Opinion: Bovine TB eradication must be science-led

“As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of Bovine Tuberculosis” - The Coalition: Our programme for Government (page 18)

The Government is now consulting on its proposal to introduce badger culling as part of its approach to tackle Bovine TB. This part of the Government’s policy is bound to generate both controversy and impassioned debate.

Last year the Government slaughtered over 25,000 cattle because of TB. The control programme costs £63 million. Yet the situation is getting worse.

There is little doubt – and the scientific evidence proves – that badger culling does have, an albeit modest, benefit in Bovine TB control. However, the science also suggests that it is only effective when conducted across very large areas, sustained over many years and implemented by trained staff in a thorough, co-ordinated and synchronous manner.

Against that, any benefits achieved inside the culled areas are partially offset by increased cattle TB in adjoining lands. The independent Scientific Group Study carried out following recommendations by the previous Conservative Government (the proposed Krebs trials) and carried out under the last Labour Government, show that the modest overall benefits of this policy would be likely to be dwarfed by the financial costs (about 3 times greater than the financial benefits) and likely to be exceeded only if post-culling benefits were to persist for long periods of time which the science suggests would be improbable.

Defra estimate that the cost of cage-trapping badgers is £3,800 per square kilometre per annum, therefore culling a typical 150sq km area for five years would cost about £2.14 million (assuming 75% of the land was accessible for culling).

However, the Government proposes to reduce the cost of culling by enabling farmers to either do it themselves or employ trained operators to do it for them – therefore taking on the costs themselves.

In the meantime, the Government has decided to disband five of the six injectable badger vaccine trials which had previously been put in place.

The Liberal Democrats have always taken a pragmatic and evidence based science approach to these very difficult matters. As the Lead for the Party in the House of Commons on Defra matters, I support the Coalition Agreement that any response to this ongoing and worsening problem is science-led and not based on sentimentality towards either cattle or badgers. Whatever decisions are ultimately taken, both in terms of the tools available to the Government and the individual decisions to grant licences for either the use of vaccine or, if it is approved, badger control, the Government must not make the situation worse.

I am no less sentimental about cattle than I am about badgers. An effective TB control policy will be good news for both. Failure to control this will continue to result in a growing and avoidable cattle and wildlife body count in our countryside. It is having a disastrous impact on many livestock farms.

The largest wildlife experiment conducted by a UK Government (i.e. the Krebs Trials) recently concluded that licensing farmers to cull badgers “would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease”. At the same time, the remaining trail of a new badger vaccine continues.

Bovine TB is a massive challenge for Government and for the farming community. Above all, we must not make matters worse.

Andrew George is Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives

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12 Comments

  • Please can someone explain why vaccinating cattle is NOT considered to be an option.

  • Ben Johnson 6th Oct '10 - 11:59am

    It is often difficult to sell cattle which have been vaccinated. Plus I am not sure that there is a very effective vaccine currently available.

    Bovine TB is not successfully contained by small scale badger killing. The badgers simply move from one area to another, in some cases enhancing the spread of TB. The cull proposed by the coalition has very little scientific merit to it. But it pleases farmers, who often vote Tory.

  • James from Durham 6th Oct '10 - 1:38pm

    This sounds like a programme to make badgers extinct in the UK. Or am I misreading this?

  • “Please can someone explain why vaccinating cattle is NOT considered to be an option.”
    It is estimated a BCG vaccine for cattle will be produced for cattle by 2012 but, we can’t use it until;
    [a] We have a differential test to determine which cows are immune and which cows have TB.
    [b] The EU has approved such use of vaccine and tests (currently illegal).
    The earliest possible implementation would be 2015 but, that would require a whole series of fortunate events.

    “This sounds like a programme to make badgers extinct in the UK. Or am I misreading this?”
    The cull is only going to be allowed in hotspot areas within which local extinction will be forbidden, monitored and punishable by law.

  • Some sensible stuff from Andrew George but he doesn’t mention the failing cattle movement recording process, the mixing of cattle at shows, the cruel crowding of cattle in sheds, or the spreading of infected milk and slurry onto pasture.
    Neither does he mention that the decision to cull badgers has been made first and the offer of consultation then follows. What is the point of that except as a political ploy.

  • Farmer's Friend 6th Oct '10 - 8:51pm

    Although the proposal to allow farmers to cull badgers has been welcomed by the NFU, it is not good news for farmers. The demand to kill badgers has never really been about bovine TB control. It’s about money.

    With the odd exception, every farmer I’ve met recognises that the disease is primarily spread between cattle. A few will claim that their “closed herd” could only have acquired bovine TB from badgers. But the so-called “closed herd” is so rare that, when the Central Science Laboratory tried to conduct a study of their disease risk four years ago, they couldn’t find enough genuinely closed herds to do so.

    But as long as farmers can blame badgers for bovine TB, they can continue to demand that the cost of TB testing and compensation for slaughtered stock is borne by the tax payer who choose, through Government, to protect badgers.

    The opportunity to recognise that badgers are only bit-players in the TB problem was squandered by the last Government. The science presented by the Independent Scientific Group should have ended the debate. Instead, it was allowed to continue. Now, in the tough economic times ahead, there is really only one way for the Government to reduce the £100 million a year financial burden of bovine TB on the tax payer. That’s to hand responsibility for culling badgers over to farmers.

    As soon as farmers kill badgers, two things will happen. First, the already poor public perception of farmers will deteriorate further. And second, the Government will then be free to transfer the costs of TB control (e.g. testing) to farmers because they have, in effect, taken responsibility for what they claim is its major cause. After all, if badgers are the cause and farmers are killing them, why should tax payers continue to fund TB testing or compensation? It’s no longer the tax payer’s problem.

    The net result will be a massive increase in costs to farmers and a huge saving to tax payers. What’s so sad about this is that in demanding a badger cull for a decade, and refusing to progress on anything else without one, the farmers have totally shot themselves in the foot. When the money and the political will was available to improve the cattle testing regime, implement zoning for cattle and extend the use of the gamma interferon test, Ministers didn’t bother because the farmers wouldn’t budge on a cull.

    Although some of the shoot first grunters in the farming community are trying to bully their neighbours into signing up for a cull, few culls are likely to take place. It will damage the tourism industry, for a start: who wants to get shot walking back to a farmhouse B&B from the country pub, by an idiot trying to pop a badger? And if, as farmers and their stooges in the farming press claim, only “diseased badgers” are being shot, then there will be the immense costs of disposing of contaminated carcasses. They’ll have to be incinerated as controlled waste: you can’t leave animals allegedly riddled with a zoonosis lying around to contaminate the ground.

    James Paice has effectively called the farmers’ bluff. I hope, for the sake of farmers, that they are not daft enough to fall for it.

  • >The Liberal Democrats have always taken a pragmatic and evidence based science approach to these very difficult matters.

    The Krebs trial you refer to was pretty clear at the time, I thought:
    “But Lord John Krebs, the scientist who designed previous culling trials in southwest England said a national cull would lead to half the badgers in Britain being killed and only achieve “a modest reduction in TB in cattle.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/04/wildlife.conservation

    I doubt the science has changed massively in two years. Calls for culls are farmer-led, rather than science-led.

  • Stripey Badger 6th Oct '10 - 11:15pm

    It will never vote Liberal or Conservative as I consider both parties cruel and backward with their support for killing “our” wildlife. These animals have no one to speak for them and it is up to all decent people to do this job. Please all you civilised people who read this, support the people who are fighting to save “your” wildllife. I belong to the Badger Trust so support us and let us stop this genocide of our Badgers

  • Ian Sanderson 7th Oct '10 - 8:45am

    I won’t comment on the science of this issue to other than to observe that making areas badger-free is will result in inward migrations from neighbouring unculled areas.

    What does not come out in this discussion is the crucial importance for humans of getting right the policies for control of bovine TB. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Northern Ireland, where a major priority of the Stormont government from 1948 or so was reducing TB in humans. Infected milk is one source of TB in humans, so part of the overall strategy was identification and culling of infected cattle, which still goes on. TB in humans is difficult and costly to treat – two years of a closely controlled medication regime was usual in the 1950s, and I think that the main change since then is that some of the medicines have become less effective. There remain human sufferrers here, especially among people with disorganised lives, which make treatment difficult. It is highly infectious among humans living in crowded conditions. My father’s cousin died of TB in 1946, and about 10 years later his son spent 2 years in a specialist TB hospital being treated. It is, of course, still a scourge in some developing countries. The “White Plague” is something that we should never let our guard down on. It is vital to get the priorities right.

  • Lindsay Talbot 7th Oct '10 - 8:52am

    You have been deceived. Millions of pounds of public money have been spent on carrying out the most detailed research ever into the effects of badger culling on bovine TB. The clear conclusion was that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the long-term control of bovine TB in Britain, and in some cases, due to the perturbation effect, can make the situation worse. What was the point of spending all that money and killing all those animals if the result is to be ignored? There is a badger vaccine available to use now. There is also a more accurate test available for bovine TB in cattle. As you know, the current test is not 100% accurate and the disease remains undetected in some herds. These cattle then infect other herds. There is also a backlog of animals waiting to be tested. Would it not be better to spend the money on badger vaccine, gamma interferon testing and making sure animals are tested regularly, and pre and post movement, than on something, which has been proved not to work?

  • It was refreshing to read Andrew George’s article without the rhetoric that has been all too common in this issue.
    However Kreb’s and his report has been long discredited and I am surprised that such an unhelpful piece of research is still being quoted.

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