I looked into the issue of badger culling at great length when I was the Lib Dem shadow environment secretary before the last general election. The removal of badgers from TB hotspots is both a complicated and difficult issue. There is undoubtedly a serious problem with TB in both the English cattle and badger populations, which is getting worse. The test culls are designed to control bovine TB in a measured and targeted way and apply in two specific areas where infection rates are high.
While I find the idea of a cull of badgers deeply distressing, I am afraid that choosing to do nothing about bovine TB at this time, given the apparent current lack of a viable vaccine, is simply not a responsible option. Leaving things as they are for the time being can only increase the suffering caused by TB for cows, badgers and other wildlife vulnerable to the disease. Allowing TB to spread is not a good animal welfare policy for badgers themselves.
Bovine TB is one of the biggest challenges facing cattle farmers today. Around 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2012 alone, as a bovine TB control measure. As a political party with a long history of supporting animal welfare, Lib Dems would of course much prefer to vaccinate animals rather than wastefully slaughter infected cattle or cull the badger population.
I have worked as best I can in parliament to try and promote better cattle husbandry, pushing for greater bio security on farms and in cattle movement, in order to prevent cross contamination. It is however inevitable that cattle allowed to graze outside in the natural environment, as they should be, will encounter wildlife that may be carrying harmful diseases such as TB.
Over the years various governments have tried to develop an effective badger vaccine and I personally pressed the previous government to develop a TB vaccine for cattle. £43million in total has been spent since 1994 on developing an oral bovine TB vaccine for badgers as well as cattle vaccine. I am pleased that the coalition has at least committed to investing a further £15.5million in vaccine development over the next four years.
I have been told previously that a viable cattle vaccine is at least 10 years away and current badger vaccination programmes have been shown to have an efficacy rate of only around 70% in those badgers that receive the vaccine. I am both frustrated and disappointed that so little progress has been made in England.
An independent panel of experts assessed the results of the trial culls and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is now considering the report they produced, before deciding on the next steps. I do share your concern that there could still be a wider roll out of ten or more culls. Clearly, not taking into account the results of the trial culls would be a mistake.
Rest assured I continue to voice my concerns about this matter among parliamentary colleagues.