelty inflicted upon an otherwise protected species of wildlife.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. I will not read it, because when I put it down in July I was a little highly charged emotionally. I have calmed down a bit since, but if I were re-drafting it now I would direct rather more attention to the future than to the miseries of the past. Nevertheless, I am deeply concerned about badgers. I have them at my home in Surrey, I have studied them for years, and they are supporters in my crest of arms, so I feel very close to badgers indeed.

On the events in July, when gassing was suspended, I not only felt compassion for the way we are treating our badgers, but I felt angry at the way in which we had misplaced our trust in cyanide gassing as a humane method of destroying badgers. Probably we are to blame for this. We did not know enough and apparently the experts appeared not to know enough. Nor did they get to know enough about this gassing business. The reason may be that no one can seriously have thought beforehand about using a method of miscellaneous pest control as the means for carrying out a systematic and prolonged extermination of the popular badger—an extermination carried out with the authority and through the agency of the state. I believe that to be the root of the matter.

The implications of cyanide gassing being used on badgers, with their extensive underground galleries and the problem of the intensity of the gas for destruction purposes being in doubt and variable according to the terrain and conditions of the operation—all these matters seemed to have escaped the attention of those who were responsible.

I call it extermination because that is what it is. It is not a slaughter policy in the sense that I understand it. Slaughter as a form of disease control in domestic animals does not lead to the extinction of the species as the slaughter of wildlife may well do. The cry in the West country where these operations are most numerous is, "Where will it stop?" I read in the Western Daily News of 24th February this year a statement attributed to Mr. Roger Muirhead, a Ministry of Agriculture veterinary officer in Gloucestershire, which was: As far as I am concerned, the only solution to the serious problem of TB in cattle is to wipe out badgers, but unfortunately it would not he politic to do so".

According to the newspaper report, he went on to say: I really would like to see strong healthy badgers around who do not have TB. But that just will not happen".

This, I fear, is the way we are likely to be going because I do not think that there is any comfort in what is happening at the present time. Already the control areas comprise of the highest concentration of these animals in the country. Indeed, the density of the badger population in the West and in Cornwall is believed to be partly responsible for the extensive spread of tubercular infection among them. We have to ask ourselves whether the present policy, however it is carried out and whatever the method adopted, can achieve its purpose. Is the threat to the badger becoming greater than the threat to the cattle? There seem to be some grounds for believing that it is.

I do not need to remind the house of the tragic story of the badger and how, in 1973, we felt very gratified when Parliament passed a measure of protection for the badger which had suffered from persecution and abominable cruelties throughout the centuries. This interesting animal has emerged from the dark ages in its evolution to being one of the most popular of our animals in wildlife today. It has gone from vicious prejudice and cruel pursuit to being the Christmas card animal of the year. But now its popularity is turning to peril, not only peril for the badger but, I believe, a degree of peril for the Government themselves because feelings on this matter run very high indeed.

When we passed the first legislation in 1973 we thought we had ended the cruelties of badger baiting, badger digging, sending the Jack Russells down the setts in order to test their virility and capacity for warfare, and all the abominations of the past. But that was rudely shaken when a couple of years later the discovery was made almost accidentally of the relationship between bovine tuberculosis in cattle and a similar infection in badgers. Then we had further legislation to give the Minister the power to issue licences for the killing of badgers which were found to he, or suspected of being, carriers of the infection of bovine TB.

This, for the sake of keeping everyone's emotions down, is called badger control, but it is badger destruction. The means of enforcement of badger control has been accompanied by the right to enter and the right to enforced entry on to land and premises for the destruction of badgers. To obstruct the men from the Ministry is an offence. To hide an animal or to conceal its whereabouts or habitat are offences under the 1975 legislation. These powers alone have given rise to scenes of acute distress and resentment and of emotional outbursts in the West country. In all the designated areas many people are in a constant state of apprehension because they never know when they are to get a warning from the men from the Ministry that they are coming on the land in the exercise of their powers of badger control. The newspapers are full of it.

This area is pretty clearly defined at the moment. It is a line north to south in the South-West country from Chipping Campden, through Swindon and Salisbury, to Bournemouth. That is the line. I believe that Dorset, where there was an outbreak at Purbeck, is now clear.

I shall confine myself to the method of destruction and not argue the question of whether this is the way in which to deal with this very serious problem. The present Minister inherited the problem. When he arrived at the Ministry it was not long before he decided to suspend the destruction of badgers until the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, had undertaken a thorough investigation or stocktaking of the position arrived at in 1979–80. I am very glad indeed that the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, has found it possible to be with us this evening because his contribution on this problem is of a distinguished character. He has probably put more thought into this matter than any other person in the country. Not everyone has agreed with his conclusions, but no one can question the thoroughness with which he has done the job. I thought that the Minister acted promptly and rightly when he came into office. It is very nice to see the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in his customary role as Minister of Agriculture and no longer acting as the shadow of the Secretary of State for Employment.

The noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman produced his report in 1980, and paragraph 113 of that report recommended investigation into the use of hydrogen cyanide gas. In that respect Lord Zuckerman's doubts renewed those which had been expressed a little earlier by the RSPCA in a document which they had published on this subject, and it was thought that there was a case for further investigation of the method of destruction. The doubts were about the lethal levels of gas needed throughout the set to kill quickly and humanely.

After the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, produced his report and recommended that the badger control measures should be resumed quickly, gassing was resumed while investigation was made on the recommendation in paragaph 113 of Lord Zuckerman's report. The results became available last June, when the chemical defence establishment produced its report. The Minister straightaway suspended gassing on humane grounds. In his press statement of 1st July, the Minister said: The results, however, do imply that there must be doubt whether the badgers in a gassed sett die quickly and, therefore, whether they die humanely".

He continued: We shall continue control and experimental operations by trapping in those areas where trapping is already in use".

he also added: It is necessary to consider urgently what alternative methods are available which can provide an effective and humane means of controlling TB in badgers".

That I am sure must mean that there may be other ways of controlling it than by wholesale destruction. Indeed, it is on the situation as it is now that I think the Minister will wish to inform the House, and it is certainly the matter upon which we all want to hear what he has to say.

The experimental trapping which is now going on may involve the use of snares and we know how horrible snares can be, especially with badgers. No one who has seen a badger in a snare can feel at all satisfied with that method of trapping badgers. It seems to me that we are all facing a situation which is every bit as worrying as in past years. New outbreaks of bovine TB among cattle in control areas show little sign of slackening and as the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, emphasises in his report: The spread of the disease among badgers to other parts of the country could have serious consequences, not only to cattle but to the survival of the badger in our country".

Those were the words with which the noble Lord concluded his report in 1980. With that as a possible danger, I suggest that the Minister should now regard this problem as one of major ecological importance to the country as a whole. It is now a national problem: The plight of the last and shyest of this type of mammal in our wildlife, and although it is one which is elusive and rarely seen by many people, it is nevertheless in a position of strong affection among the public. I sincerely hope that all avenues of research will be diligently explored.

I conclude by saying that above all, the state, as executioner of whatever species, must satisfy the public as to need and keep clear of the taint of cruelty in its methods, It is on the outlook for the future that I ask the noble Minister kindly to inform the House.

8.15 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsey and Abingdon

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for putting down this Unstarred Question. I trust that my noble friend on the Front Bench will take note of the various points raised by the noble Lord, as I for one have a certain amount of sympathy for what he has said.

I have no interest to declare, such as being a member of the National Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the Anti-Blood Sports League. On the contrary, I am a keen sportsman, especially from the point of view of shooting. It is my intention to be extremely brief and I have no wish to get into an argument with, or to criticise, the Ministry of Agricul- ture on their methods in the control of badgers where there is the slightest risk of bovine tuberculosis in cattle, and where there is a danger of it being passed on to human beings. However, where I am concerned is in the example set by the Ministry in the control of these unfortunate animals.

I had the privilege and pleasure of owning a small 20 acre wood less than 25 miles from London, in which there was a colony—if that is the right word—of badgers. It gave me great pleasure to know that they were there and if and when I had the time, I would make the effort to observe their environment. That was not easy, due to their nocturnal and burrowing habits. During the 15 years that I was in possession of this wood, I had to fight against continuous requests from neighbouring farmers and gamekeepers to allow them to gas the badger burrows.

My refusal to allow this to happen was no less relaxed by the passing of the 1973 Act, making the badger a protected species other than by control through the Ministry of Agriculture, as was referred to by the noble Lord in his speech. In fact, the absence of any evidence of bovine tuberculosis in the area and, therefore, the presence of representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture made the position even worse. It was very difficult to convince the farmer that there was no danger to his cattle, and the gamekeeper that the badgers were not responsible for the loss of some of his pheasants. It became obvious that their minds had been instilled by generations of superstition that the badger was a carnivorous, diseased monster that should be put down at all costs. After all, it was a little over a century ago that badger-baiting was a favourite sport in this country.

In conclusion, I would ask my noble friend when he comes to answer the debate, to make every effort to alleviate past misunderstandings in respect of this otherwise harmless and sometimes useful animal, before it is too late.

8.19 p.m.

Lord Zuckerman

My Lords, there are two or three points that I should like to make in this debate. The first—and I say this because we must be fair to the people from whom I took evidence in the course of my inquiry—is that no one pretended to knowledge which he did not have. When it came to the question of cyanide as a means of getting rid of infected setts or setts which were suspected of being infected, I specifically asked the RSPCA representative about this matter, as I made clear in the report. I addressed the question to him and made quite sure that it was recorded as a matter of fact in the report. The RSPCA man knew no better way of dealing with the problem.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, used the word "extermination". I really do think that it is unfortunate that we talk in terms of extermination. I know something about animal behaviour and animal numbers, and I should imagine that one of the most difficult animals ever to suffer extermination at human hands will be the badger. It is perfectly true that the densest populations are probably in the suspected areas where it is clear that transmission of the tubercle bacillus occurs between badger and cattle. I do not know which came first and, as I mentioned in my report, I think that is irrelevant. There is a direct link there and we have to deal with it and establish the nature of the link as well as one can establish a point of that sort with the kind of information that we have at our disposal. If, as I believe, it is a statutory duty of Government to see that tuberculosis does not spread in our dairy cattle or in any of our cattle, obviously, any link must be dealt with, and the badger is a link.

It so happens that in today's edition of the New Scientist—and I was totally unaware of this until about an hour ago when I picked up my copy—there is an article by Dr. Barrow, lately working at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, on tuberculosis. It has the headline "Must badgers be destroyed?"

I shall not burden your Lordships with all that he says, but there are one or two points which he makes which I think are worth reading out. First, he quite correctly says that we are still ignorant of the ways in which the tubercle bacillus passes between badger and cattle.

Secondly, he says: This, however, does not detract from the fact that badgers do harbour"— and I would not have put it quite this way— a considerable reservoir of the particular bacillus concerned. Then he says—and this does not give me any pleasure—that he would not expect the slaughter of infected badgers to be effective always. He goes on to say something which I am afraid will cause a certain measure of distress to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. He says: we are left with an inevitable conclusion; if we want to control TB we must do so by controlling badger population … It follows that eradication of TB from badgers can be achieved only by eradicating badgers. Any other notion is a pipedream". That is the problem which I am afraid the Government face. It is a problem which causes me just as much distress as it does the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. However, I am also conscious of the fact that my sympathies go out to those Government scientists who, in carrying out their duties to the people of this country in seeing that tuberculosis is suppressed, now have this difficult task of finding more acceptable ways and more effective ways both of diagnosing the presence of tuberculosis in badgers and then of dealing with the problem in such a way that the tubercle bacillus does not go on spreading from badger to badger, from badger to cattle, back to badger, and then out of the affected area.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, I believe that one should pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Houghton for his continued vigilance with regard to the wellbeing of animals. Although he and many members of societies concerned with animal welfare often hit the headlines with their claims of alleged cruelty to animals—indeed, they are not always allegations, for they say that there has been cruelty to animals—I think your Lordships will recognise that they are not the only ones who care. We all share concern, some working behind the scenes as, indeed, has the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, in order to solve the problems.

The subject, of course, is an emotive one and in our anxiety to ensure the wellbeing of animals as far as possible we must do what we can to get the facts. I am sure that we are greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, for being with us tonight and for his brief but telling contribution on this sad matter. It is, of course, easy for us to be selective in deciding what experts to believe and it is easy for us to reach some conclusion, for there is sure to be an expert somewhere who will prove what we say. But those who exercise power in Government, and, indeed, many others, have some very difficult decisions to make. This is a matter which does not concern only this Government but which concerned the previous Government as well.

How does a Minister with responsibility react when he is told that it is not only suspected but that there is real cause to believe that there is TB in some badgers which can spread to cattle, and when he is told that in one area—say, Dorset—several hundred cows can he affected and may have to be slaughtered? My noble friend says quite rightly that he is concerned about the way in which badgers are destroyed. There are two points to answer here. First, is the badger a real source of TB? Is he a carrier not only to cattle but to other clean badgers, and if it is necessary, to use nicer language, to put badgers to sleep, what is the best way to do it?

These are the problems which have been facing those in Government and, indeed, advisers for a very long time. I do not think it helps my noble friend's case for him to revive memories of badger baiting, badger digging and so on as though those who had to take responsibility in this very sad situation were enjoying the process. He must know that the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, and many others have since at least 1975 been actively involved in finding the best way to tackle this problem. If a Minister is told in 1975, or whenever it may be, that several hundred cattle are at risk, dare he say, "Until we can find a way of killing badgers humanely and be absolutely certain of it"—which is something that few can certify beyond all doubt—"we must not do anything about it"?

I would not ask my noble friend if he cares only for badgers which have TB and does not care about the clean badgers who could get TB from the small number which have it. I would not like to ask him whether he has no concern for the suffering of hundreds of cows which may be affected by the disease.

If one talks about the effect of TB, then human beings are, of course, among those who can be affected, and most species of mammals and birds are susceptible to tuberculosis. I quote from the MAFF handbook of 1978: Amongst farm animals, cattle and swine are most frequently affected; horses and goats occasionally and sheep rarely. Symptoms. The disease is often of a chronic nature and objective symptoms are not seen. When the disease is advanced or becomes acute in a particular organ more definite symptoms are observed. The lungs are a common site of disease in cattle. When the lungs are involved the animal may cough and, in advanced case, show signs of respiratory distress. An affected quarter of the udder becomes progressively harder. The milk appears normal except in very acute cases or after the disease is long established; in these cases it may be a straw coloured fluid. The existence of disease may be confirmed by the demonstration of the organism in sputum, milk or discharge from the uterus. For routine diagnosis it is necessary to use a tuberculin test". That is the fate for cows which get the disease from badgers or, indeed from any other source, but there has been real reason to believe that the badger has been responsible for cattle suffering in a number of areas in the country, though thankfully the areas are not widespread.

Successive Ministers have had to deal with the problem which concerns not only badgers but cows as well, and I do not think there is any doubt, after what the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, has written or indeed said, that there is a strong link. The limited operation in the South-West, the most affected area, has been restricted to less than 4 per cent. of the land area, so there are not wide areas of land where badgers have been slaughtered. Clearly the Minister has been wise to seek evidence by collecting and examining badger carcases from other areas in order to restrict contamination where it exists. There is no doubt about the problem of infection.

I was rather interested in a letter published in December last in the Daily Telegraph from the chairman of the Dorset County Branch of the National Farmers' Union, who said then—and it is still true, I am afraid—that there is much misunderstanding as to the extent of, and the need for, the gassing of badgers. It is not suggested that he said that any badgers should be destroyed where healthy cattle are living alongside healthy badgers. He reminds us that in a period of seven years no fewer than 700 infected cattle had to be slaughtered. When the area of about 500 acres was cleared of badgers the infection ceased immediately. Following a series of clear tests the farm was given a clean bill of health by the Ministry of Agriculture. He says: Now restocking of the empty setts with badgers is taking place with the blessing of the farmer and the careful monitoring of the Ministry of Agriculture, which throughout has shown great consideration not only for the health of livestock but for the welfare of the wildlife". I notice from replies to questions that something like £1½ million has been paid out in compensation. That money paid out represents a large number of cattle who have suffered in much the way that I have quoted tonight, and suffered a great deal. If my noble friend had been in charge of the situation would he have said, "Well, I recognise that something should be done, but until we are sure as to how we can get rid of these infected badgers with no suffering whatsoever the thing must be left"? I do not know what would have happened to our herds in that situation.

It has not been just a matter for the Minister of the day to decide what action he shall take, because he has had a lot of expert advice in addition to that of the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, and I think it would be helpful if I just put on record the reply to my noble friend on a Question in your Lordships' House on 14th July of this year, at column 452, about the composition of the Advisory Panel. I shall not mention names but it is important to know what organisations they represent. The composition of the Advisory Panel on Badgers and Tuberculosis includes members of the British Veterinary Association, the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association, the RSPCA, which I think is an important point, the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, the Mammal Society, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, and expert on the diseases of wildlife, an eminent authority on badgers, a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, the Nature Conservancy Council, a general medical practitioner and expert on badgers, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, and a microbiologist from Middlesex Hospital. That is a formidable gather- ing of experts and people representing all interests; nature as well as conservation, as well as animal welfare. We are indebted to them and indeed others who have given advice on this matter. They have met on five occasions since January 1981, the last time being on 1st July this year.

I do not think I need say anymore about this because Lord Zuckerman's contribution is one which I am sure will be accepted by all Members of the House. We are grateful to my noble friend for having raised this, and I hardly need to assure him that we all share the concern about this matter. In Government problems come along on which one hopes on occasion you would not have to take a decision. During the whole period under review, from Governments of both parties, we have been seeking all the advice we can to check on methods as to whether they are humane and to see whether there are alternative methods which might be even more humane. I think the Minister was right to suspend the present procedure until he has more assurance. I hope, as I am sure we all do, that something will come along soon which everyone can accept.

We would be wrong to be selective about this and say that we ought only to be concerned about the badgers who have TB and pay little regard to those who can get TB—the clean badgers, and there are many more of them, and also of course our dairy herds. My noble friend has rightly raised this matter, of which the gassing of badgers is only a small part. The other larger part concerns the many more clean badgers and the massive number of cattle who are threatened. We welcome this opportunity to enlighten the House and indeed the country about what steps are being taken, because we all share the dilemma and concern of the general public that something shall be done as soon as possible to make sure that the risk of contamination from some badgers does not spread the suffering to much wider areas.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, before my noble friend rises to reply, may I say that something has recently been said about the areas concerned. Like the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I am not an agriculturist but I am devoted to wildlife and to the prevention of cruelty to animals. The only case of bovine tuberculosis of which I have heard recently in our neighbourhood was in cattle imported from Ireland. I should like to ask my noble friend whether there is any limit in terms of region, or latitude, and whether badgers in Scotland are just as likely to be infected as are badgers in southern and warmer areas?

8.38 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston. I also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for having asked this Question. It gives me an opportunity to explain the position as it is, and it is an important Question. The noble Lord said that he had put this Question down in July and it was fairly emotionally charged, and if he had rewritten it he would have used more modest words. I am bound to say that he had three months in which to rewrite his Question, and if he did not rewrite it I am bound to answer the Question which was put on the Order Paper.

In that Question he refers to the, thousands of badgers gassed since 1975 under the requirements of the Ministry of Agriculture". He refers to the, massive cruelty inflicted upon an otherwise protected species of wildlife. These are strong words, and I accept that the noble Lord would modify them. But those are the words he used, and the words of the Question that one has to answer. I take them very seriously. Everyone knows Lord Houghton's intense interest in the protection of animals, and he is not alone in this. I want to see animals protected, and I have no doubt that every other noble Lord does too. Whatever the critics may say, the Ministry of Agriculture sets great store on the preservation of wildlife.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston. I did not think that my noble friend Lord Lindsey and Abingdon's description of badger baiting which was done only 100 years ago was particularly helpful. We have moved on since then, and people's opinions have changed a great deal; and if we are to talk about conservation, or anything like that, people's opinions have changed monumentally over the last seven years. Although my noble friend said that some people consider that badgers are diseased animals and should be put down at all costs, I do not think that is a fact. Certainly it is not the experience I have had. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is entirely right to say that the badger is liked and that the gassing of badgers is bad for Government. Indeed, I would not take any exception with him over that. Of course people do not like it. People have disliked it and, as he rightly said, they have demonstrated against it.

My officials at the Ministry of Agriculture do not like doing it either. The gassing of badgers does cause revulsion. It goes without saying that the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, under the instructions of my right honourable friend the Minister—and, indeed, of his predecessors who belonged to the party of the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston—did not undertake these operations without very good reason, and I shall take this opportunity to tell your Lordships exactly why badger control was, and remains, necessary; and I found the speech of Lord Bishopston particularly helpful when he said it was a difficult problem for any Minister. Any Minister can act only on the advice he has, and when one is talking about diseases, whether of cattle or human beings, he can act only on scientific advice, and it must be the best advice. He cannot act on his own opinions, however strongly he may feel, or on his own sentiments, because once one starts going down that road on matters of disease, one really loses credibility. My right honourable friend and the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston and his right honourable friend before him, acted, I believe, on the best advice they had.

In the 1930s, and even 30 years ago, tuberculosis was still a serious problem in this country, with 50,000 new cases in human beings every year. A substantial proportion of those cases arose from the tuberculosis organism which infects cattle. In the 1930s nearly one in three cattle were infected. Nowadays, tuberculosis is no longer the fearful scourge it was. It is uncommon in human beings, and in cattle only one animal in every 5,000 is now found to have any infection—as I say, compared with one in three in the 1930s—and those one in 5,000 we soon wipe out.

Fifty years ago we began a voluntary programme to eradicate this disease from cattle. Thirty years ago the eradication from cattle was made compulsory by law. In 1960, we were able to declare ourselves virtually free of bovine TB. That was a great achievement. Now, we regularly test the adult population of over 5 million cattle and any reactor animal is slaughtered as soon as it is detected. That means that few, if any, cattle get beyond an early stage of the disease. This is the only safe method and it is used by all developed countries. We should he failing in our obligations, both domestic and international, were we to do otherwise.

Nevertheless, despite that, there are still sporadic outbreaks, as with any other disease which has been removed. But it is no longer endemic. With few exceptions, these sporadic outbreaks have been confined to some parts of the South West. There, there is 10 times as much bovine TB as in the rest of the country—one reactor in 500 instead of one in 5,000—and while that is still very small, it is far too big. Tuberculosis could still be transmitted through milk to those who live and work on farms there. What is more, this higher level of infection could soon spread to neighbouring herds and to other parts of the country, to which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, referred.

It is a fact that badgers can, and do, harbour bovine tuberculosis and their connection with the disease is inescapable. Ministry scientists did not just jump to the conclusion that badgers were the culprit after finding just one carcase with TB. They examined many diseased badger carcases and studied the way in which the disease developed and where it occurred before reaching a conclusion. Indeed, there was criticism at the time that they were far too cautious about a conclusion which had long been obvious to many paople.

So the evidence accumulated. There is a very strong geographical correlation between outbreaks of the disease in cattle and the presence of diseased badgers, and I must tell my noble friend Lord Ferrier that, so far as I know, there is not an association between TB of badgers in Scotland and TB of cattle in Scotland. Badgers, when diseased, can excrete vast quantities of TB organisms, particularly in urine and pus, from bites or wounds, and so they can contaminate pastures. Cattle and badgers share the same pastures and the possibility of cross-infection is obvious.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, insinuated that possibly badgers get tuberculosis from cattle, a criticism I have frequently heard. However, the possibility that cattle could spread the disease to the badger or other cattle is considered to be extremely small, as cattle are regularly tested for the disease and reactors to the test and contacts are removed and slaughtered. The regularity of testing is such that in almost all cases the disease is discovered before it has developed to an infective stage, and any cattle sold prior to a test which reveals infection in the herd are immediately traced to their destination, check tested and, if necessary, slaughtered. So I really think that the possibility, so often put, that cattle give the disease to badgers is in fact not so.

I am bound to say that I was not altogether impressed with the connection between outbreaks of tuberculosis in badgers and TB in cattle until I went to the South West and saw the detailed field work, and at that level the connection is remarkably apparent. I believe that most impartial people who study the evidence would be convinced. And in the face of such evidence, no Government could afford to run the risk of not dealing with what is clearly a reservoir of a potential killer disease. It was decided that in order to neutralise the wildlife reservoir of the disease, infected badger social groups and their contacts should be removed, only in those areas where there was an undoubted connection. Of course, it may be that in some cases badgers have been destroyed when, in the full knowledge which we should like to have but which we do not have and which we did not have, that might not have been necessary. But when the eradication of serious disease is involved, we must act quickly and sometimes harshly. So, if it was necessary to destroy badgers in those limited areas, one asks: what should be the method?

Before deciding to use gassing as a means of badger control, the then Government undertook extensive and thorough consultations with a number of bodies: the Nature Conservancy Council, the Mammal Society, the Council for Nature, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and people eminent for their work in badgers. There was unanimous agreement among those consulted—and they were people who were, by nature, expected to want to protect badgers—that gassing was undoubtedly the most humane method of killing badgers. That was exactly the advice contained in the Scott-Henderson Report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals issued in June 1951. All the evidence was that gassing was the most humane method of destruction. We have always tried to operate on the smallest possible scale where badgers have to be destroyed.

My noble friend Lord Lindsey and Abingdon said Ministry officials in the field had shown themselves not open to conviction about the role of badgers and bovine TB. All I would tell him is that in every investigation on each outbreak of the disease we have examined every other possible source of infection before even considering the possibility of badger-bourne infection.

I would remind your Lordships that the total of gassing operations has not been large. A map showing the total extent of the operations has been placed in the Library of your Lordships' House, and it shows that only about 4 per cent. of the land area in the Ministry's South-West region has been covered by these operations, and this is only three-quarters of 1 per cent. of all the land in England alone—not Great Britain; just England.

So I really do not think that it is right for the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to say that this is an exercise that will exterminate the badgers. It really is not. The noble Lord described the Government as being the executioner of the species. I realise how strongly he feels, but, with the greatest of respect to him, I must say that such phraseology does not measure up to the facts. The operations have been carried out in only a very limited area, and only in those places where the badgers themselves have tuberculosis, or are suspected of having it.

I am bound to tell your Lordships that, despite the evidence about the involvement of badgers with the disease, despite the advice that was given about the humaneness of gassing, and despite the Government's statutory duty to eradicate tuberculosis from cattle, vociferous criticism still came from certain quarters.

When my right honourable friend the Minister came into office he decided to have the whole subject re-examined, because he wanted to make sure that the policy was right. He wanted a very eminent person to do this. So he appointed the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, whose presence tonight and whose contribution to the debate was very substantial and, if I may say so with all humility, very important. The noble Lord is president of the Zoological Society of London, he was president of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, and he is a very enminent person in this field. My right honourable friend asked him to carry out an independent review of the whole question. While that was being done, my right honourable friend stopped the gassing of new setts and in so doing permitted badgers which possibly had the disease to continue to spread it. The noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, concluded that the evidence involving the badger was overwhelming and that the only policy was to destroy badgers where they were known to be infected or in contact with infection. So gassing was resumed.

In the course of his inquiry, the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, paid particular attention to the question of the humaneness of gassing. He discussed the issues specifically with the Consultative Panel on Badgers and Tuberculosis, and it gave him the advice that there was no more humane or efficient method of badger control than gassing. Of whom does the panel consist? It consists of representatives of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, the Nature Conservancy Council, the Transport and General Workers' Union, the British Veterinary Association, the National Farmers' Union, and the Country Landowners' Association, as well as four individuals who are eminent in the fields of badger and wildlife disease studies. That is not exactly the village darts team, but rather a very eminent and respected body of people.

Their advice was that there was no more humane or efficient method of badger control than gassing. Nevertheless despite that assurance, the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, penetrated further. He decided to recommend yet a further check, and he advised that further inquiries should be carried out; in particular, inquiry into what concentration of gas in the air of the sett would be needed to kill the badgers both quickly and humanely. The necessary work was therefore commissioned to be done by the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down, and its report has been placed in the Library of the House. In passing I would mention that the Chemical Defence Establishment based its work mainly on ferrets and involved only a very few badgers. Even in this crucial work every effort was made to avoid killing badgers, as scientific advice was to the effect that ferrets would give a very good indication of what might happen in badgers. But of course the ironical part is that ferrets had to die in order to find out the information to protect the badgers.

The results from the experiments suggest that, if badgers are to be killed in one minute, then 2,000 parts per million of gas is needed in the air of the sett, and that the corresponding figure for five minutes is 882 parts per million, and for 25 minutes it is 194 parts per million.

I am hound to tell your Lordships that those results were unexpected, and they were unexpected in what was then the present state of informed opinion, which was based on investigations over a number of years into the toxicity of hydrogen cyanide to a very wide variety of animals. The results indicate that the response to cyanide of the badger is different from that of other animals. The reasons for the difference are not understood. However the results imply that there must be doubt as to whether all the badgers in a gassed sett die quickly, and therefore whether they die humanely. That is because the levels of gas in a sett are in general lower than the new experiments show to he necessary.

I must emphasise that the results do not suggest that thousands of badgers have died painful, miserable deaths from starvation or from asphyxiation. That is the interpretation of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and he is perfectly entitled to it. What the results do is to cast doubt on what had been thought about the speed of death and the after-effects for those badgers which do not die. My right honourable friends the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Wales decided that they could not afford to be doubtful in such a matter, and accordingly they suspended gassing as a means of badger control on 26th June this year.

Of course a new method of control has to be substituted for gassing, and the Ministry has resorted to live trapping. The decision was taken by my right honourable friend on the unanimous advice of the consultative panel. It agreed that it was necessary for control measures to continue, and it was satisfied that live trapping was a practicable and humane method of control. Live trapping also has the advantage that carcasses become available for scientific investigation, and the panel has urged that every effort should be employed to use this material to advance scientific knowledge of the subject—and this we are doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, asked whether the use of snares would be a possibility. We are discussing with the consultative panel on badgers the question of how best to operate live trapping, and we shall discuss with the panel the use of snares. On top of all of that a very wide variety of interested organisations have been invited to give their views on methods of controlling tuberculosis in badgers. The new main method of control will be reappraised once this advice has been received and has been considered. Our methods of control will be kept under continuous appraisal.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is worried about gassing, and he is worried that gassing has been wrong—a policy that has been continued not just by the present Government, but by our predecessors, who of course came from the party opposite. I am bound to say to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that I make no apology for what we have done. We have acted, as did my right honourable friend's predecessors, to protect human health and to protect animal health. We acted in the best of faith with the information which was available to us. As can happen in any aspect of life, further research has shown up unexpected facts which have cast doubt on the basis for our actions, and even contradicted our assumptions and our knowledge. That is what research often does, and that is the purpose of further research. We can only try once more to find the best method of control in the light of the knowledge which is available to us.

I know that this is a matter of great concern, and I would remind the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that apart from anything which the Government may do on research, the Consultative Panel on Badgers and Tuberculosis has endorsed the Ministry's major research programme. On certain aspects of the research close liaison has been established with the Middlesex Hospital in London; the Department of Pure and Applied Biology; the Imperial College, London; the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down; the Universities of Reading, Exeter and Surrey; and the National Environment Research Council, through its Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. So there is quite a lot going on for the badger.

I would conclude with the penetrating observations of the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, in his report—for which, if I may, I would add my personal and modest word of thanks and appreciation, because it was a remarkable report and easily readable. He said this: I am confident that the Ministy's policy does not constitute a threat to the survival of the species in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the very high prevalence of tuberculosis in the badgers of the South West seems to me to be a far greater threat, for if the disease were to take hold in badgers in other areas of the country, there is no saying what the consequences would be, not only so far as the transmission of tuberculosis to cattle is concerned but also as they relate to the survival of the badger in our country". Then, in his recommendations the noble Lord concluded—and I quote his words: the spread of tuberculosis among badgers now implies a major hazard in their survival". Tuberculosis is bad for humans, it is bad for cattle, and it is had for badgers themselves. It is our intention to continue to eliminate this disease in the most humane and reasonable manner that is known.

The Earl of Lindsey and Abingdon

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I ask him one question? I should just like to reiterate that I—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Earl, I think he is in fact out of order because he has spoken once already, and the convention is that that is sufficient for all noble Lords.