BOVINE TB is the most pressing animal health problem facing the UK today. The importance for our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overemphasised.
Last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England at a cost of almost £100m. It is estimated the cost to the taxpayer will rise to £1bn over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked.
Research shows that culling badgers can lead to reduction in the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time. While the Government is committed to using all possible tools to tackle the disease we believe – based on the available evidence – that culling badgers to control TB can make a significant contribution.
The NFU is co-ordinating the cull and has requested it be postponed until next summer. This is because exceptionally bad weather, the Olympics and protracted legal proceedings means we have now moved beyond the optimal time for delivering an effective cull this year.
Vaccination is another tool and one we would all like to be able to deploy more widely.
So why are we pressing ahead with a cull when there are vaccines available? Ultimately we want to be able to vaccinate both cattle and badgers, but usable and approved vaccines are several years away. There are serious practical difficulties with the injectable badger vaccine, the only vaccine available at the moment. We remain committed to investing £15.5m over the next four years to develop effective cattle and oral badger vaccines as quickly as possible.
Because the whole subject is such an emotive issue some myths have been propelled. The pop star Brian May, for example, is wrong when he says the EU has told the UK it can already vaccinate cattle against TB if it wants.
Cattle vaccination is not currently permitted in the EU. Before a vaccine can be used, we must be able to demonstrate that we have a test that can tell the difference between an animal that is infected with TB or one that has been vaccinated. We're working on this test but it is still some way off being ready to use. In order to carry out tests, we have to get permission from the EU to vaccinate cattle and then get permission from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to use a vaccine that is not yet licensed. All of this takes time, and in addition, cattle vaccination does not tackle the problem of TB in wildlife.
Others are asking why we are ignoring scientific evidence which shows that vaccination is a viable alternative to culling. Glyn Hewinson, an expert on the development of vaccines from AHVLA, has said vaccinations are not a "magic wand" to address the spread of TB. Veterinary advice is that vaccination will not be as effective as culling in quickly lowering the weight of infection in the badger population. It's also unknown how long it would take before a reduction in TB incidents in cattle would be seen.
The latest results from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial have shown that carried out over a sufficient area and for long enough proactive culling can reduce the spread of disease to cattle, with benefits remaining for years after the end of the culling period. As for the negative effects of 'perturbation' – badgers moving as the result of culling, which made the disease worse in surrounding areas – this disappeared 12 to 18 months after the culling ended.
The Government's approach therefore is to keep an eye on our cattle with routine testing and surveillance, to spend £15.5m to develop viable vaccines and to introduce controlled culling as part of a science-led programme of badger control, to pilot culling in two areas and to get the delivery of that policy right.