DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson has restated his determination that a badger cull to combat bovine TB will take place this summer.
Bovine TB was the most pressing animal health problem in the UK, said Mr Paterson in a keynote speech to the Oxford Farming Conference .
“Its effect on our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overstated,” he told delegates on Thursday (3 January).
Last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England at a cost of nearly £100m, said Mr Paterson. In the past 10 years, the disease had cost the taxpayer £500m, he added.
This would rise to £1bn during the next decade if bovine TB was left unchecked.
A decision to postpone two pilot culls last autumn was disappointing, but was “the right one in terms of the effective delivery of the policy,” said Mr Paterson.
The two culls – in Somerset and Gloucestershire – were postponed after farm leaders said they could not guarantee culling higher-than-expected badger numbers.
Mr Paterson said he had established a project board with all key partners – including DEFRA, Natural England and the police – to oversee the delivery of the pilot culls.
“The pilots will go ahead this summer,” said Mr Paterson.
“We are all committed to working together in partnership to ensure the culls go ahead and to ensure a sustainable model for future development.”
Referring to additional TB measures pertaining to cattle that came into effect on 1 January, Mr Paterson said culling was only one element of the government’s approach to tackling bovine TB.
“That is why we continue to strengthen cattle movement controls, increase our surveillance testing regime and invest in research into badger and cattle vaccines.”
Mr Paterson said he was also keen to pursue better diagnostic techniques such as PCR and to work with the European Commission on a way forward on vaccination.
“With an injectable cattle vaccine and a legal and validated diagnostic test still some way off, I am acutely ware of the burden the increasingly stringent on-farm measures are placing on farmers.
“That is why I am determined to use every tool at our disposal and to bear down on the disease in both cattle and badgers.”