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Minister hoping for 'major breakthrough' with vaccine for badgers

Badgers could be infected with "something like a herpes virus" to help stop them spreading bovine tuberculous to cattle, a minister has said.

Conservative frontbencher George Eustice said research is ongoing to establish if it is possible to insert a bovine TB vaccine into such a type of virus, thereby ensuring it can spread naturally among the badger population.

Mr Eustice said a "self-disseminating" vaccine for badgers would be a "major breakthrough" although cautioned it is "some way off".

His remarks came amid criticism of the UK Government's badger cull, with a petition warning that tens of thousands of healthy badgers could be killed in a bid to control bovine TB.

The petitioners, who number more than 108,000, say they acknowledge the disease is a "serious problem" but believe any solution needs to involve measures such as a vaccine and increased cattle movement control measures.

The Government argues it is pursuing a "comprehensive bovine TB eradication strategy", labelling the disease as the "greatest animal health threat to the UK" with 28,000 cattle slaughtered in England in 2016.

Tory Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) called on ministers to stop going down a "blind alley" pursuing a "policy that doesn't work, hasn't worked, will not work" and instead put the same resources into finding a TB vaccination that works for cattle and badgers.

Labour former frontbencher Paul Flynn also labelled the Government's cull policy as being "evidence-free and prejudice rich", claiming ministers have a "long record" in trying to "appease farmers".

He added culling appears to be a simple solution by those who believe in "shooting first and thinking later", with the Government using a "very rusty tool out of a medieval box".

Replying to the debate, environment minister Mr Eustice defended the Government's approach and said he would not sanction culling "unless I believed it was necessary to combat this terrible disease".

He added he has an "open mind" to other approaches to tackle bovine TB, telling MPs in Westminster Hall: " There is also some very novel research going on, very much in the early stages, about whether we could develop a self-disseminating vaccine for badgers.

"That is using something like a herpes virus that you insert the vaccine into that spreads naturally through a badger population.

"If we could perfect something like that it would be a major breakthrough although we are some way off."

Mr Eustice also said the Government believes it is "close" to getting a skin test which can differentiate between the vaccine and the disease.

He said: "When we are able to get that in place we are going to work towards moving to trials on that."

Mr Flynn (Newport West) earlier said h unting should be suspended while the Government investigates the scale of bovine TB among fox hounds.

He warned there is a "very substantial" danger of hounds spreading bovine TB given the amount of land they cover when active on trail hunting or chasing a fox.

MPs heard the Kimblewick Hunt, which operates within the south east, had to put down 25 fox hounds after they contracted the disease while a further 120 were tested.

Mr Flynn said: "T he danger does seem to be a very substantial one.

"I believe there is evidence here for a new investigation into the prevalence of bovine TB among fox hounds, and a case for saying hunting should be suspended until that has been proved to be a risk or to not be a risk. Let's put that to the test."

Mr Eustice, in his reply, said: "The veterinary advice is very clear that dogs are not a major contributor to the spread of this disease. Incidences of TB in dogs is very rare."

He added: "I believe (Mr Flynn's) suggestion of stopping hunting, while I understand he has a got a wider objective to want to do that, would not be a proportionate step based on the risks that we have."

Conservative Richard Drax (South Dorset) was among the backbench MPs who backed the cull, saying those against the measure should not view the badger as a "friendly, loveable animal" but as a "danger" to other animals and parts of the natural environment.

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