Farming minister George Eustice has dismissed scientific research suggesting efforts to tackle bovine tuberculosis should focus on culling cows instead of badgers.
Such a strategy would “finish off the cattle and dairy industry in this country,” he warned.
A study by scientists at the University of Warwick and the University of Cambridge, published this week in scientific journal Nature, said culling badgers only had a “limited effect” on the spread of bovine TB, as there were numerous ways the disease could be transmitted.
“Whole-herd culls” – the culling of an entire cow herd if one animal tests positive for bovine TB – would be the most effective way of stemming outbreaks of the disease, it suggested. Such culls could potentially reduce the number of instances of bovine TB by as much as 80% over six years, it said, but would require “a huge increase (approximately 20 fold) in the number of cattle slaughtered in the first year of operation.”
Last year, 32,691 cattle were slaughtered in the UK as part of bovine TB prevention measures, down from 37,734 in 2012, according to provisional figures from Defra.
The authors of the report said increasing cattle slaughters to fight bovine TB more effectively “might be an acceptable cost if one is prepared to take a sufficiently long-term view”.
But Eustice said Defra could not accept the paper’s finding as it had not investigated the full range of ways in which bovine TB could spread. “TB is devastating for our dairy and cattle farmers and, along with blanket testing and removal of infected cattle, biosecurity measures, vaccination and cattle movement controls, culls will help get the disease under control,” he said.
This was echoed by Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, who said a cull of cattle “would probably result in a rapid decline in the cattle industry in areas where TB occurs”.
The NFU’s deputy president, Minette Batters, added whole-herd culling would “condemn tens of thousands of extra cattle to needless death, risk the viability of cattle farming in areas of the country that are best suited to it, and would be very expensive in terms of compensation”.
By contrast, the Nature paper was welcomed by anti-cull campaign group the Badger Trust, whose CEO, Dominic Dyer, said it was “groundbreaking” and should be the “final nail in the coffin of the disastrous badger cull policy.”
“This research is not something that can be pushed aside lightly, and it clearly identifies cattle-based measures as the best way of tackling the disease. Focusing on badgers is not getting to the root of the problem.”
Dyer added a “drip-drip” process of tackling wildlife rather than cattle would cause more long-term pain to the farming industry, stating a widespread cattle cull could be a solution “if necessary to stop the spread” of bovine TB.
Defra staged a trial cull of badgers last year in Gloucestershire and Somerset, but a more widespread rollout of the culling programme was halted this April by environment secretary Owen Paterson pending further analysis of the programme’s effectiveness.
The Badger Trust was this week granted permission to launch a judicial review against the government’s badger culling policy.