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MR Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State at defra, is on record as saying that a decision on whether to cull badgers to help control tb in cattle would be made ‘on his watch’. Four months after the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efraCom) reported that ‘the impact of the disease has reached a stage where further procrastination is unacceptable’, the minister has proved true to his word. His decision not to allow badger culling is hardly surprising, nor is it surprising that farmers have reacted with anger and dismay. What is surprising is that his statement to Parliament last week should offer so little in the way of alternative approaches to tackling bovine tb. Normally when ministers are announcing a decision that they know will be unpopular in certain quarters, they announce some sort of initiative to help soften the blow for those affected. This does not seem to have been the case with Mr Benn's statement on badger culling; indeed, if anything, his comments could add to the sense of hurt.
His announcement that defra is to put £20 million into vaccine research over the next three years is hugely welcome. Such research is clearly necessary, and the investment could yet bring benefits in the longer term. However, as the Independent Group on Cattle tb (isg) observed, there are problems associated with vaccination against bovine tb, which is unlikely to provide a solution for some time. The prospect of more research seems unlikely to placate angry farmers, who are looking for a quicker fix.
His comments that while a determined cull over a wide area might work, it might also not work and could make the situation worse are also unlikely to mollify farmers, some of whom are desperate, and might consider the risk worth taking. However, it is his remarks on cattle controls that are perhaps the most surprising, and potentially the most worrying in indicating the Government's future approach.
The efraCom called for a multifaceted approach to bovine tb using all the methods currently available, while the ISG argued that the rising incidence of the disease could be reversed and its geographical spread contained by rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone (see VR, March 1, 2008, vol 162, pp 258-259; June 23, 2007, vol 160, pp 854-856). In his statement, Mr Benn acknowledged that it might be possible to strengthen cattle controls — but made no commitment to doing so. What he said was: ‘It could be some time before an oral vaccine for badgers, or a cattle vaccine, becomes available, so for now we must reduce the spread of the disease, and try to stop it becoming established in new areas. We have cattle controls in place to tackle tb and have strengthened them in recent years with the introduction of premovement testing and the targeted use of the more sensitive gamma interferon test. But the action that individual farmers take, in particular to deal with the risk of importing disease into their herd, will also remain critical.
‘Disease control is not just a matter for Government, notwithstanding the considerable cost. Farmers have the main interest — the burden of controls falls most heavily on them — and they must be involved in working out how we go forward. It would be possible to tighten cattle measures still further — as recommended by the ISG report — but this would come at a high cost, and whether it would be worthwhile is as much, if not more, a question for the industry as it is for Government. There is a choice to be made.’
So, the Government has decided against culling badgers without making a commitment to strengthening cattle controls. Instead, and not for the first time, it plans to set up a new committee — the Bovine tb Partnership Group — to work with the industry to develop a joint plan for tackling the disease.
The Government plans to discuss with the industry who should be on this new body and how it should work. According to the Secretary of State, ‘The group will have full access to information on the tb budget and will be able to make recommendations about its use. It will be able to propose further practical steps to tackle the disease, including, for example, whether there should be tighter cattle controls. It will help to reach decisions about the injectable vaccines deployment project.
‘And it will be able to look at ways of helping farmers to manage the impact of living under disease restrictions, for example by providing incentives for biosecurity, or maximising the opportunities to market their cattle by looking again at the restrictions around red markets and encouraging the establishment of more Exempt and Approved Finishing Units.’ He added that he would be prepared to make additional funding available to support such initiatives ‘if the group makes a strong case for doing so’.
Bovine tb is a serious and complex problem and it has long been clear that everyone must work together constructively so that practical solutions can be found. Sadly, despite the promise of more vaccine research, the message likely to be taken away from Mr Benn's statement is that the period of procrastination is not over and that, in future, support for the industry will be limited.