Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (J15) (Continued)

Trial design

  Recommendation bb:

    ". . . We are concerned about the logistical aspects of reducing the statistical power but in no way could we discover that the trial was scientifically flawed".

  27.  The Independent Scientific Group has advised the Government that the trial is robust—see also response to recommendation nn, on the statistical power of the trial.

Closed season

  Recommendation cc:

    "We recommend that the number and age of cubs and lactating sows caught in culling operations after the closed season be monitored to assess the efficiency of the closed season policy."

  28.  This aspect continues to be monitored as part of the trial. In proactive culling operations in the first five triplets lactating badgers were only trapped in one triplet, Wiltshire where 51 were culled, less than 6 per cent of the number of badgers culled in the initial cull in this triplet.

Co-operation with the trial

  Recommendation dd:

    ". . . the wider interests of the farming community must be to co-operate fully with the trial . . . we urge [the Wildlife Trusts] to consider what message their non-compliance sends to others for whom non-compliance with the trial would take different forms such as illegal culling of badgers."

  29.  The Government condemns interference with badger culling trial operations and any illegal culling of badgers. Participation and co-operation from landowners and farmers is good generally, in excess of 80 per cent. There has been some interference with trial operations by protesters opposed to badger culling, mainly in the form of damage to cage traps and other equipment. However, action by the police and by MAFF field staff has limited the extent of this disruption and the trial is designed to allow for such factors.

  Recommendation ee:

    "We recognise the concerns expressed by one badger group that 'unscrupulous individuals could well take advantage of conveniently caged badgers' for use in badger-baiting . . . we ask the Bourne Group through MAFF for reassurance that all traps are checked sufficiently regularly to prevent this occurring."

  30.  As explained in the progress report of February 2000 traps are checked as early as possible the next day. Although some badgers appear to have been released from traps by trial protesters, there is no evidence to suggest their use in badger baiting.

  Recommendation ff:

    "We agree with the recommendation of English Nature that the Bourne Group gather what information it can about the scale of illegal culling."

  31.  Regular unannounced spot checks of setts are carried out in "Survey Only" triplet areas to monitor for signs of illegal culling. We have no evidence to suggest this is occurring.

  Recommendation gg:

    ". . . it is essential that the Bourne Group can satisfy itself and hence interested observers that the trial can be completed within a reasonable timescale and that the results will be statistically sound."

  32.  The Independent Scientific Group has confirmed to the Government that the trial remains on course to produce valid results. The Group believes results may be available by 2004, possibly earlier depending on the strength of the association between badgers and TB in cattle. See also the response to recommendation nn, on the statistical robustness of the badger culling trial.

MAFF resources

  Recommendation hh:

    "We recommend that MAFF publish its forward projections of the number of staff it will need to complete the trial within the five year period and how it proposes to meet this requirement."

  33.  The projected complement of staff required in the MAFF Wildlife Unit is 202. This ceiling will be achieved through regular internal and external recruitment exercises to fill vacancies. There are currently 171 staff in the WLU.

  Recommendation ii:

    "We recommend that MAFF address the ability of its laboratories to cope with the workload caused by the trial as a matter of urgency and publish an analysis of the impact of the culling trial upon the existing laboratory resources".

  34.  There are now five laboratories with suitable facilities for carrying out badger post mortems and these should provide sufficient capacity for the culling trial to be completed. Work was carried out to forecast MAFF requirements for badger post-mortems and VLA capacity to meet this is kept under review.


  Recommendation jj:

    "We recommend that MAFF publish an account of how and when it met the requirements of each of the three monitoring processes recommended by the Bourne Group for the first triplet and how these processes will be applied in the second, third and subsequent triplets."

  35.  The Government expects to publish reports from independent audits of the procedures for surveying for badger activity and on the badger humane dispatch procedures in the Autumn of 2000, together with its responses. The recommendations from the auditors will be incorporated into the standard operating procedures for the badger culling trial. A contract has been agreed with the new humane dispatch auditor following the original auditors' decision to stand down. A new contract is currently being negotiated with the auditor for surveying.

  Recommendation kk:

    "Although existing evidence suggests that badger removal is unlikely to have adverse ecological consequences, we support the environmental impact study that is now underway and we recommend that it be made public as soon as it is completed."

  36.  A Central Science Laboratory project to assess the ecological consequences of badger removal is now in its second year. Areas subject to proactive, reactive and survey-only treatments in four triplets will be monitored for one year before and at least three years after treatment. Surveys will assess the abundance and performance of selected bird and mammal species in each triplet. Results are not yet available for this research project.

Badger densities

  Recommendation ll:

    ". . . we accept that it is not essential to know exact densities of badgers, only that numbers have been greatly reduced in the proactive areas."

  37.  Proactive culling has been carried out in five triplets. It is estimated that about 20 per cent of the badgers, which are available to be trapped in the "proactive" culling areas, will be left after the initial trapping. This 80 per cent capture efficiency takes account of the use of cage traps. Surveys carried out after culling in four of the five areas proactively culled so far are consistent with this estimate of 80 per cent. In one area, Gloucester/Hereford, the number of badgers trapped was lower, possibly due to the fact that the field operations took place in January, when badgers are less active. There may also have been a lower population there due to previous official culling operations in the area concerned.

The statistical power of the trial

  Recommendation mm:

    ". . . [The illegal culling of badgers] could result in the trial failing to show that culling is a practical way of reducing the incidence of TB . . . It is therefore extremely important to encourage the co-operation of farmers in the control areas and also to monitor the control areas periodically to assess the incidence of killing, as we have recommended above. The use of mortality tags to estimate the level of illegal culling should be further investigated . . ."

  38.  Regular unannounced visits to survey only areas have not revealed evidence of illegal culling of badgers. Co-operation from farmers and landowners in these areas is very good. The importance of not interfering with badgers in survey only areas and elsewhere is a message the Government continue to emphasise at every suitable opportunity.

  Recommendation nn:

    ". . . it is necessary for the Bourne Group to undertake [quarterly] power analyses, which should be verified independently by an expert, and to keep the Minister informed of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the trial . . . We also recommend that the original data behind the power analysis conducted by Dr Donnelly from the Bourne Group . . . be verified by an external expert and the results of this check be made publicly available . . ."

  39.  Following the Committee's recommendation the Government has agreed a contract with an independent statistical expert. Professor Denis Mollison of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh was appointed on 22 August 2000 to independently verify the original data behind the power analysis conducted by the ISG. The Government will publish his reports when these are presented.

Conclusions on trial

  Recommendation oo:

    "We do not accept that the answers to the questions posed by the trial are already known . . . We recommend that the culling trial be implemented in full and strongly encourage all interested parties to co-operate with it in order that reliable results be attained in the minimum possible time and with the minimum loss of life to badgers."

  40.  The Government agreed with this recommendation. Answers are needed about the contribution badgers make to TB in cattle and whether culling badgers reduces TB in cattle. The Government believes that the badger culling trial and the associated research programme are the best ways of finding the answers which will help the development of a science based policy for the long term control of TB in cattle.

Speed of implementation

  Recommendation pp:

    ". . . a prolonged trial would mean data would be more difficult to interpret, the problem for the cattle industry horrendous and the credibility of Government to find a solution lost with unknown consequences."

  41.  The Government agreed with this conclusion. The Independent Scientific Group expects results from the trial by 2004, possibly earlier depending on the strength of the association between badgers and TB in cattle.

  Recommendation qq:

    "We recommend that MAFF together with the Bourne Group examine ways in which the trial could be implemented more speedily without impugning its scientific rigour. At very least a target should be established for the full implementation of all 10 triplets by the start of the closed season in February 2000 . . ."

  Recommendation ss:

    "The Bourne Group will need to have the strength and authority to ensure that the schedule for implementation is met. At the moment, it is not evident that this is the case or that the Group have any sanctions should the timetable slip. This problem must be addressed by the Minister as a matter of urgency."

  42.  The timetable for the trial, set down by the Independent Scientific Group, envisages seven triplets being subject to initial proactive culling by the end of 2000 and all 10 by the end of 2001. The Government expects to meet these targets.

The Bourne Group

  Recommendation rr:

    "We do not recommend that new members be appointed to widen the Representation on the Group."

  43.  The Government agreed with this conclusion. No further members have been appointed to the ISG.

Communication of data and information

  Recommendation tt:

    "We recommend that the Bourne Group prepare and release progress reports on a quarterly basis summarising the progress of the trial and giving qualitative indications of the preliminary results, with a strong warning as to the reliability of conclusions based on the data."

  44.  Progress on the Government's TB Strategy, including the Badger culling trial, is summarised in quarterly reports which are made available to Members of Parliament and the TB Forum and placed on MAFF's TB website. The annual reports to the Independent Scientific Group contain more detailed information on the trial and the related scientific research. MAFF also issues news releases to cover particular events; for example, the announcement of triplets and publication of reports such as the external auditors, husbandry and vaccine advisor reports.

  Recommendation uu:

    "We recommend that, in consultation with an independent expert statistician, the Bourne Group carefully consider what information can be made available, when and in what form and that their decision be made known to the public well in advance."

  45.  This forms part of the contract of the independent statistician whose reports will be published, see response to recommendation nn.

  Recommendation vv:

    "We recommend that once the trial as planned is completed, the results be published as soon as possible and all data be made as widely available as possible for analysis by scientists or other parties."

  46.  The Government is committed to completing the trial as quickly as possible and to making the results publicly available.

  Recommendation ww:

    "We recommend that MAFF reassess its PR strategy in relation to the implementation of the Krebs report, with particular attention to improving public awareness of the purpose of the culling trial."

  Recommendation xx:

    "We recommend that the communication strategy followed by MAFF in relation to informing vets and farmers about TB incidents be reviewed."

  47.  The Government recognise the importance of communications and is constantly looking for new and better ways to explain the progress it is making in tackling TB in cattle. At this year's Royal Agriculture Show in July there was a dedicated TB in cattle stand where MAFF experts and Professor John Bourne, Chairman of the Independent Scientific Group, were available to answer questions. This initiative is to be repeated in 2001. TB in cattle information was also available at other agriculture shows. The MAFF TB website has been completely overhauled and provides an informative source of information on the disease and on the research and control work in place. MAFF has also produced a set of factsheets that are freely available and there are regular progress reports provided by MAFF to the Committee, MPs and the TB Forum. However, the Government will continue to look at new communication opportunities to explain its position and to listen to feedback. In particular more information will be provided in individual badger culling trial areas to explain the need for the trial and progress on the wider research strategy. This effort will be aimed at the general public as well as farmers, vets, conservation and welfare groups.

The Bern Convention

  Recommendation yy:

    ". . . We find it astonishing that MAFF placed their Ministers in such an embarrassing position . . . we await with interest the outcome of the Government's defence of its policy."

  48.  In December 1999 Bern Contracting Parties agreed that the badger culling trial did not contravene the Convention. The Government submitted an annual report on its TB strategy to the Bern Convention in September 2000. Copies have been placed in the Library of the House. The report will be considered at the meeting of the Standing Committee to the Convention on 27 November to 1 December 2000.

Farm husbandry

  Recommendation zz:

    "The withdrawal of its leaflet on farm husbandry practices in connection with badgers and bovine TB demonstrates MAFF's awareness of its shortcomings, but to do nothing to determine what better advice should be offered to farmers is unacceptable".

  49.  In considering the report from the Independent Husbandry Panel, the MAFF TB in Cattle and Farm Bio-security guidance issued in July 1999 will be reviewed. This is expected to identify where further guidance material covering different husbandry practices may be useful.

  Recommendation aaa:

    ". . . we are not convinced that the industry as a whole has done enough in the past to address the multifactoral nature of the bovine TB problem and the possible role played by husbandry practices in finding a solution".

  50.  The TB Forum which includes representatives from farming, veterinary, welfare and conservation organisations is helping find new ways to tackle the TB in cattle problem. The Forum has considered a number of proposals for changes to present TB in cattle controls, including:

    —  restrictions on cattle movements between the two stages of the tuberculin test;

    —  imposition of movement restrictions if herds are not tested by the due date;

    —  a requirement to report the isolation of the M. bovis organism in any mammalian tissue (other than human);

    —  provision of better information for cattle purchasers about the TB status of cattle.

  51.  Sub-groups of the Forum are looking at the recommendations in the Husbandry Panel report and the use of the gamma-interferon blood test to assist in the detection of TB in cattle in Great Britain. A feasibility study on the use of gamma-interferon as an adjunct to the tuberculin test is due to commence in October 2000.

  Recommendation bbb:

    "We recommend that, in consultation with the farming industry, MAFF and the Bourne Group simplify TB99. The new questionnaire should then be subject to a rigorous pilot exercise on farms and assessed for ease of administrative handling before approval is given to a final version."

  52.  An amended TB99 has been drafted to take into account comments received from SVS staff who administer the questionnaire and those at the VLA who manage the database. The revised form will gather a similar range of information; but the order of questions has been changed to make it easier to manage at the successive visits and some questions have been adapted to make them clearer. The ISG is considering the proposed revision along with comments from TB Forum members and other interested parties. The new version should be ready for use in 2001.

Recommendation ccc—see response for recommendation m.

  Recommendation ddd:

    "We commend to the Ministry the proposal of the Soil Association for a comparison of the incidence of bovine TB on organic farms with that on conventional farms".

  53.  TB99 epidemiological data has shown that TB incidents have occurred in cattle kept on organic farms. The initial analysis of data from the investigation of 688 confirmed TB incidents in cattle herds which occurred during 1999, shows that 25 (3.6 per cent) were herds on farms described as organic. A more recent data output from the 1,195 herds entered on the database by 15 September 2000 shows that 48 (4 per cent) were herds on farms described as organic; 29 of these being registered organic farms. The numbers are small but tend to suggest that within the high risk areas, cattle kept under a range of farm management systems can become infected with bovine tuberculosis.

Recommendation eee—see response for recommendation m.


Recommendation fff:

    "We recognise that within current spending limits set for the Ministry in the Comprehensive Spending Review, national levels of compensation cannot be raised to reflect consequential loss. However, we also note that the Minister left open the possibility that the situation may be reconsidered."

  54.  Under the 2000 Spending Review, no extra money was allocated to extend compensation to cover the consequential losses arising from a TB herd incident. The TB Forum has received a report seeking to quantify the losses experienced by farmers subject to movement restrictions as a result of TB in the herd. The Forum is also considering ways in which the impact of the imposition of movement restrictions may be mitigated without increasing the risk of increased TB spread and incidence (for example by being more flexible in allowing movement of cattle into herds under movement restrictions). In the context of the recent Classical Swine Fever outbreak, a Government-Industry working party has been established to review ways in which the farming industry can take steps to insure itself against the commercial losses which arise from action taken to eliminate exotic animal diseases. Although the terms of reference for this review do not cover bovine TB, its conclusions may have wider relevance for commercial risks faced by the farming industry.

Short term action by Government

  Recommendation ggg:

    "We recommend that, at present, no additional action should be taken outside the trial area . . . We . . . urge the government to give serious consideration to the NFU's case, with a view to introducing a policy for the control of localised bovine tuberculosis outbreaks in areas outside the trial within the next 12 months."

  55.  A sub-group of the TB Forum, which included representatives of farming and veterinary organisations, prepared a preliminary discussion paper on a possible alternative strategy for the control of bovine TB in cattle in areas away from the badger culling trials. This paper included a suggestion for localised badger culling under strictly defined circumstances. The paper did not represent the official position of any of the organisations represented on the TB Forum. The paper was discussed at a meeting of the full TB Forum on 13 July 2000, and was strongly opposed by conservation and animal welfare organisations. After an initial discussion of the paper, Forum members were invited to submit written comments on the paper ahead of the next Forum meeting on 19 October 2000. At this time no decision has been taken to introduce badger culling outside of the trial areas. The Government is committed to seeing through the badger culling trials in order to assess the impact of culling on the incidence of TB in cattle.

Cattle passports

  Recommendation hhh:

    "We recommend that the Minister reconsiders his decision on including the date of the last TB test in cattle passports."

  56.  As explained in the Government's progress report of February 2000 the TB Forum did not support the suggestion of showing TB status on the cattle passport. Putting the information on cattle passports would provide no guarantee to a buyer that the animal was free from TB at the time of purchase. At best it would show when the animal was last tested. It could also lead to delays in moving cattle as passports would need to be passed to BCMS to have the data entered. It would require passports to be redesigned and re-issued to allow the new data to be included. The Government is implementing procedures to provide cattle purchasers with better information on the TB status of cattle. The procedure takes the form of a voluntary system where copies of the last TB test results are passed to buyers on request.

Future policy options

  Recommendation iii:

    "We recommend that the Government specify the criteria on which its sustainable policy on the control of bovine TB will be judged and publish detailed objectives for the policy in the short and the long-term. We also recommend that MAFF undertake a statistical risk assessment of the possible policy procedures, in conjunction with the Bourne Group and representatives of all interested parties."

  57.  The Government is making progress on all elements of its strategy to tackle TB in cattle. The main focus remains on the regular testing of cattle herds and the associated controls, which together with compensation payments will account for about £26 million of the £45 million budget this year. In addition, there is a comprehensive research programme, overseen by the Independent Scientific Group, which includes work on vaccines, on epidemiology, on disease transmission, on cattle husbandry and on other wildlife species, as well as the badger culling trial. The Government is determined to find the scientific basis on which to build a lasting policy to control TB in cattle. As stated in the progress report issued in February 2000, policies will be judged according to the impact on public health, on animal health and welfare, on the environment and on the economy, in particular the farming industry and public expenditure.

31 October 2000

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