Bovine tuberculosis is a devastating disease.
With the remorseless spread in the infected areas over the last decade, around 25,000 cattle are slaughtered each year, at a huge cost to the taxpayer.
But the real hurt to the farmer who sees his or her herd destroyed is hugely greater than cash losses, as I have seen in the faces of those farmers who have experienced it. It’s just not acceptable to do nothing, because, far from going away, the problem is just increasing every year.
But what can be done? Well, it is a fact that there isn’t a single country which has managed to turn the tide on TB without addressing the disease in wildlife. In this country, that is the badger, and sadly, the badger population now has endemic infection, a welfare issue in itself.
I don’t know anyone who relishes the idea of killing that most popular species the badger, despite their decidedly adverse effect on other creatures such as the hedgehog and ground nesting birds. If there was a satisfactory alternative to the small pilot culls which I have now authorised, then believe me I would have taken it, and I still would. But all the advice I have seen says that is not the case.
The easy cry of course is to use vaccination. As if we wouldn’t if it was that easy. We are spending £15.5 million on research on vaccines over the next four years. Vaccines, of course, don’t cure sick animals, but they would stop future spread.
But the vaccine we have for badgers requires each animal to be trapped and injected, and has to be done on a yearly basis. It is not practicable, and it is vastly expensive. An oral vaccine, one which could be used in bait, would be much better. But we haven’t got one yet. Nor do we have an effective vaccine for cattle where we can distinguish between an infected animal and a diseased animal, and there is not the slightest chance of lifting EU bans on the sale of meat or milk from those animals until we can demonstrate that is the case.
Others talk about the perturbation effect, that the consequences of a cull is to disperse infected badgers into new areas. That is why the pilot areas in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset have been chosen to have natural boundaries. Where there is no such boundary, vaccine will be used to provide a buffered zone.
Some talk about wiping out badgers as a species. Nonsense. In West Sussex not a single badger will be harmed, because neither the badgers nor the cattle have TB, and they co-exist perfectly happily. In each of the trial areas, the average number of badgers shot will be between 500 and 800 each year over the four years.
Will it eradicate TB? No, not on its own. But taken with other measures on cattle-to-cattle contact and biosecurity, it will result in a substantial reduction. And I think we owe it to everyone to try. If a real alternative exists, I would be delighted. At the moment, it doesn’t.
David Heath is Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome. His column can be read in the Western Gazette every Thursday.