The UK is facing mounting pressure from the European Union to get bovine TB under control, say government scientists.
DEFRA chief scientific advisor Ian Boyd said the disease was spreading rapidly across the South West and into Wales and was worse in England than in any other European country.
He added that the current direction of travel was “untenable” and insisted “we must act now” to get the disease under control.
Bovine TB is already costing taxpayers £100m a year through current controls and compensation payments to farmers.
But if the disease is left unchecked in wildlife, DEFRA said this figure will likely double over the next 10 years and quadruple to £400m by 2050.
Prof Boyd said a badger cull was “not a solution” to dealing with bovine TB, but it could work well as part of a management strategy of different measures in tackling the disease.
“Badger culling may, in some circumstances, be the most appropriate intervention we could put in place,” said Prof Boyd, speaking at a DEFRA press briefing in London on Tuesday (21 May).
“We want to test whether we can turn the experience from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) into an operational management approach.
“In other words, that’s to test its efficacy – can we take away the numbers of badgers from these areas we think we need to in order to get the results of the RBCT (16% reduction in TB incidence) – and can it be done humanely.
“What we will not know for many years is the impact of these pilot culls on bovine tuberculosis because we know it takes several years for that to be observed.”
He added that increasing the efficiency of killing and widening the cull zones to about 300sq km could minimise the “perturbation” effect of badgers fleeing to other areas.
“Badger culling may, in some circumstances, be the most appropriate intervention we could put in place.”
DEFRA chief scientific advisor Prof Ian Boyd
DEFRA chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said more than 28,000 cows were slaughtered in England last year because of TB, which he described as a disease causing an “out of control” epidemic in wildlife.
“We are dealing with a year-on-year increasing epidemic and what we have to do by the impact of our controls is turn that from an increase to a reduction, so that year on year we are seeing the new herd incidences going down,” he added.
“To do that, we have to hit every single route of transmission in every way we can.”
In the framework of EU legislation, Mr Gibbens said there was an “expectation” that countries with bovine TB will move towards eradication – as many already have.
“The commission recognises the challenge we face and fund us €30m each year, of which about €12m is coming to England,” he said.
“As part of that they expect to approve our eradication plan, which they have done and they are constantly seeking for us to improve and set targets for the numbers of checks we do, the removals of reactors and so on.”
He added: “They are attuned to the approaches we are taking towards the disease but constantly pressing for us to be more effective. They actually want to see the outcome to go from a rising epidemic to a falling one.”
If the UK does not improve its record on TB, the EU could ultimately impose sanctions. Typically, these could involve a ban on live cattle exports, Prof Boyd warned.
A six-week pilot badger cull is due to start in west Somerset and west Gloucestershire any time from 1 June.
Under the policy, trained marksmen will use a combination of free shooting and trapping and shooting to kill around 5,000 badgers in total.
An independent panel will assess the safety, efficacy and humaneness of the pilots before the government can decide whether to roll out the policy more widely.
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