Labour will tackle bovine TB - without the mass killing of badgers

| 18th September 2014
Badger seen at the British Wildlife Centre, Newchapel, Surrey. Photo: Peter Trimming via Flickr.
Badger seen at the British Wildlife Centre, Newchapel, Surrey. Photo: Peter Trimming via Flickr.
Speaking in Stroud this week, Huw Irrancas-Davies MP delivered a withering attack on the Government's badger cull policy - and firmly committed a future Labour government to ending the badger cull, using measures to control bovine TB that are safe, effective, and humane.
For these eminent scientists, leading experts in fields such as badger ecology and the epidemiology of Tb, observing this government's approach to policy is to see the world turned upside down.

Last week David Cameron's failed badger-culls started for the second year.

The coalition government is blundering ahead with two culls this year, as a precursor to 40 widespread culls in the years that lie ahead.

The choice is now clear: The next General Election will determine whether widespread mass-culling of badgers takes place across the countryside for many years to come: culls based on two chaotic pilots last year which were a catastrophic, unscientific and costly failure.

Labour will do things differently, and more effectively, working with farmers and wildlife groups and others to turn around and eradicate Bovine TB.

There is an alternative!

There is a viable alternative way, but we need farmers and their unions and associations to engage fully and sign up to a long-term programme. It will not be easy, nor quick, but we will defeat Tb without mass-culling if there is a will to do so in the farming and wider community.

When Owen Paterson was dismissed from his post as Secretary of State, there was a glimmer of a hope that his replacement might bring a new line of thinking to the problem of bovine Tb and the controversial badger culls.

Or at the very least that the new Defra boss Lizz Truss, having no detailed knowledge of the matter but having witnessed from afar the car-crash which was the pilot badger culls last year, would pause to examine the pros and cons before racing headlong into disaster again. The Secretary of State could make her own mind up.

But no. Any hope was forlorn. Within 48 hours of her appointment, Liz Truss stood at the despatch box in parliament and announced "We are progressing with our programme [of culls]", also trotting out the line "We must use every tool in our toolbox".

"Every tool" is now the Tory / LibDem euphemism for "badger cull". It could have been Owen Paterson all over again.

A golden opportunity missed

Scientists and many others critical of the failed badger culls were astonished, and truly disappointed. Had the new Secretary of State managed to review the evidence on such a controversial and scientifically-contested policy in such a short space of time?

Or had she just followed the script, swallowed the hype, and slotted in flexibly where her predecessor had left off. Or even worse, had she been told by David Cameron to just get on with it?

Here was a golden opportunity for the new Defra Secretary to make her mark, and show that she would revert to evidence-based policy, instead of selecting the evidence to match the failing policy.

When challenged further in parliament by Shadow Secretary of State Maria Eagle to at least extend the role of the Independent Expert Panel to oversee this summer's continuation of the culls, she declined. What could she be afraid of from independent oversight?

For these eminent scientists, leading experts in fields such as badger ecology and the epidemiology of Tb, observing this government's approach to policy is to see the world turned upside down.

This year's culls will be every bit as catastrophic for farmers, taxpayers and wildlife as last year's pilots. The lack of independent oversight is just the latest shameful indictment of this government's lackadaisical approach to science and monitoring.

It is also compounds the reasons why these extended culls have zero scientific credibility, and why Labour cannot support them, and will not continue them in government.

Liz Truss missed a golden opportunity to rethink Bovine TB. She has led the government back into the same disastrous cull-de-sac as Owen Paterson.

Missed deadlines, breached guidelines

One final point on the latest Secretary of State (the third of this government so far). She recently repeated the blatant lie that Labour did nothing on Bovine Tb for 13 years.

We spent 10 years and £50m scientifically testing the case for culls, and the conclusion was that culls could make no meaningful contribution to eradicating TB. The Tories must have been asleep for that ten years.

But let's not forget what happened just last year, and be clear that it was the policy-failure of ministers - not farmers - that the pilot culls proceeded and were such a catastrophic failure.

Defra's own guidelines on the culls were that they had to be carried out in a short period of six weeks and eliminate 70% of the badger population in any cull area to be effective. Yet both culls in Gloucester and Somerset missed the deadlines and - against the clear guidelines issued by Defra themselves - were extended by up to a total of 13 weeks.

Despite this astonishing extension the cull targets were missed again, with only 65% culled in Somerset and less than 40% in Gloucestershire. Failed. Extended. Failed again.

Shifting goalposts (and it's not the badgers moving them)

Do bear in mind that the culls were designed to test the effectiveness of free-shooting of badgers, not least because this was regarded by the government as a more cost-effective way of culling.

Yet it was realised within days of the initial pilots that this method was failing badly, and the more expensive method of cage-trap and shoot was urgently resorted to in order to boost the cull numbers.

So the very method which the pilots were set up to test - the free-shooting of badgers - was in effect abandoned. It does not work. The government have given up on testing it. So it is no surprise that we learned that bulk orders of cages had been made in advance of the latest culls by the government this year.

But of course the cage-trap-shoot approach is very expensive. In fact, when all costs (including significant policing costs) are factored in most observers believe the cost per badger is well in excess of viable alternative TB control methods, such as badger vaccination.

For some reason the government still remains shy about the total costs, but some estimates have put the cost per badger culled at £4,300.

Scandal upon scandal

So, the pilots failed badly on their own measures of effectiveness. The government's own Independent Expert Panel (IEP) told us that in their scathing report on the trial. The same report by the same Independent Experts told us that the trials had also failed on humaneness: too many badgers were dying lingering deaths; not enough clean shots.

When Defra's own Independent Expert Panel tells the government that they've failed on two out of their own three measures (the third was safety - no one was hurt during the free-shoot pilots) is it then any wonder that the expert panel are not invited to continue their monitoring of the trials this year?

As an aside, on the safety issue (the one measure which the culls did not fail on) there is currently an investigation into allegations of cull marksmen with loaded guns pursuing badgers outside the licensed cull area across a golf course. Surely the third measure - safety - is not about to be retrospectively failed too?

The Chair of Natural England's Science Advisory Committee, Professor David McDonald, has called the cull an "epic failure".

There is now a long and growing list of eminent scientists speaking out against the culls, on the evidence that not only are they failing, but they could indeed worsen the spread of Tb in badgers and heighten the risk of spread to cattle.

For these eminent scientists, leading experts in fields such as badger ecology and the epidemiology of TB, observing this government's approach to policy is to see the world turned upside down.

Can we at least learn anything from the culls last year about the prevalence of TB in the culled badger population? Not really. Of the nearly 2,000 badgers eventually killed only four were tested for TB, and only one had the disease. We learnt nothing. Rigorous scientific evaluation and evidence-gathering has been stamped out by this government in these culls. Shameful.

Effective solutions

But Labour has said consistently that TB in cattle will need to be tackled by both cattle measures and also by addressing the disease where appropriate in wildlife. It is simply that there is another way. A way that does not need widespread and fairly indiscriminate culling, that has broad scientific support, and which is gaining an evidence-base for its effectiveness.

In Wales a different approach is being taken, based on cattle measures (including strict movement controls, bio-security and annual cattle-testing) combined with vaccination of badgers.

Even though it is too early to say that the vaccinations are yet effective, the cattle measures alone already appear to be assisting a reduction in incidence of Bovine TB. We should be cautious, but it is encouraging.

We need a way forward that truly offers the promise of reversing the upward trend in Bovine TB and eradicating this disease, which works with the science instead of against it, which does not squander taxpayer money, and which does not alienate the public from farmers.

The work in Wales - which has stringent scientific monitoring - builds upon the existing long-term trials (often volunteer-led) by organisations like the Wildlife Trusts and willing farmers around the country. There is a groundswell of goodwill behind this approach, as well as a growing body of evidence and scientific opinion.

A policy of more rigorous cattle surveillance, control & bio-security measures combined with vaccination of badgers should be the mainstay of a long-term TB eradication policy.

At the same time, other viable approaches such as the development of effective cattle-vaccination and testing and the removal of scientific and political hurdles to that end need to be pursued.

There is a better way - and we will pursue it

There is no doubt that Bovine TB is a scourge of farming, and that beyond the impact on cattle the effect on some farmers can be devastating.

To speak to farmers who have seen much-loved pedigree herds infected with TB, or smaller-scale dairy-farmers where the disease can prove to be the tipping-point commercially, leaves no doubt that we need to eradicate Bovine TB.

Policy-makers must listen to farmers - and farmers do not hold one view on this - but then base the way forward on evidence not intuition, and on the probability of success, not on political expediency. That means taking a different approach to Bovine TB, and doing it urgently.

That alternative way is there, should we choose to take it. Labour will continue to advocate this better way forward, and will put it into place if elected. We will work with farmers and wildlife trusts and others to do so, and we will work with the evidence.

There is a better way. Better for farmers, for taxpayers, for wildlife.

It will not happen under this government. It will under Labour.



Huw Irranca-Davies is MP for Ogmore, and Labour spokesman for the Rural Economy, Food and Farming since 2011. He served as a Minister in Defra and the Wales Office during the last Labour Government.




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