HL Deb 26 January 2005 vol 668 cc1259-62

2.46 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to change their policy regarding the culling of badgers in areas where bovine tuberculosis is rife.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government would be prepared to consider culling badgers as part of an integrated bovine TB control programme, but only if the available scientific evidence supported it as a cost-effective and sustainable option. We are, of course, aware of the recently published results of badger culling research carried out in Ireland. We have referred that work to independent scientists to advise on the relevance of the findings to the disease situation in Great Britain.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's Answer. He is aware of the University of Dublin's five-year tuberculosis trials in Donegal, but is he aware that those trials have conclusively reduced the incidence of TB in cattle by 96 per cent? As the Government are going to spend £2 billion on this over the next 10 years, should they wait any longer to implement such trials in this country? If so, why?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, trials are going on in this country. Although the noble Lord is correct to say that there was a success rate of over 90 per cent in one of the four areas in Ireland, there were varying rates of success in different topography and with different densities of cattle and badger populations. The full implications of the Irish studies have to be taken into account, and they will be taken into account by our independent scientists. It is instructive to note that the Irish Minister has said that the conclusions from those studies have not led her to change the overall balance of the policy they have adopted in the Irish Republic.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the reports to which he referred me in Questions for Written Answer stated that, in 1988: It is now clear that bovine TB is endemic in the British badger population and so far has been recorded in 16 of the 61 counties". Is he also aware that last year out of 397 new TB breakdowns in dairy and beef herds in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, 85 per cent have been attributed by Defra officials to wildlife origin, which means badgers?

In view of these reports, is it not time the Minister and his colleagues grasped the nettle, as I have said before, and dealt with the problem? Over and over again, research has shown that if you reduce the number of badgers in an area, TB breakdowns in cattle will fall; if you reduce the number of cattle with TB, the TB incidence will remain the same or increase.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have said before, and I repeat, that no one is disputing that bovine TB can be carried by badgers and can cause its spread in cattle. The question is whether that is always the main cause of the spread of TB. It is clear that cattle movements and the lack of bio-security also play a part. It is not clear that a simple culling of badgers will have the effect that the noble Countess suggests. It had a differential effect even in the Irish trials—and there are trials in the UK where the effect of a full cull has led simply to more diseased badgers moving into the area and had a negative effect on the incidence of TB. The full implications of that also have to be taken into account. I repeat that we have to take into account all the scientific evidence, including evidence on the effectiveness of a cull.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, has the Minister considered the pressure on dairy cows? In my area—I have lived there for almost 40 years—more pressure has been put on cattle. Does that reduce their resistance to disease? What does research indicate on that?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, if the noble Lord means that increasing production pressure in relation to dairy cattle has of itself led to greater susceptibility to disease, it is, of course, true that the more densely packed cattle are, the greater the possibility that they will contract the disease from a single source, whether that is cattle or badgers. However, I do not think that the increased productivity of dairy herds has any effect.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, how long is it anticipated that these latest independent studies which have been commissioned will take? Will the Minister give some reassurance to farmers in the hotspots, particularly those in the south-west, who weekly send off reactor cattle but are told that they cannot touch a hair on the heads of badgers on their farms which they know to be infected, that the refusal so far of Defra to make a decision on this is not the result of fear of confronting badger protection groups as farmers believe?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I recognise that there is a bigger problem in the south-west than elsewhere. Those are the areas where cattle are most heavily affected and where the disease has not been contained. However, in total the number of herds affected went down last year and the amount of time during which herds are subject to restriction has also gone down. Therefore, there is some rolling back of the disease. As regards why we are not prepared to accept the simplistic view that simply culling badgers would resolve the problem, we have put in place a number of trials which will last until 2006. The results of those trials will inform policy beyond that date. It will take at most a few months for the independent scientific group to assess the relevance of the Irish trials to the British situation. That will occur well before the completion of our own trials.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister publish the results by area of the analysis of badgers killed on the roads and the percentage and number of those badgers that tested positive for bovine TB?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the results in those counties where that testing is carried out are passed to the independent scientific group as additional information to be considered with information relating to the culling that is being carried out within those areas. The group will take that information into account in reaching its conclusions. However, simply to publish the road accident dimension could give a misleading impression.