I recently attended the debate in Parliament on this matter to listen to the arguments and the following covers the main points raised in correspondence from many constituents, from both sides of this debate.
As this is a rural constituency, you will be only too aware that this is not the only cull that needs to be considered. In the 12 months to the end of May 2016, 18,683 cattle were slaughtered across the South West of England, as a result of efforts to control bovine TB. Nearly 228,000 cattle have been culled in England since 2008 but the disease is continuing to spread. It is devastating our farming community and bringing misery for farming families who face the repeated culling of their herds. As a former GP working in a rural community as well as in my work as your MP, I know that bTB testing is hazardous, time consuming and difficult for farmers. It carries a very heavy financial cost for farmers at a time when farming incomes are already under enormous pressure and it has cost taxpayers £500,000 in the last decade. It is worth looking at the scale of the toll from bovine TB in our own area from this interactive map of herd breakdowns http://www.ibtb.co.uk
We cannot ignore this disease; if infected cattle were left with worsening disease, so-called open bTB would pose an even greater risk to those who come in contact with them. The disease is caused by a bacterial infection and spread through infected body fluids or by close contact. For example, by breathing in droplets containing bTB bacteria. In the days before milk was made completely safe by pasteurisation, the main route of transmission of bTB to people was through drinking milk from infected animals and the disease killed countless thousands of people.
The most common route of transmission to cattle is not from badgers but from other cattle which is why the mainstay of disease control will include a stricter testing regime for cattle and tighter biosecurity measures on farms.
Infected badgers may excrete bTB in their urine and this contaminates grazing pastures. It is not necessary for direct physical contact to occur between badgers and cattle for the disease to be spread. Whilst far fewer cases of bTB in cattle come as a result of transmission form badgers, this remains an important source of infection, especially in hotspot areas such as South Devon.
No country in the world has managed to control the disease in cattle without controlling it in the main wildlife reservoir, which in the UK is badgers. Some of the figures quoted for the prevalence of bTB in badgers are incorrect as these have not taken account of the full analysis from tissue samples in 2007 which found that in hotspot areas of bTB nearly a third of the badgers examined were affected. It would be wrong to expect farmers to repeatedly cull their cattle whilst ignoring the cases that come from grazing pastures contaminated by bTB as a result of infected badgers.
Bovine TB is also a debilitating disease for badgers as well as for other susceptible mammals and it is spreading remorselessly northwards and eastwards in the badger population. We should not give up on the fight to make the UK free from TB but that will involve very difficult decisions about controlling the disease in wildlife as well as livestock.
Many people have asked why we cannot vaccinate cattle and badgers against bTB. At present all programmes to vaccinate badgers, including in so called edge areas and the programme in Wales, have been halted because there is a worldwide shortage of BCG. As this is the same as is used in the human TB vaccine, the World Health Organisation (WHO) have rightly asked that supplies are prioritised to protect people from this terrible disease. The following link gives further background to this global shortage
It takes ten times the dose to vaccinate a badger as it takes to protect a person and, unlike people, badgers have to be vaccinated every year for 5 years.
Vaccination cannot cure an infected badger but repeated vaccination of badgers does help to reduce the spread of infection between them and also seems to reduce, but not eliminate, the levels of bTB bacteria excreted by those already infected.
Even if there were enough vaccine available to do so, it would be extraordinarily expensive and logistically difficult to trap and vaccinate every badger in the South West every year for five years. If an oral bait vaccine becomes available, ie one that is mixed in with food, this would be far more practical to administer. In the meantime, injectable vaccine, once the international supply problems have been resolved, will used to try to reduce the spread of disease beyond the so called 'edge areas' to cattle and wildlife in low risk areas.
I am also supportive of the pilot study being carried out by the Welsh government in Pembrokeshire to see if it can be more effective than culling in high risk areas. Many people have quoted the reduction of bTB in Wales but these figures cover the whole country rather than the pilot area and the Chief Veterinary officer for Wales has stated that it is too early to evaluate the results at this stage. These will need to be compared with the reduction in herd breakdowns in areas with similar levels of bTB which have used the same biosecurity measures but without vaccination.
I have also been asked if I would call for vaccination of cattle. This is not allowed under EU rules because the skin test for cattle cannot distinguish between vaccinated and diseased animals. There is a possibility that at some point in the future a test known as the DIVA test might be approved as this does show promise in being able to distinguish between diseased and vaccinated cattle. This would then be a step towards cattle vaccination possibly becoming part of the strategy to control TB. I would be supportive of this once the global supply shortage of BCG is resolved.
The main point of contention however is whether culling badgers can make a meaningful contribution to the control of bTB. There is disagreement on this within the scientific community. The chief vet, Nigel Gibbens has strongly supported the policy but there are also eminent scientists who feel that it will be ineffective or risk spreading the disease at the edge of cull zones. I do think it is worth noting the result of the cull in Southern Ireland which has contributed to the reduction in herd breakdowns. Badger numbers are now at a level where the government could manage a vaccination programme, but again this can only happen once the vaccine supply problem has been resolved.
I realise that for some, there would be no circumstances under which they would be prepared to support a cull of any badgers. For many others however, it is the indiscriminate nature of the cull which does not distinguish between diseased and healthy badgers, alongside concerns about the evidence base and the method used.
On the first point, I was glad to hear the minister confirm his support for ongoing funding for further research into finding a better test for bTB in wildlife and cattle as well as for vaccination research. The PCR test needs some further development but I am hopeful that it will in future be able to more accurately identify diseased animals by testing droppings from the main latrine near their setts.
You may also be interested to read about a research project being conducted in Northern Ireland, although this is not a pilot or a trial, I will be following this with interest (although it will again be interrupted by the global vaccine shortage).
Whilst I recognise that many people are opposed to the current cull, I will not be opposing the roll out in Devon. I do however fully support the continued investment in vaccine development and better diagnostic tests for bTB in both badgers and cattle. On the important point about the humaneness of controlled shooting, sometimes referred to as free shooting, my view is that I would prefer to see cages used where available prior to shooting. Whilst those conducting the cull have to operate under strict licence conditions that reduce the risk of a non-lethal shot, I would urge people not to vandalise cages as it means that the alternative method is used instead.
In summary, I recognise the strength of feeling on both sides of this debate and I sincerely hope that in future we will have a more reliable test for bTB and effective vaccines that can be used for cattle and badgers to control this terrible disease.