Badger cull is only way to halt rise of bovine TB in the Westcountry
Farming Minister David Heath says for the sake of the farmers we have to act on badger cull.
"The figures out this week are a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge we face from bovine TB, and why we must do everything we can to bring this terrible disease under control.
Last year 28,284 cattle had to be slaughtered in England as a result of TB. More than 20,000 were from farms in the South West, including 2,014 in Somerset and 1,192 in Dorset. No area of the country knows as well as this community the devastation this disease can cause.
Since the 1980s, new cases of TB in cattle herds have increased dramatically and what was once a disease isolated to a few small pockets is now rife throughout South West England and threatening to make further inroads eastwards across England.
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Not every farm has suffered from bovine TB. But every cattle farmer in the South West who has managed to avoid it to date will tell you that they live in constant dread that one day they will get the terrible news their herd has tested positive for bovine TB. For farmers who have invested in their herd and spent time raising the animals, such news has a devastating effect. It means that some animals they've spent sometimes years rearing are slaughtered. It means that their ability to manage the rest of their herd, bring in new animals and sell on others is severely restricted. This process may be repeated again and again – each time with another anxious wait for the test results – until we can be sure the herd is free from disease. It is a huge drain for the farmer and his family, both financially and emotionally.
We have strict measures in place to reduce this spread – we have increased TB testing of herds in high risk areas, put tighter controls on the movement of cattle and are asking farmers to improve biosecurity – but we know this isn't enough on its own. We're spending £15.5m on the development of vaccines against TB. At the moment it's illegal to vaccinate cattle against TB as you can't tell whether the cow has been vaccinated against the disease, or is infected with it. We're in talks with the European Commission to change this, but it's a long process and we have been told we won't be able to vaccinate cattle for another 10 years.
We fund a badger vaccination project near Stroud that protected nearly 1,000 badgers last year against the disease. To vaccinate badgers you need to catch, trap and inject every badger every year. This means it's not a practical solution for dealing with the disease across the whole country in the short term. We're also funding research into oral badger vaccinations. If we had workable vaccines available now we would use them, but it's clear they cannot yet provide the solution we hope they one day will.
To eradicate this disease, scientific evidence and the experience of other countries tells us that in our part of the country we also need to tackle the disease in the badger population, which we know is a factor in the spread of TB to cattle.
Last month we announced that the final authorisations have been given for pilot badger culls to take place during the summer in West Somerset and West Gloucestershire. A third area, in Dorset, will also be prepared as a reserve option should there any reason why the cull cannot proceed in Gloucestershire or Somerset.
The cull might not be universally popular but it is backed up by science. Evidence has shown that culling, when carried out properly, can play a significant role in helping to reduce the spread of bovine TB. And with the spread of TB expected to cost the economy £1billion over the next ten years if action is not taken, we can't afford to sit back and do nothing.
It's important for us all to recognise that the farmers who have decided to take part in the cull have done so only after serious consideration. They're not taking part because it's the easy thing to do but because they want to tackle a disease that's destroying their livelihoods.
I know there are people who do not want to see the badger cull go ahead and I respect their right to express their opinions in a lawful manner. But the cull is legal and no one has the right to disrupt it. Those carrying out the cull must be allowed to proceed safely and without fear of intimidation.
I also want to make it clear that throughout this whole process public safety has been at the forefront of our minds. All those involved have had to pass a rigorous training course. The Government, contractors, Natural England, and the police have also discussed safety requirements. There is no reason why people will not be able to continue to enjoy the countryside. Nobody wants to kill badgers but we have to tackle the spread of bovine TB. If we don't start to reverse the steep rise in the number of cases by using all the tools at our disposal we'll never get on top of this awful disease."