Geoffrey Clifton-Brown highlights the importance of eliminating TB in badgers

27th March 2017

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calls on the Government to redouble its efforts to help scientists invent an oral vaccine that could be incorporated into a bait to be fed to badgers as that is the only real way to control TB in badgers. In the meantime, he calls on the Government to continue with the culling in the trial areas so that the results can be properly evaluated.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to see my hon. Friend the Minister on the Front Bench. I start by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a farmer, but I do not have any livestock. However, I represent one of the country’s greatest agricultural constituencies and, unfortunately, one of those that has been most affected by bovine tuberculosis. Sadly, I speak with some experience on this subject.

My constituency is home to one of England’s largest cull zones, spanning the whole of the north Cotswolds. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work and effort displayed by my farmers, who have committed a great deal of time and money to maintaining and protecting their badger cull zone in the face of numerous attempts at sabotage. To all those who say that farmers are not in favour of the culls, I simply say: why did they go to such considerable effort and expense if they did not believe that culling works?

The only real way to control TB in badgers is for scientists to invent an oral vaccine that could be incorporated into a bait to be fed to badgers. That method was successful in eradicating rabies in foxes on the continent. An oral vaccine for badgers has been “just around the corner” ever since I became a Member of Parliament in 1992. I urge the Minister today to redouble the Government’s efforts to find such a vaccine, because that would be the ultimate solution to this unpleasant problem.

This is an unpleasant problem. TB is a nasty disease, whether in cattle or badgers. Badgers who contract it either go to the bottom of the sett and die a long, slow, painful death from the disease, or lie semi-comatose at the top of the sett, with up to a third of their body covered by lesions. In that state, the animal is highly infectious to other badgers, so no wonder TB spreads from badger to badger.

It is important that we eliminate TB in badgers to prevent that cruel death among badgers. TB is also in cattle; not only does the disease cause them a great deal of pain, but they become less productive. When the disease is detected, they have to be slaughtered, so there is considerable economic loss to both the taxpayer and the farmers. In the past 10 years, a total of 314,000 cattle were slaughtered, costing the taxpayer and farmers more than £500 million; that will be £1 billion by the end of the decade. One need only see the emotional effect on farmers in my constituency of seeing the cattle that they have bred and cared for prematurely slaughtered. I think Opposition Members often forget the effect that this dreadful disease has on farmers.

 

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does he agree that those who oppose the cull look at the badger as a friendly, lovable animal, which in effect it is not? Factually, the badger is responsible for destroying bee hives, hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, grey partridges and meadow pipits. [Interruption.] That is true. It is also responsible for the loss of wood warblers, nightingales and stone curlews. Those are facts. The badger is a danger, and like all wild animals that have no natural predator—just like deer and foxes—it should be culled, so that numbers are maintained.

 

Order. A reminder that interventions should be brief.

 

I commend my hon. Friend for putting some of the facts about wildlife on the record. He is right about the reduction in some of our bird and mammal species, such as the hedgehog.

 

Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to cite the source of the evidence he just supported?

 

Well, the source is evident to any countryman out there. There has been a rapid decline in hedgehogs, and we know perfectly well that badgers eat hedgehogs’ young, wild birds and birds’ nests. That, however, is not the subject of the debate, and I do not want to get drawn on that red herring.

 

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

 

Provided it is not on that subject.

 

It is on facts and evidence. The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Clearly TB is a terrible disease, whether it is in badgers or cattle, and everyone wants to see it reduced. Looking at the evidence of the measures taken in Wales and the much less effective methods taken in England, how can he explain the disparity between the two?

 

I am so glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Wales. In Wales, although BTB has decreased, the current vaccination programme operates in only 1% of the country and is only in its second year, so it is difficult to see how vaccinating has led to the reduction in BTB.

 

rose

 

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, before he asks me to give way, that other factors are involved. Having said that, I would like to comment on the costs, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who introduced the debate. He has read all the literature, and he is an intelligent chap of a scientific mind, so he knows perfectly well that for a vaccination programme to be successful, the badgers have to be vaccinated for five years. As he said, each year costs £662; that is well over £3,000 for every badger vaccinated. He also knows perfectly well that vaccinations have no effect on the poor, diseased badgers I described—the ones who are really suffering—that go on to spread the disease to healthy badgers. I therefore cannot see how a vaccination programme can be successful.

 

rose

 

Will the hon. Gentleman please be patient? I will give way in a minute. He is jumping up and down like a yo-yo. The hon. Member for Newport West and anyone who knows anything about this subject will also know how difficult it is to trap a badger. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) implied, badgers do not just sit there in a trap and lie dormant; they bite and try every way of getting out of the trap, so the people who do the vaccinations have to be skilled and well trained. It is not easy to get all badgers into vaccination traps. I therefore suggest to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—I will give way to him once more—that vaccination is not very effective in itself. Where it is effective and has a role is in targeted areas around trial cull areas to stop perturbations spreading the disease further.

The hon. Member for Newport West, who mentioned the shortage of BCG vaccine, made a point that was in my speech: the BCG vaccine has been around for decades. It would be useful if my hon. Friend the Minister could say something about that, so that where we do want to carry out vaccination on the edges of trial cull areas, that option is available. We need to ensure that happens. I will give way to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth one more time. This is the last time I will give way, because a lot of people want to speak in the debate.

 

The hon. Gentleman is generous. I never suggested that vaccination alone was a solution. The chief veterinary officer for Wales has been clear, and has spoken of a combination of increased testing frequency, improved biosecurity and other cattle control measures, as well as vaccination. There is a huge disparity between the 16% reduction in England and the 47% reduction in Wales. Clearly, there is a difference in the way the approaches work.

 

I was coming on to the issue of biosecurity, which obviously has something to do with it, as do more accurate tests. There are a number of things that could help. In a spirit of constructive debate, which I hope is what this afternoon is about, I want to suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister methods by which we can all help to eliminate the disease, and support the 25-year elimination programme. It is important, in the trial areas, that we eliminate TB in badgers, to prevent this cruel death. Farm biosecurity has rightly been improved, and that has been extended across the country. The Minister has, in this Government and the coalition Government, taken a number of steps to improve testing and biosecurity on farms. Examples include post-movement testing and more accurate skin tests in certain areas. All those things have a role to play; I hope we all agree on that.

 

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

 

No. I did say that I was not going to give way again. Other people want to speak. By the time I finish, I will have spoken long enough and will be reprimanded by the Chair.

In other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and, I am afraid, Ireland, controlling the TB reservoir in wildlife has had a significant effect, eliminating or severely reducing the incidence of TB in cattle. Fifty per cent. of England is set to be TB-free by next year, with all 10 badger control operations achieving a successful outcome, according to the targets that have been set.

 

As I was saying, we need to use all the methods at our disposal to get on top of this dreadful disease; I have already described the suffering in badgers and cattle that contract it. It is important that we find a variety of mechanisms in our locker to combat it.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will say more about this, but the opposition to the culls always harps on about biosecurity. However much the biosecurity is improved—some simple things can be done, and have been done over the years, such as putting the water trough and feed trough in places where badgers cannot get at them—the plain fact of the matter is that where badgers roam on pasture, and cattle feed on pasture, there is inevitably intermingling.

 

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

 

I said I would not, but since we have had a break, I will give way one more time and no more.

 

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is highlighting some alleged facts in relation to the engagement that badgers have with cattle. I would like to suggest that there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate that view whatsoever.

 

I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an intelligent chap, that every bit of logic points to the fact that there must be a link. If badgers have TB and cattle have TB—I do not think this island is alone; this takes place in the rest of the world —any scientific hypothesis would assume there is a link. It is not credible for him to suggest otherwise.

We have to take every opportunity to improve biosecurity in the ways I have mentioned. We also need to improve the testing. We know that the traditional swelling test leaves an element of cattle undetected. We need to work on better tests, whether they be skin tests or others. We need my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that we have the resources to research tests that are much more reliable. The polymerase test is being adopted in some areas, which gives a more reliable result. The problem is that it also detects the disease in some animals that do not have it, so they show up in the test as having it. We need to keep trying to develop a more effective test. As well as that, in edge vaccination areas, we need to stop the perturbation effect that I described. We rely on the Minister and the Government to ensure that we have sufficient supplies available to do that, because there is no doubt that that is part of the armoury.

The final part of our armoury is the trial culls. The opposition to the culls tries to maintain that the culls are not improving the situation. Any initial assessment of my constituency would show that where trials have taken place—for example, on the hard edge of the Severn—the incidence of TB has reduced. It is early days, but even the evidence from Krebs and pre-Krebs of the gassing of badgers showed that where badgers are eliminated, the incidence of TB declines.

One thing that my farmers want to know from the Minister today is what regime will succeed the original three cull areas. It seems that everybody has gone to a huge amount of trouble to eliminate badgers in those areas. If the whole thing were stopped dead now, it would be rather a waste of time. They want to know what sort of regime will succeed that. They hope that it will be a light-touch regime and not too onerous. I can tell my hon. Friend that getting the big trial area up and running in the north Cotswolds was very onerous indeed for the farmers involved. I think that he needs to look at ways in which the regime can be made lighter-touch.

In conclusion, my local farmers suffer emotionally and economically. The taxpayer suffers economically. The badgers suffer a painful death. The cattle become unproductive and have to be slaughtered prematurely. It is essential that the Minister reassures the House today that resources are being put into trying to find a satisfactory oral vaccine for badgers; that would be the ultimate solution to the problem. We need to find more effective skin testing, so that all the animals that have this dreadful disease are detected and eliminated from the national herd. We also need to look carefully at the spread of the disease to other species. There is increasing evidence that this terrible disease is spreading into the deer population. Perhaps my hon. Friend can say something about that this afternoon, and about the total situation in relation to TB. Is it stabilising in the main areas affected, or is it still increasing? We need to find that out.

We need to use all the tools in our box. I urge the Minister to keep on with the trial areas; that is what my farming constituents want. They believe that that method works; the proof will come when all the results are evaluated, but anecdotally, so far, they believe that it works.

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