Badger cull is a key part of tackling bovine TB

The badger cull is not a political move. It is a vital part of a comprehensive plan to control and eradicate bovine TB where the disease is endemic, writes Minette Batters, NFU Deputy President:

Last year nearly 33,000 cattle were slaughtered across Great Britain because of bovine TB. More than 4,700 herds that had previously been clear of the disease were affected by it. It is an infectious disease for which there is no cure.

According to Defra figures it is estimated that a bovine TB breakdown on a farm costs, on average, £34,000, with roughly £20,000 of that cost borne by the Government and £14,000 borne by the farmer through the loss of animals, the on-farm costs of testing and the disruption caused to businesses because of the movement restriction imposed following a positive test.

Dealing with the disease has cost the taxpayer £500 million in England in the last decade and it is estimated the cost will rise to £1 billion over the next ten years. This is clearly unsustainable and is why we need a comprehensive plan that deals with this disease on all fronts and gives us the best chance of controlling and eradicating it.

Such a plan already exists. The Government’s 25-year TB eradication strategy is the first plan of its kind we have had to tackle this disease in England. It is based on the best available evidence and scientific advice. It includes all the elements needed to give us the best chance of achieving a TB-free England – badger vaccination; cattle vaccination; cattle testing; cattle movement controls; on-farm biosecurity; and culling of badgers in areas where bovine TB is rife. And it is vital it is implemented in full as soon as possible.

The role played by badgers in the spread of bovine TB is well known and widely accepted. Badgers are recognised a significant wildlife reservoir of the disease in areas where it is endemic. It is estimated that badgers contribute to up to 50 per cent of cattle herd TB breakdowns in these areas.

Research has also shown that up to one in three badgers in areas where the disease is rife have it. If we don’t deal with it in the wildlife reservoir at the same time as it is dealt with in cattle then reinfection will continue to occur and the disease will continue to spread.

It is wrong to suggest we will never conclusively know if culling badgers can have a positive impact on controlling bovine TB in cattle in areas where the disease is endemic. Previous trials have already shown that it can.

Much has also been made in some quarters about the current culls having failed to have any impact on bovine TB in the cull areas. It is much too early to make any such claim. The culls are designed to run for four years and it is widely accepted that it will be a number of years after their completion before the scientific evidence is available to show the positive impact they have had, just as it was with previous trials.

Dressing up best-guess interpretations of information as ‘official’ data does nothing but further muddy the waters. What we do know is that anecdotal evidence from both Somerset and Gloucestershire suggests culling is having a positive impact, with herds that had been under TB restriction for a long time going clear.

The number of cattle that have been slaughtered because of bovine TB in Dorset over the past three years has fallen – from 1,192 in 2012 to 748 last year – which is news that will be welcomed by everyone, especially the farmers who losing fewer cattle to this terrible disease.

But the fact remains that the number of new herd incidents of bovine TB in the county has remained roughly the same – 162 in 2012, 168 in 2013, and 167 in 2014 - which shows that the underlying disease problem is still there and still needs to be dealt with. Defra’s figures show that around one in seven of all the registered cattle herds in Dorset have been under movement restrictions because of bovine TB at the end of each of the last three years. No one can say that these figures show the situation is improving dramatically or that bovine TB isn’t having a significant impact in the county.

The culls are being funded by local farmers who are prepared to use their own money because they believe the culls will have a positive impact on levels of bovine TB in their areas and other areas across the country where the disease is endemic.

The fact a large proportion of the costs cited by opponents to the policy is made up of policing costs is significant – if people weren’t prepared to act unlawfully to disrupt what is a legal and licensed activity as part of a government policy, then the police wouldn’t be needed – and this kind of behaviour shouldn’t simply be accepted as an inevitable consequence of what is being done.

No one is saying badger culling alone will solve the problem of bovine TB. Just like no one is saying badger vaccination alone will solve the problem. To have any chance of controlling and eradicating it we have to use all available options at the same time.