A leading West Country beef farmer has called for the Test, Vaccinate and Remove (TVR) badger project in Northern Ireland to be rolled out across the UK.
Bill Harper, chairman of the National Beef Association’s TB committee, said the TVR project would have a much better chance of tackling TB than vaccinating badgers in “edge area” counties in England.
Mr Harper stressed that bovine TB was “out of control” in the South West. Therefore a blanket cull of badgers was necessary to get the disease under control in counties where at least 20% of herds are infected.
He said the disease was spreading fast across counties considered on the edge area of disease, such as Cheshire, East Sussex, Warwickshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Derbyshire.
Mr Harper highlighted the survey of roadkill badgers carried out in Cheshire this year, which found at least 20% were carrying the disease, as evidence of the spread of disease to edge area counties.
He added that the National Trust’s four-year badger vaccination project on the Killerton Estate had failed to have an effect on bovine TB after six farms succumbed to the disease on the estate.
Mr Harper, who farms on the Devon and Cornwall border, said the trial showed that it was pointless spending tens of thousands of pounds vaccinating badgers already infected with TB.
He said the roadkill survey in Cheshire offered evidence that the rate of TB infection was spreading faster into edge area counties than the government has stated.
Therefore, he questioned whether the government’s vaccination campaign in edge area counties should be replaced by the TVR method, which involves trapping badgers, taking a blood sample and removing infected animals.
“I am so pleased that the Northern Irish government is doing the TVR trial. It really is something we should be doing here, not just watching,” said Mr Harper.
“I see it working in edge areas and areas of low infection. We have got to talk about how the project could be funded and how it could be operated. It’s all about being confident in the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) blood test. But we’re talking about technology which can be proven to work.”
“I am so pleased that the Northern Irish government is doing the TVR trial. It really is something we should be doing here, not just watching.”
Mr Harper argued the edge area of TB infection, designated by Defra, was accurate four years ago. But it now needed to be moved “up and out one county” to make allowances for the spread of TB infection.
Mr Harper said all cattle in England should be subject to annual TB testing, such as in Wales.
But he added: “The government doesn’t want to do it because it would mean increasing costs. They are not being a good service to the industry, or farmers, really.”
Mr Harper said anecdotal evidence suggested the second year of the pilot culls had produced good results in Somerset. However, cull operators had not been able to carry out a proper pilot in Gloucestershire due to the activities of protesters.
He said there were no guarantees that the government would roll out the cull to other counties next year. But he said preparations were well under way to extend the operation to Dorset, North Devon, North Cornwall and an area in Herefordshire.
If Labour wins the general election and honours its pledge to stop the culls, the country will never eradicate TB, warned Mr Harper.
“Less cattle are moving now, but I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference in terms of TB breakdowns,” he said.
“More and more costs and testing will never get rid of the disease because you are still putting the cattle out to mix with the host (badgers).
“We need to be able to cull badgers in an organised way. We need a blanket drop in badger numbers to get on top of this disease.”
A Defra spokesman said: “England has the highest incidence of bovine TB in Europe and doing nothing is not an option.
“That is why we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy to deal with the disease, supported by leading vets, which includes cattle movement controls, vaccinating healthy badgers in the edge area and culling badgers where TB is rife.
“The NI government has begun a five-year TVR research project covering 1% of the land area. We will consider the results of this research with interest.”