Defra Secretary Liz Truss has offered fresh hope to farmers in England’s bovine TB hotspot areas that more badger cull licences will be issued next year.
There was frustration in many potential cull areas after Natural England issued only one new licence this year, in Dorset, where culling is now underway.
Mrs Truss said the Government was ‘very much committed to continuing’ with its 25-year TB strategy, including badger culling.
She revealed she had recently visited Devon, where farmers had a licence application rejected this year, to discuss the possible introduction of the policy next year.
“We were able to roll out to one additional area this year and we want to roll out in further areas this year,” she told an NFU fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference.
The past fortnight has seen the two sides of the debate dispute the evidence to emerge so far from pilot culls.
Last week, NFU president Meurig Raymond and his deputy Minette Batters predicted evidence due to be published later this year from the first two years of culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire would show a ‘huge reduction in bTB in cattle herds’.
They cited anecdotal evidence of herds in the cull area which had been under restriction for a long time, but had gone clear.
Opponents of culling, however, led by Brian May, said data published by the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA) from the first year of the culls showed the NFU and former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, who had made similar claims, were ‘deliberately misleading the farming community’.
An APHA report said data showed the first year of culling had made no difference in TB levels in cattle, although it stressed it was too early to draw conclusions (see below).
APHA is due to publish from the second year of the pilots this autumn.
But Farming Minister George Eustice told the NFU meeting said it was ‘too early in the process to make a formal judgement’ on the success of the culls. "The incidence has come down slightly but it is too early to put that down to the culls," he said.
He said data published earlier this year showed the feared ‘perturbation effect’, where culling actually spreads disease, was ‘very limited’ around the pilots.
He highlighted anecdotal cases of farmers who had been under restriction for more than a decade who had tested clear since culling began in Gloucestershire.
Mr Eustice described bovine TB as ’an insidious, slow-growing, difficult-to-manage disease’, with efforts to control it hampered by imperfect diagnostics.
He said Defra had ramped up cattle controls and was trying to develop an oral badger vaccine but stressed vaccination was of little use in heavily infected areas.
"We also have to tackle the disease in the wildlife population. This is not a popular policy - I recognise that - but it is the right policy," he said, in response to a vocal critic of the cull in the audience, who claimed Defra was ignoring the prevailing science on the issue.
He added "The best scientists (on bovine GB) we have got in this country are in Defra and they advise me on a daily basis about this."
NFU president Meurig Mr Raymond earned the biggest round of applause of the evening when he urged Defra to aim to implement its TB eradication strategy in 10 years, rather than 25.
Citing the difficulties his own farm has suffered as a result of long-term TB restriction, he said: "We want to see the cull rolled out quicker, particularly in those endemic areas.
"I know what it feels like. And I know many farming families who have been absolutely destroyed and unless something is done quickly, many will not be in livestock farming in another two years.
"I am not a scientist, I am a farmer, but I have been to southern Ireland, Australia and New Zealand and I know, if you are going to beat this disease you have to destroy it in all vectors - cattle and wildlife." .
"We have a strategy, let's drive it forward. The industry hasn't got 25 years - let's do it in 10."
Data from 2013, the first year of the two pilot culls, was published recently, with minimal fanfare, deep in an annual report on England’s TB status on the Animal and Plant Health Agency website. Key findings included: