The new Defra Secretary sought to make it clear at various fringe meetings at the Conservative Party conference that the Government remained committed to the policy, despite the departure of its chief advocate, her predecessor, Owen Paterson.
She said preparations would have to begin before the General Election, if there was to be any prospect of rolling the policy out to new areas next year. But the Norfolk MP stressed the decision would be dependent on the success of the second year of the Gloucestershire and Somerset pilot culls.
“We will be making a decision after this year’s culls. We will be looking at the effectiveness of the culls and take the evidence from our Chief Vet,” she told an NFU fringe event.
“We have always envisaged rolling them out more widely because there are other parts of the South West, in particular, heavily infected by bTB. We do want to do that but we need to collect the evidence from these culls.
“Let me be clear, we would need to start preparing for wider roll out long before the General Election. We are not going to wait until after the election to make a decision. We will make it before.
“The point that has been made about the election is that, if there was a Labour Government they are committed to not having any culls at all.
“Our policy is to continue with our comprehensive strategy, which includes culling where disease is rife, vaccinating the edge area and improving cattle controls.”
Responding to criticism about the lack of independent monitoring in this year’s pilots, she said the Independent Expert Panel was only ever meant to be in place for the first year
“We accepted all of their recommendations and the (Badger Trust’s) legal case on this went to the High Court and the verdict went in Defra’s favour.
“The culls are independently audited and they are monitored by Natural and AHVLA. Those people are on the ground.”
Citing a nine-fold increase in TB incidence under their watch, Mrs Truss blamed the previous Labour Government’s inaction on the issue for leaving the current Government with the worst TB problem in Europe.
She pointed to Australia, New Zealand and Ireland as examples of where TB had been reduced or eradicated by culling wildlife.
“The international evidence is clear,” she said. “On the best advice, from the British Veterinary Association and our own chief vet, we think this is the best way forward.”
“We are doing this to protect our farming industry from a disease which is serious threat to our food security.”
NFU president Meurig Raymond said he hoped the Conservative manifesto would include a commitment to pushing ahead with the TB eradication strategy in full, including extending the badger cull.
He said bTB was ‘destroying farming families’, particularly in the west of the country, with 6,000 farms under restriction last year.
He revealed his own farm in Pembrokeshire had lost 40 cattle to the disease last year. “I respect the veterinary profession and when our vet comes onto our farm and tells us where the problem lies, then that to me is as scientific as you can get,” he said.
He said the ‘mental anguish on those farms when good productive cattle are herded into wagons to be carted off to the abattoir’ was, for many farmers, even worse than the financial implications.
“We have to contain and eradicate this disease if we are going to grow the livestock industry. We do need that comprehensive strategy going forward,” he said.
Mr Raymond said there were already signs culling in the pilot areas was having a positive effect.
I can take you to farms in the cull area that have been under restriction for 10 years and are now totally free. That is the evidence for me that this policy can work.
“Let’s give these farming families some hope, otherwise we will see the destruction of livestock farming in some of the most beautiful parts of the country,” he said.