Bovine TB is one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK. It not only has a devastating impact on our UK beef and dairy farms, but costs taxpayers £100 million each year.
I know that the badger cull has been a controversial component of the bovine TB eradication strategy, but I understand that the initial areas that have been subject to a cull have seen a significant reduction in incidence of the disease. Of course, no one wants to keep culling badgers for a moment longer than is necessary.
Ministers only ever envisaged that the badger cull would be a phase in the strategy to reduce the weight of the disease in the wildlife population. I am pleased that the ongoing consultation sets out how they intend to phase out culling and accelerate the next phases of the strategy, especially improved diagnostic testing. This consultation also includes proposals to stop issuing intensive cull licences for new areas after 2022 and would enable new licences to be cut short after two or three years based on a review of the latest scientific evidence at that time. Under the new proposals, any new supplementary cull licences, which are granted in regions after intensive culls are complete, would be restricted to two years and would not be reissued afterwards. I understand that some form of culling would continue to be an option in exceptional circumstances to address any local disease flare-ups.
In parallel to the consultation, Ministers are also calling for views on possible future measures to accelerate bovine TB eradication in England, such as further improvements to testing, encouraging increased uptake of farm biosecurity measures, and rewarding low risk cattle purchasing behaviour.
It is also encouraging that work on developing a deployable cattle bovine TB vaccine continues at pace and is on track to be completed within the next five years, with field trials scheduled to commence in the coming months.
There is no single answer to tackling bovine TB, but by deploying a range of policy interventions, we can turn the tide on this terrible disease and achieve the long-term objective of eradicating it by 2038.
In Wales, you may be aware this is a devolved issue and I understand the Welsh Government has adopted a more targeted approach, which includes a selective badger cull that involves removing badgers that test positive for TB near cattle herds with persistent TB breakdowns. However this approach, which has received criticism from the National Farmers Union Cymru, has been patchy and concerns have been raised over an increase in cases within the Low TB Area of North Wales. There were 27 open incidents at the end of March 2020, which is the highest number of open incidents since Quarter 2 2011.
Indeed, too many farming families in Wales are continuing to suffer the impact, both emotionally and financially, of bovine TB. My colleagues in the Welsh Parliament have called on the Welsh Government to follow the lessons from England and move forward with a strategy that achieves the shared goal of a healthy wildlife and cattle population.
There is no single answer to tackling bovine TB, but by deploying a range of policy interventions, I hope we can turn the tide on this terrible disease and achieve the long-term objective of eradicating it by 2038.