The Tory Party is pressing DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn to adopt a test which can identify disease infected badger setts as a mainstay in the fight against bovine tuberculosis.
Shadow junior DEFRA minister Jim Paice explained that if it could be demonstrated to the public that only diseased setts would be targeted then the Polymerase Chain Reaction test could be vital in helping to defuse opposition to a cull.
Mr Paice called on the DEFRA secretary to conduct further research into the test’s effectiveness and to consider its potential role in a badger cull strategy that may be more acceptable to the public.
He added that the Tories hoped to use next week’s session of oral questions to press Mr Benn to consider trialling the test.
The use of the PCR test is not new. America has made widespread use of it in its efforts to identify deer populations infected with TB. In the UK its use in identifying infected badger setts is being pioneered by researchers at Warwick University.
In an academic paper published last year the researchers found that on contaminated farms an average of 43% of setts and 29% of badger latrines tested positive for Mycobacterium bovis, the causative agent of bovine TB.
However, the suitability of the test in identifying infectious sources of TB is questioned by Chris Cheeseman, a wildlife ecologist at the Central Science Laboratory, who described the attention surrounding the PCR test as “completely over-hyped”.
“Finding M bovis-positive soil near a badger sett does not necessarily mean that the bacteria came from a badger,” said Dr Cheeseman.
“Even if it were possible to show it came from a badger it does not mean that the badger responsible came from that social group. Forays are common, especially by boars in the breeding season – our genetic research has shown that 54% of cubs born are sired by boar badgers from other social groups.
“A targeted culling strategy employing a diagnostic technique like PCR would result in piecemeal culling which would be a recipe for perturbation. This could spread and worsen the overall disease situation.”