DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson has described England as a “freak country” for letting bovine TB spiral out of control by not tackling the disease in wildlife.
The USA, New Zealand, Australia and more recently Ireland have all set up eradication programmes to bear down on the disease in wildlife, which have had a marked effect on reducing TB infections in cattle.
But Mr Paterson said successive UK governments have stood by and watched as the crippling disease, which led to the slaughter of around 35,000 cows in Britain last year, has been allowed to spread among cattle.
A cattle vaccine will not be ready for 10 years and during this time, bovine TB will cost the British taxpayer more than £1bn – unless we act now and use the tools at our disposal, he warned.
“We are the freak country. We are the ones that got TB down to 0.1% (herd infection) in the 1970s and we let it go,” said Mr Paterson. “We are the surprise. We are the odd man out.”
The Cabinet minister recently visited New Zealand and Australia where he learned about their TB eradication programmes and how both countries had reduced infected herd numbers by controlling the disease in wild animals.
In New Zealand, possums are the key vector for the spread of bovine TB into cattle and deer herds.
Since 1994, however, a comprehensive cull of possum has reduced numbers from an estimated 60 to 30 million. This reduction has played its part in a dramatic fall in cattle TB infection rates from 1,700 to 70 today.
“New Zealand is on track to achieve 0.2% TB herd infection this year. If they hold it a couple of years, they will also re-establish their TB-free status,” said Mr Paterson.
The minister was “really impressed” by how local organisations in New Zealand, led by farmers, had taken the lead and raised the funds for culling, backed by the government.
“All I have seen confirms what I saw when I travelled to Michigan (USA) in 2005 and saw how they tackled TB in white-tailed deer,” said Mr Paterson.
“There are very clear lessons to be learned from all these countries. They have a lot in common – TB testing, slaughter of cattle, a lot of biosecurity measures – but ultimately, you have to bear down on the disease in wildlife.”
He added: “I have been saying for 10 years we want to see a healthy cattle population living alongside healthy wildlife – and that means we have to manage wildlife.”
A pilot cull of badgers, which scientists says are a vector for spreading TB to cattle, is on course to begin any time in west Somerset and west Gloucestershire from 1 June this year.
Mr Paterson said locals organising the cull on the ground will decide when the six-week trials will begin. If they are successful, they will be rolled out more widely.
Meanwhile, Team Badger, a coalition of organisations against the cull, including the RSPCA, Brian May’s Save Me and the League of Cruel Sports, is becoming increasingly vocal about its opposition to the culls.
Queen guitarist Brian May has revealed plans for a protest song, The Badger Song, at an anti-cull rally in Somerset. And the government e-petition calling for the cull to be scrapped surpassed 200,000 signatures.
During his trip to New Zealand, Mr Paterson tore into high-profile entertainers who have criticised the cull.
He told journalists that there was “massive complacency” over bovine TB in Britain, yet “the world isn’t like The Wind in the Willows“.
“There has been glib, simplistic bellowing from the sidelines that we should employ a vaccine – but we don’t have one,” said Mr Paterson, commenting on recent anti-cull activity.
“The European Commission says it will be a 10-year programme and until then we have to use the tools at our disposal, following the science and the example of other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, USA and Ireland.”
He added: “My ambition is to get Britain back its TB-free status and it will take a major, concerted effort to get there.”