Let me say first how pleased I am that Mark Jones takes the issue of tuberculosis seriously.
TB is a major animal health problem and has a devastating impact on the animals and farmers affected. In 2010 alone, nearly 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England because of the disease and it is expected that TB will cost taxpayers around £1 billion over the next 10 years if not effectively dealt with.
The last 25 years has seen a continual increase in the number of cattle affected by TB and the instances of TB in England remain unacceptably high in comparison with the majority of developed countries. It is clearly a situation that desperately needs addressing.
But Mr Jones' claim that the government prefers "rifles to reform" in dealing with the problem of TB is simply inaccurate. Nobody wants to cull badgers. But equally no country in the world where wildlife carries TB has been able to eradicate the disease in cattle without tackling it in wildlife too.
Mr Jones argues that we should be focusing our efforts on cattle-to-cattle transmission instead of launching badger culling pilots. But this ignores that fact that we already have a comprehensive range of measures in place to address cattle-to-cattle transmission - including routine testing and surveillance, pre-movement testing, movement restrictions and rapid slaughter of infected animals.
Cattle measures remain a key part of our programme to eradicate bovine TB and we will continue to look for opportunities to tighten these controls where this would be sensible, proportionate and cost-effective. We are also continuing to work on the development of vaccines for both badgers and cattle and Defra has already invested a further £20 million in the research and development of vaccines. It is impossible, however, for us to say with certainty if and when these vaccines might be ready to deploy - and in the meantime, we have to find a way to deal with this ever-growing problem.
Mr Jones also suggests that badgers have not been shown to be a significant source of TB in cattle. This is totally incorrect. The role of badgers in the TB epidemic in England is not disputed by scientists. In fact, the evidence demonstrates conclusively that badgers contribute significantly to TB in cattle - as was stated in the final report of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial that Mark Jones uses so vociferously to criticise us.
Far from "twisting" the science, as Mr Jones alleges, the government's policy is firmly based on evidence from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). It isn't true, as Mr Jones suggests, that the results of the RBCT reveal badger culling is ineffectual in tackling TB. The trial, along with the on-going monitoring that has continued after the trial ended, has shown that badger culling, when done on a sufficient scale in a widespread, coordinated and efficient way, and over a sustained period of time, would reduce the number of cattle affected by TB in areas already devastated by this disease.
Using the results of the RBCT, independent scientists have actually agreed that culling over an area of 150km2 could be expected to lead to an average 16% reduction in TB incidence in the local area. Furthermore, as I am sure Mr Jones is well aware, whilst badgers are a protected species in the UK, they are not an endangered one. The pilot scheme does not seek to eradicate the badger population, but instead is part of a government plan to work towards the eradication of TB in cattle.
We have considered the provisions of the Bern Convention and are confident that our proposed policy complies with its requirements. Applicants for a licence to cull badgers will have to meet strict criteria regarding safety and humaneness, and adherence to these licence conditions will be closely monitored. Culling can only be conducted by trained and proficient marksmen. And, to limit the impact of the policy on badger populations, there will be a limit on both the number of licences that may be granted each year and the number of badgers that may be culled in each area.
Ultimately, no single measure will be enough on its own to tackle this terrible disease. We need a package of measures, using all the tools available. We need to tackle the disease in badgers whilst continuing and strengthening our efforts to tackle cattle-to-cattle transmission.
There are no quick or easy ways of reducing TB transmission between badgers and cattle. The benefits of our interventions will take time to materialise, which makes it important to act now, before the situation becomes even worse.
The decision to proceed with a policy of badger control was not at all an easy one but we have to make a judgement based on the available evidence. Doing nothing is just not an acceptable option.
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