HL Deb 18 October 1999 vol 605 cc745-7

3.13 p.m.

Baroness Sharples asked her Majesty's Government:

What are their plans to control the rapid population growth of badgers beyond the schemes proposed and in operation.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, there are no plans to control the growth of badger numbers. However, there is a culling trial in operation which is designed to establish the extent to which badgers contribute to the problem of bovine TB in cattle.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. I have in my 23 acres of woodland 10 badger sets, which means at least five badgers per set. I also have 20 acres of grazing which have been really ruined by the badgers. What can I do about that problem? The land is let to organic farmers and I do not believe that they will return next year.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, because of the protection which has been afforded to badgers, in order to disturb sets or to remove badgers a landowner needs to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the appropriate conservancy council. I suggest that the noble Baroness contacts the regional service centre of the ministry which will assess whether the damage being caused is such as to justify the issue of a licence.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that in by far the greater part of the United Kingdom badgers present no problem whatever, and that where bovine tuberculosis is a problem, that is being dealt with? Will my noble friend confirm also that the reported rapid increase in the population of badgers may be much greater in appearance than in reality, largely because of the high death toll of badgers on the roads and motorways of the United Kingdom? Does she agree that by and large the animal is beneficial rather than harmful?

Baroness Hayman

Well, my Lords, there are differences of view in this area. Certainly we should not underestimate the problem of bovine TB and the fact that last year it cost the lives of 6,000 cows. I believe that my noble friend is right to say that no one has any interest in attacking the badger population for the sake of it. However, there is considerable concern at the rise in bovine TB. I understand that it is estimated that the badger population has increased by about 25 per cent over the past 10 years or so.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell me, first, where the hairs for my shaving brush come from? Secondly, is she aware that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders' sporran has a badger's head on it? When stationed in Ulster, they went to the South of Ireland to kill badgers to ensure that they had proper badgers' heads on their sporrans. Will the Minister explain how this arose?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am glad to say that I have no intimate knowledge of the noble Earl's shaving brush and, therefore, I am not able to answer that question.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fairly recent press reports which drew attention to the fact that one gentleman sought to avoid the misuse of his land by feeding the badgers excessive amounts of food so that they went somewhere else?

Baroness Hayman

No, my Lords. I am not aware of those press reports. However, I say in all seriousness to the House that I am aware of the concern and the damage done by bovine TB to farmers' livelihoods and to their cattle. I believe that it is in everyone's interests that the scientific trials currently being undertaken are allowed to be completed so that, once and for all, we can have a sound basis for policies in this area.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I applaud totally what she has just said with regard to TB? However, is she aware that horses and badgers do not go together, and that many horse owners are unable to graze their animals because of the large holes and tunnels very near to the surface which are caused by badgers and which may cause serious leg injury or death to horses?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, badger sets can damage property; for example, waterworks and railway embankments. As I said earlier, that is why it is possible to apply for a licence to disturb or remove a set. That, I believe, is not in dispute. The area in which there is not agreement relates to the potential or possible link between badgers and bovine TB. That is why we believe it is important that the trials are allowed to continue.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, although badgers are terribly sweet and one does not want anyone to do anything about them, they are very addicted to strawberries? I have a friend in Dorset whose strawberries are constantly being eaten by badgers.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I was not: aware of the particular predilection of badgers for strawberries, but I find that one always learns something at the Dispatch Box of your Lordships' House.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I know nothing about strawberries or sporrans. However, is it true that bovine TB has now been identified in Wiltshire? If so, what are the Government doing about it? What recent progress has been made in discovering a vaccine for bovine TB both for cattle and for badgers?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, on the second part of the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Luke, he is right to direct our attention to the possibility of a vaccine being a way forward. I understand that current research is directed at a vaccine for cattle; but a vaccine for other wildlife, including badgers, is not outwith that research. It is a long-scale programme that does not offer an immediate response.

On the Wiltshire issue, we have now enrolled in the Krebs trial to which I referred five of the 10 areas recommended by Sir John Bourne and the Independent Scientific Group. Concern is expressed that we are seeing bovine TB in areas of the country that have not experienced it before. However, there is no unanimity about the cause of badger infection or the role that infected badgers play in this matter. For that reason we need to get our facts straight.