Owen Paterson is Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and is MP for North Shropshire.
Bovine TB has been out of control for more than a decade and is a cause of real misery for our dairy and cattle farmers. In 1979, when we addressed the disease in both cattle and wildlife, only 0.01 per cent of British cattle tested as infected. It has now spread extensively throughout the West of England and Wales. Last year alone, more than 26,600 otherwise healthy cattle in England were slaughtered due to TB, putting farmers on the brink of financial ruin, or even out of business altogether. Each year it is costing the taxpayer £100 million, and we will spend more than £1 billion this decade if we do not get a grip on this disease. It will destroy our beef and dairy industries.
That is why I am so determined that we do everything we can to eradicate TB from England. For the first time, we have a comprehensive strategy to eradicate bovine TB that sets out how we plan to stop the spread and then push back the disease. Our ambition is that by 2038 we will be free of the spectre of bovine TB.
If we are to achieve this, we have to use every tool available to us. That means constantly looking at how we can tighten our controls around the movement of cattle. We are regularly testing cattle herds to spot disease at an early stage. We are helping farmers to improve the prevention measures they have on their farms. We are investing millions into new vaccinations that could eventually mean we can give immunity to cattle.
The latest statistics, which show that the rate of new outbreaks is the lowest for a decade, are encouraging but we cannot, however, be complacent. The scale of the problem is still enormous. At one point last year one in every four cattle farms in the South West was under restrictions.
In areas where the disease is rife, such as the South West and parts of the West Midlands, we know that unless we address the infection in badgers they will continue to be free to spread disease.
No country in the world has successfully dealt with bovine TB without also addressing TB reservoirs in wildlife. Countries such as the Republic of Ireland and New Zealand have had great success in reducing TB by tackling the problem in badgers and possums respectively. The Republic of Ireland has seen a two thirds drop in infected cattle from 44,903 in 1999 to 15,612 in 2013. New Zealand is on the verge of declaring itself free of TB, after cases dropped to just 66 in 2011/12 from 1,700 in the 1990s. By tackling the disease in cattle and wildlife, Australia has been free of TB since 1997.
These examples show why, as part of our strategy to eradicate this disease, we must continue with the culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire.
Alongside this, we are investing heavily in research into vaccinations for both badgers and cattle. We will be spending £18 million over this Parliament. While we would love to have a cattle vaccine at our fingertips right now, the fact remains it is still some years away from being ready for use. An injectable vaccination is available for badgers, which we think will be useful in helping us create a buffer zone in areas on the edge of the disease, but it has no impact on animals that already have bovine TB. That means a vaccine is not a practical option in ‘hotspot’ areas such as Somerset and Gloucestershire.
Some people have pointed to the Welsh vaccination project as the reason for the drop in TB cases in Wales. But vaccination is only taking place in one small part of north Pembrokeshire, covering an area equivalent to just 1.5 per cent of Wales’s total land area. It has also been going for too short a time to have had a major impact.
There have been some suggestions recently following a research paper into small-scale culling carried out 25 years ago, that culling like the ‘test and vaccinate or remove’ research project which has just started in Northern Ireland can lead to increased cases of TB. This has been used by opponents of the policy to further their argument that culling is not the answer.
But the more recent randomised badger culling trials demonstrated, and scientists have agreed, that any increases in cases of TB were short-lived and gave way to a sustained and long-term reduction in outbreaks. These were still apparent more than nine years later. We designed the pilots in Somerset and Gloucestershire to reduce the risks of TB spreading by culling over much larger areas, and with hard boundaries such as rivers and motorways to limit movement of badgers in and out of the cull areas.
Only if we use every tool at our disposal, including culling, will we begin to check the progress of this devastating disease.
The decision to pilot a badger cull is not one that has been taken lightly. No one wants to kill badgers. It is based on the best available scientific evidence and the experience of other countries. No country in the world with a major cattle industry, and where wildlife carries TB, has eradicated the disease in cattle without tackling it in wildlife too. That is why it is so disappointing that the last government took the deliberate decision not to control the disease in wildlife, leaving our cattle industry so exposed to this deadly bacterium. We want to see healthy cattle living alongside healthy badgers.