The Independent View: Why killing badgers might not be the answer

Dr. Richard Meyer served on the Government Consultative Panel for three years, wrote The Fate of the Badger (Batsford 1986) and worked for a year with WWF. This post is adapted from his submission to Defra as part of the public consultation process on bovine tuberculosis.

The background is briefly that the majority of farmers have long believed that badgers give TB to cattle. I will try to show in plain English why the planned ex-officio cull of badgers by farmers is misguided, uncivilised and dangerous.

Misguided? The most telling evidence is simply historic. On-farm intradermal tuberculin testing (‘Test & Slaughter’) reduced bovine TB after the war in the National Herd to residual proportions (in the south-west due to a combination of other factors). Achieved without a single badger being targeted it was in effect a national no-cull zone. Indeed as recently as 2008 Defra claimed, “Many countries have eradicated bTB through the systematic application of the tuberculin skin test alone and the slaughter of all test reactors”. This in itself implies cow-to-cow transmission. Were it not so, badgers or any wildlife host would have been spreading the disease before the 1970s just as it is claimed they are now, for badgers were widespread then, as now.

Cattle are kept and bred much more intensively now than previously and TB is a stress-related disease. Even the Independent Scientific Group and the Ministry’s vastly experienced principal scientist at the Ministry’s Woodchester Park Study Area, Dr Chris Cheeseman, opposes a cull partly on these grounds, as good science always has. Sanctioning an inevitably haphazard killing programme by unco-ordinated farmers is a desperate political (and economic?) response to manipulated farming opinion which merely demands that “Something must be done”.

Badgers have been singled out because they are large, recognisable and live in settled communities. This makes some, but crucially not all, relatively easy to catch. Wouldn’t it be tragic if a badger with TB is actually the canary in the mine? Video evidence has shown cattle avoiding badger products (i.e. soiled pasture) whereas of course badgers are ‘magnetised’ to cowpats for the insects they harbour; it is not difficult to see the most likely direction of bacterial transmission! Yet deny all this and it remains a scientific truism that the more you look the more you find; the corollary is also true, Don’t look, won’t find. In concentrating on the badger other potential hosts are ignored or only cursorily examined, eg. feral cats, rats, deer, hedgehogs, moles etc, not to mention possible mechanical vectors such as corvids and starlings. Where do we stop?

Uncivilised? Can we lecture the rest of the world on conservation while killing a protected species because its presence is seen as a nuisance? Killing things on suspicion or circumstantial evidence is no civilised answer. Since dead-stock is a live-stock farmer’s end product – directly or indirectly – they are immured to a throughput of animals. However low priced beef and milk is hardly reason to destroy wildlife which has been our heritage since time immemorial. A human failure no doubt but as in a bad TV detective thriller so in bad science: get a ‘prime suspect’ and fit in the evidence. If intensive farming was discouraged and consumers had to pay a fair price for food (perhaps not assuming an inalienable right to eat cheap meat every day), we could encourage a healthier population and return to civilised farming, causing animals less stress and paying farmers a fair return for their work. (There are indeed many farmers, often organic and small scale, some with closed herds, who have alternative views which should be listened to.) If all else fails, vaccination of cattle as for humans, is the only civilised and practical answer. The Krebs Report as long ago as 1997 stated “The best prospect for control of TB in the British herd is to develop a cattle vaccine”, and £18 million was spent proving vaccinating young calves was effective. TB is a treatable disease and with an effective DIVA test (Differentiate between Infected and Vaccinated Animals) only EU law stops this.

Dangerous? Traditionally, farmers proclaim strong views loudly. Most though would admit to not having the time, expertise or scientific curiosity to investigate the epidemiology of a complex disease like TB. It’s not surprising they seek a simple ‘final solution’ having been repeatedly told by NFU and the old MAFF (careers depended on this) that the badger is villain not victim. If the countryside does belong to us all and farmers are its stewards, it is disingenuous to claim there are too many badgers while shedding crocodile tears about diseased badgers.

In conclusion, disease is natural in wild populations yet TB in particular reduces where there is less stress: peturbation lessens and ecosystems recover. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is endemic and affects a wide range of species; it can never be entirely eradicated as under proper agricultural control and is of negligible danger to humans (since pasteurisation of milk). It is an agricultural problem and therein lies the solution. Killing badgers, in short, is a political decision not a scientific one. If the government and agricultural leaders ignore this it will alienate conservationists, animal welfare bodies and much of general public causing a storm of repugnance, civil disobedience and possible direct action while the reputation of farmers will sink even lower.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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41 Comments

  • Absolutely – an excellent article. There should definitely NOT be a badger cull, and Nick Clegg should hold his head in shame for the comment he made before the election that the scientific evidence should be ignored and badgers should be culled. The Lib Dems and the Coalition government should heed the scientific evidence and announce NOW that there will NOT be a cull.

    I live in a marginal Lib Dem constituency in the West Country with a very high badger population and if the Lib Dems support a cull they will lose even more votes!

  • I think veterinaries are much more qualified and experienced in these matters than editors such as yourself to judge what is effective and what is not.

    I think it is absolutely deplorable to write an article so misleading. Is this a deliberate attempt to mislead or do you actually believe what you have written?

    If the latter, you really do need to take time out, banish all your agendas, and look into the subject from all angles.

  • Theo Hopkins 26th Nov '10 - 5:04pm

    I voted Lib/Dem and I am not too unhappy with the coalition. So I am posting this because I think Nick Clegg is wrong to support a cull, and I think he was perhaps pushed into it by the political realities of the Westcountry, where I am.

    This was an article in the Western Morning News, some time before the election, when Nick did a tour down here.

    here is the link:

    http://www.thisisdevon.co.uk/news/time-come-try-cull-West/article-1030038-detail/article.html

    The critical sentence is this one “”I think now the time has come that, irrespective of what scientists say, irrespective of what ministers say, in this part of the country let’s at least just try out a pilot cull.””. So Nick is in support of a cull _against_ the science – though the Coalition Agreement is for a “science-led badger control policy”.

    But here is the full article….

    EXCLUSIVE: Clegg backs badger cull
    Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg answering questions at the China Fleet Club in Saltash yesterday

    By matt Chorley, London editor

    LIBERAL Democrat leader Nick Clegg is calling for a targeted cull of badgers in the Westcountry in a bid to tackle the spread of TB in cattle herds.

    In an apparent U-turn since dismissing calls for a cull a year ago, Mr Clegg told a panel of WMN readers that something must be done “irrespective” of advice from scientists or ministers.

    In the hour-long meeting, Mr Clegg condemned the behaviour of MPs over their expense claims, reiterated his support for the Post Office network, ruled out supporting the repeal of the Hunting Act and warned the Lib-Dem proposal for a local income tax could prove “impractical” in the short-term.

    But his surprise support for a targeted pilot cull of diseased badgers was in stark contrast to remarks made to this newspaper a year ago, when he insisted he could not “second-guess” scientific evidence, blamed a lack of resources at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and warned, “I’m afraid that you are not going to get” a cull of badgers.
    Click here for more

    Click here to read Matt Chorley’s latest blog

    Mr Clegg said yesterday that the geography of the Westcountry – surrounded by the sea – made it ideally suited to a pilot scheme. Concerns have previously been raised that a cull would only serve to drive infected badgers into other areas and the coastline would act as a natural barrier.

    The policy reversal comes as the spread of bovine tuberculosis worsens in the Westcountry. Mr Clegg was told that, in the last year alone, the rate of infection in Cornwall increased by some 40 per cent.

    Martin Howlett, Cornwall chairman of the National Farmers’ Union, said a targeted cull of badgers was needed to “deliver healthy wildlife as well as healthy livestock”.

    “We have had such a problem with disease in wildlife – we have got to get on top of it.

    “Where we lose our vital livestock industry hand over fist, you see wildlife suffering without any form of control.”

    Last week, Conservative environment spokesman Nick Herbert said he would back a targeted cull of infected badgers as part of the party’s strategy to tackle the disease.

    Labour ministers have rejected a badger cull, pinning their hopes on a vaccine to control the problem. This follows a 10-year study by the Independent Study Group (ISG) which concluded that culling could not “meaningfully contribute” to the control of the disease because it displaces the badgers, spreading the disease over a wider area.

    But former Government chief scientist Sir David King argued a mass cull did have a part to play in the hardest-hit areas like the South West, which last year saw a record number of outbreaks.

    Challenged to support the Tory position, Mr Clegg insisted it was time for action to be taken in the Westcountry.

    “I am no scientist, but even by the laborious standards of scientific proof, it really beggars belief that it has taken them 10 years to still not take a decision.

    “I think now the time has come that, irrespective of what scientists say, irrespective of what ministers say, in this part of the country let’s at least just try out a pilot cull.”

    And he added: “I don’t say that lightly because I am acutely aware that there are many people who are implacably opposed to a cull for reasons that are well beyond science – concerns about welfare and some argue the morality.”

  • Dr Richard Meyer 26th Nov '10 - 8:13pm

    Like David, I used to think 25 years ago (yes that’s how long I’ve been working on this) that veterinary surgeons were best placed to assess this situation. Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, I was wrong because for one reason they have a vested interest. Who pays them? Not badgers I promise you.
    Sorry, no ‘editor’ wrote my piece. It was prompted by the public consultation (as stated) initiated by Our Government.
    Please read carefully and address specific points.

  • I always think it is best to look at the data. Although the percentage reductions in the RBCT culling areas and increases in the perturbation areas are subject to large statistical variations, at the end of the 4th cull the increase in incidence due to perturbation had reduced to about 10% and the reduction in incidence in culling areas had reached about 30%. In addition to this the persistence of the culling affect in the last 12 months up to July 2010 of the monitored post-trial period has indicated that persistence of reduced incidence in cattle TB is continuing. All these figures were published in the papers released in February and July of this year by the Imperial College London team.

    As concluded by the then Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, in his report dated 2007, culling badgers does significantly reduce bovine TB in cattle. These benefits have been demonstrated. The benefits of vaccinating cattle and administering vaccines to badgers in the wild have not. As such relying on vaccination and cattle control measures alone is very risky and is likely to significantly contribute to the demise of the UK farming industry.

    Regarding the consultation, in terms of effectiveness it would have been better if gas setting had been proposed instead of free shooting. I suspect that if the cull goes ahead the only option which will go forward will be cage-shooting.

  • Dr Richard Meyer 27th Nov '10 - 10:15am

    Indeed you do need to look at ALL the data, at all the variables and also be aware there are unknown variables. Without wishing to sound like Donald Rumsfeld, there are known unknowns. For example, many potential transmission hosts have not been examined seriously. Why do they sidestep, for example, the role of deer and feral or farm cats? Too close to human interests, pets and hunting quarry? Instructive here to look at the old MAFF Annual Reports.

    Sir David King is a physical chemist, a field irrelevant here. He apparently wrote his report after ten hours of talks with five experts, one “over the telephone for part of the discussion.” Unlike the ten year investigation by the Independent Scientific Group, King’s report was neither peer reviewed nor had an independant statistical auditor. Submitted to the Secretary of State in July, the report was not published until October, two days before the House of Commons’ Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee met. The ISG was not consulted, and did not even know of the existence of this report until the day it was published.

    Professor Denis Mollison, Epidemic Statistician and Independent Statistical Auditor of Defra’s Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) responded thus: “The Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) on the RBCT was painstaking, expert and balanced, and I commended it to Ministers as an exemplar of how to bring high quality science into public decision-making. The ISG’s main modelling and statistical analyses have been published in the highest quality peer-reviewed journals, such as Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

    “In stark contrast, the Chief Scientific Adviser’s comments published yesterday, as a report ‘Bovine TB in cattle and badgers’, would not have passed my audit. It is unbalanced and inexpert.”

    He concludes his response to Sir David by saying, “Finally, the language used is not always careful. For example, “Strong action needs to be taken now” sounds good, but if this refers to badger culling, the ISG report makes clear that in many circumstances “strong action” would be likely to make matters worse.”

    So, pick your experts carefully!

    Professor Mollison’s repudiation can be read here, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmenvfru/130/7102405.htm

    Finally, I find it alarming to hear gassing touted again. This was abandoned in 1980 after many thousands of badgers had been inhumanely gassed in an early ineffective attempt by MAFF to conquer TB in cattle.

  • Gassing may be preferable to parasitic overload which according to the WildlifeOnline web page many badgers die of.

    Hedgehogs do not die pleasantly when prised open by the powerful claws of a badger. If badger numbers were to be controlled by man, other species may be given a chance to recover. On this crowded planet it is not always best to let nature take its course.

    Also how many years do you think it is going to take before the benefits of vaccination will come to fruition? If for instance farming in the UK continues to dive, pastures which the badger depend on will be less and badger numbers will reduce through reduced habitat. When this happens however 97% of the UK population who are not vegan will also be more dependent on dairy product imports. According to Customs and Excise in 2008 the trade deficit in dairy products alone in the UK had exceeded 1.2 billion pounds having more than doubled in 8 years. Perhaps you are vegan, but if you are not, would you be happier to support the farming industry in Ireland and New Zealand instead of here?

    What are your views on how Ireland and New Zealand address bovine TB?

    I believe Ireland use wires and New Zealand address their wildlife vector by air-dropping 1080 poison.

  • As summed up on the WildlifeOnline web page, badgers have received a lot more attention than other animals when examining transmission hosts for the following reasons.

    “At the badger-to-badger level, M. bovis is probably transmitted as an aerosol (i.e. badgers breathe it in). However, the situation is less clear at the badger-to-cattle level. Currently, the primary route of transmission is considered to be through scent marks, especially urine. Indeed, studies have found that while badger faeces can contain up to 75,000 tuberculosis bacilli per cubic gram and badger pus up to 200,000 per millilitre, urine may contain up to 300,000 per ml. Considering the ranging behaviour of badgers, this implies that cows feeding on grass along the periphery of fields (where badgers are more prone to scent) are at a higher risk of picking up the disease than those grazing more centrally. Moreover, badgers take very precise routes, frequently re-marking the same areas and it is not unwarranted to think that a build up of the bacteria (which can survive on the ground or in faeces for days or months, depending on the conditions, while spores may survive for decades) could occur in these areas and may persist even after badgers have been removed. Consequently, several studies have tried to assess how different parts of a field system might present different levels of infection potential. Overall, it was found that urination was more prolific at “crossing points” (i.e. the points where badgers cross a linear feature like a fence or hedge) than other parts of a pasture. Pastures with lots of linear features were, therefore, found to have increased contamination with badger urine. It is perhaps mildly reassuring, therefore, that field observations suggest direct contact between badgers and cattle in the wild is rare and studies looking at where cattle choose to feed have demonstrated that cows generally avoid areas of grass contaminated with badger excreta. However, this situation might be different when feeding from a trough and it is not difficult to see how, in typically oligotrophic (low nutrient) pastures, the added fertilization provided by nutrient-rich faeces and urine may cause grass to grow lusher than in other areas of the field.”

    Have you ever considered how difficult it is in practice to keep cows away from badger areas when a farmer turns his cattle out in the summer? In fact keeping cattle away from infected pasture would not be practical as explained in the following extract taken from the ISG’s Final Report on the RBCT.

    “10.55 In the past, Defra has advised farmers to fence cattle away from badger setts and latrines, which are associated with relatively high densities of badger excreta and might therefore be high risk sites for cattle to become infected. Unfortunately, badger latrines are not fixed in space. Indeed, badgers prefer to place latrines close to fences (Delahay et al., 2007), so it is quite conceivable that fencing around a latrine could simply cause the badgers to shift the latrine to both sides of the fence. badgers to shift the latrine to both sides of the fence. Physically removing latrines does not prevent badgers from continuing to defecate at the same sites (King, 1997).”

    It is for these reasons that badgers have received special attention. It is not because “they are large, recognisable and live in settled communities ” as you point out in your article.

  • Dr Richard Meyer 27th Nov '10 - 5:37pm

    The New Zealand situation concerns an introduced alien species, the Brushtail possum, and I cannot comment on the situation there because it is beyond my expertise. The Irish situation is very worrying. 29,000 cattle reactors were removed in 1997 thereafter numbers dropped but rose again to 30,000 in 2008 despite the ‘official’ killing of 46,000 badgers; this figure excludes ‘substantial’ numbers killed illegally. Yes, most are taken by snares, which for many reasons should have no place in a civilised land. Ireland, moreover, does not recognise a closed season and so lactating females are killed resulting in starvation underground of all young cubs while older ones can be found wandering around and dying in daylight hours.

    I wonder what does die ‘pleasantly’ in nature? Hedgehogs take a range of other wildlife, and I suspect not very ‘pleasantly’. Perhaps David you would do away with all predators (except ‘nice’ ones?). If so, you need to resurrect yourself as God and redesign the entire natural order of the globe. Good luck!

  • Dr Richard Meyer 27th Nov '10 - 5:53pm

    Apropos David’s latest, the article he cites was written I believe over 3 years ago. I have seen video evidence of cattle avoiding badger products. This was a MAFF funded research project undertaken by Dr Paul Benham of Reading University which did not show what MAFF expected and wanted and so was effectively shelved. This might well be the evidence David himself quotes! Any competent farmer should be able to prevent trough contamination from whatever source.

    Indeed I worked for a year liaising between farming and conservation interests, so understand the problem very well. But since I do not believe Badgers infect cattle to any significant extent, I think I have said all I can on this matter, and have other work to do, sorry! My book written in 1986 explains the history pretty adequately and is widely available at low cost.

  • You appear to be saying that in the Irish Republic 29,000 cattle reactors were removed in 1997 thereafter numbers dropped but rose again to 30,000 in 2008.

    However when I write to DAFF with a FOI on 9thJan2009 I got back the following reply on 14thJan2009.

    Dave

    Please find attached number of TB reators for the period 1998-2007.The definitive figures for 2008 will not be available until mid February 2009.

    Year Number of Reactors
    1998 44498
    1999 44903
    2000 39847
    2001 33702
    2002 28930
    2003 27978
    2004 22967
    2005 25884
    2006 24173
    2007 27711

    Regards

    *********
    ERAD Division

    Where did you get your figures from? They are massively different from the figures which I received.

    If the UK had a bovine TB record like that of Ireland we would not be in such a mess now!!

  • “Any competent farmer should be able to prevent trough contamination from whatever source.”

    Try rearing young stock using troughs which keep badgers out.

  • The following is data I recently received from DAFF in Ireland.

    The first column obviously shows the year.
    The second column shows the no. of herds in country.
    The third column shows the no. of restricted herds at 31st Dec.
    The fourth column shows the percentage of herds restricted.

    1990 172,765 6,818 3.9%
    1991 172,272 5,939 3.4%
    1992 172,260 4,867 2.8%
    1993 168,591 4,948 2.9%
    1994 159,818 4,924 3.1%
    1995 154,401 4,497 2.9%
    1996 149,128 4,157 2.8%
    1997 145,209 4,115 2.8%
    1998 142,302 5,513 3.9%
    1999 138,263 5,095 3.7%
    2000 133,542 4,454 3.3%
    2001 130,525 4,987 3.8%
    2002 127,711 4,643 3.6%
    2003 125,512 4,145 3.3%
    2004 124,410 3,852 3.1%
    2005 123,322 3,963 3.2%
    2006 122,392 3,720 3.0%
    2007 120,652 4,036 3.3%
    2008 118,030 3,824 3.2%
    2009 117,287 3,222 2.7%

  • I have just found an article published by the University of Glasgow with the following title

    “Great Britain and Republic of Ireland badger culling trials: An initial comparative study.”

    Although I am not sure when this article was published the year 2009 appears in the web page address.

    This article gave the following information.

    Dates of RBCT in GB: 1998-2005
    Dates of Four Area Trial in ROI: 1997-2002

    Badger population in GB: 300,000-350,000
    Badger population in ROI: 72,000-95,000

    Number of badgers removed in the GB trial: 10,979
    Number of badgers removed in the ROI trial: 2,618

    I see Dr Richard Meyer made the following comment above.

    “The Irish situation is very worrying. 29,000 cattle reactors were removed in 1997 thereafter numbers dropped but rose again to 30,000 in 2008 despite the official killing of 46,000 badgers; this figure excludes substantial numbers killed illegally.”

    I am currently trying to get an insight into the extent to which badgers have been officially culled in Ireland. The figure of 46,000 seems very high in view of the figure of 2,618 culled in the Four Area Badbger Culling Trial. This figure of 2,618 checks out with the total number quoted in Table 3 of the paper titled “The impact of badger removal on the control of tuberculosis in cattle herds in Ireland” which reports on the trial.

    I would be interested to know what this figure of 46,000 represents and where it was sourced.

  • Richard Meyer 29th Nov '10 - 10:13am

    Irish data are from Badgerwatch (Ireland), their latest Newsletter available from http://www.badgerwatch.ie – contact there is Bernadette Barrett but remember no-one has ever done or been able to do an accurate count of badger density due to all sorts of surveying difficulties. Any attempt is little more than a ‘best guestimate’.

    Glasgow University (Zoology) is where I did my PhD but I’m afraid a discussion about percentage points, especially if trying to compare the Irish situation with that in mainland Britain, is for our purposes little more than a smokescreen obscuring my original thesis. The paper David mentions was I believe a Defra led desk study. It is however interesting to note that the percentage of cattle reactors he cites in Ireland has changed little in nearly 20 years despite the cruel massacre of many thousands of Badgers (whichever way you want to cut it).

  • I see the badgerwatch web site shows a table where 27,746 badgers were culled in Ireland between 1995 and 2002.

    Would you be able to direct me to the 46,000 figure?

    Sorry if I have missed the obvious.

  • @ S Hall.

    Regarding use of vaccines on cattle, the following is an extract from a DEFRA document compiled in 2008 and titled Options for vaccinating cattle against bovine tuberculosis.

    “The DIVA test will be based on the same biological assay as the current gamma interferon (IFN) test which is currently used alongside the skin test to improve specificity in certain prescribed circumstances. Experimental evidence suggests that the BCG vaccine is most effective in animals under six weeks therefore the DIVA test will also need to be effective at this age. Although the test will function effectively below this age there may result in some drop-off in accuracy (sensitivity or specificity) compared to older animals. It may therefore be necessary to identify a compromise target age range for vaccination where the vaccine and the diagnostic test are both sufficiently effective.”

    Do you know if Ethopia apply the vaccine to all cattle and how the implementation in Ethopia will transfer across to use in the UK?

    Also what are your thoughts on how this will impact on the viability of farming in the UK? I suspect Ireland will be less likely to go down this road in view of their record with controlling bovine TB compared to ours.

  • Regarding the comment from S Hall on cattle vaccination.

    Do you know if Ethopia apply the vaccine to all age groups of cattle and how the implementation in Ethopia will transfer across to use in the UK?

    Also what are your thoughts on how this will impact on the viability of farming in the UK?

    I suspect Ireland will be less likely to go down this road in view of the fact that they are better able to control the disease.

  • The reason why I am interested in these badger cull numbers in Ireland is because if it can be assumed that

    number of badgers in Ireland = 80,000 badgers
    number of badgers culled each year= 4,000 badgers (badgerwatch web site)
    typical life span of a badger= 4 years

    this means that in a badger’s lifetime, 16,000 out of 80,000 badgers will be culled.

    Hence the chance of any badger being culled is 16/80 which is 20% i.e. one in five.

    So, if it can be assumed that all the figures given above are representative and all the assumptions are valid, the Irish are officially culling one in five badgers to keep bovine TB incidence level.

  • Dr Richard Meyer 30th Nov '10 - 10:20am

    The Irish situation is horrific and probably beyond the scope of this forum but to answer David’s question (lest he think I avoid it!), all Irish data as already stated, including the 46,000 figure, come from the recent ‘An Broc’ (Badgerwatch, Ireland) Newsletter. I say ‘Horrific’ because “6,000 snares are set nightly across Irish farmland” (Mrs Mary Coughlan, former Agriculture Minister). According to DAFF’s own figures 26,000 badgers were culled between 1985 and 1999, and circa 58,000 animals removed since 2000. The 46,000 refers to the period 1997-2008.

    David’s theory on why the badger has been targeted is based on recent publications in which Defra attempts to justify, given the public disquiet and huge expense, a policy over 35 years old. I was trying to show why badgers were targeted in the first place. In April 1971, to be precise, when infected badger #1 was found in Gloucestershire by a farmer who was also, as luck would have it, a Ministry vet. Even though eight years later he reportedly said evidence against the badger was “totally circumstantial” the rot had set in and MAFF top brass thought they had found the final solution. From then on they waged war on the badger. As I say, recourse to earlier MAFF reports shows that post mortem examination of animals other than badgers was mostly sporadic and from random RTAs. It finally stopped altogether.

    I challenge David or anyone else to catch and kill other potential wildlife victims / carriers / hosts of TB with the ruthless efficiency that can be directed at the badger, living as it does in settled and obvious communities. Apparently we are never more than 15m away from a rat, make that 5m in London. Seek and ye shall find.

    At a ‘Communicating Science’ meeting in London recently http://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo/whats-on/communicating-science-debate-badgers-bovine-tb,451,EV.html Professor Bourne and Dr Rosie Woodroffe of the ISG both claimed the Ministry had misused their findings. For a report see George Monbiot’s article in ‘The Guardian’ 15 November http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/15/control-landowners-badgers-bovine-tb

    Gavin Wheeler’s, S Hall’s and Flo Fflach’s contributions are all notable, interesting and very wise. But, S Hall, I wish I did have “significant financial vested interest in all this” since I haven’t received a penny for 25 years!

    And Flo, yes, you’re right, many (not all) farmers and gamekeepers are naturally suspicious, if not hostile to any large uninvited visitor on ‘their’ land, whether on two legs or four. It is true that we all use science; the difference is that a good, I hesitate to say ‘real’, scientist uses ‘scientific method’ – which is carefully laid down and objective. I’m afraid this is not the province of most commentators, politicians, farmers and practising vets – it cannot be, they are busy elsewhere.

  • I wish there was less of what people think and more examination of the data. The ISG’s RBCT data is tabulated in the reports issued in February and July of this year by Imperial College London.

    Why not look at the data and see how cattle incidence dropped with each successive cull both immediately outside and inside the culling areas?

    Also see how the incidences in the culling areas have persistently stayed below the incidences in the remote control areas and significantly stayed below these levels in the last 12 months up to July 2010. The assertion that culling is not cost affective was based on a line drawn through data which did not include the last 12 months of data and substantially under-estimates the culling benefit.

  • Dr Richard Meyer 30th Nov '10 - 12:56pm

    Mr(?) Hall is quite right. Farmers are both victim and villain here: victim because they suffer in human terms more than anyone, and villain because they have swallowed the NFU (et al) line (with hook and sinker attached) ever since they grabbed at the straw thrown out by MAFF all those years ago (sorry about the mixed metaphors). I know several farmers who are rational and sensible but they are always shouted down by the vocal (bovine) majority.

    You say, “Those countries that have allegedly eradicated (eliminated) the disease have done so by completely depopulating herds with any reactors and delaying re-stocking. No country with so called wildlife reservoirs has yet managed to eradicate the disease.” Are you saying that the former countries also cleared ALL wildlife reservoirs as well? If so, I’d like details please.

    David, I don’t know what to add. To me you still appear to be in the syndrome I first mentioned (“… as in a bad TV detective thriller so in bad science: get a ‘prime suspect’ and fit in the evidence.”). You have to look at the evidence going right back to the 1970s because – as Mr Hall implies – this is where it all began, not just recent ISG papers – which are only part of the story. In fact, before 1970 the disease was well under control; it was the poor old badger that took their eye off the ball.

    As you probably know, ecology is the study of inter-relationships. This is very important because nothing in nature exists in isolation. You cannot just look at cattle and badgers because they are big. It’s difficult of course and terribly complex, but since pasteurisation of milk no-one would much care about TB in the environment if it didn’t affect cattle and farmers’ lives and pockets. It would exist virtually unnoticed as do many other pathogens.

  • TB in the environment affects farmer output and hence the food we eat.

    It doesn’t seem to register with you that Custom and Excise data shows that in 2008 the UK trade deficit exceeded £1.2 billion pounds in dairy products alone having more than doubled in 8 years.

    Why do you keep referring to farmer’s pockets?

    I tend to look at it in terms of what they produce. The world is going vegan and rightly so but this is not happening rapidly. Indeed there are issues with producing and sourcing staple foods which make up a vegan diet such that mass conversion to this diet is not going to happen soon.

  • Dr Richard Meyer 30th Nov '10 - 6:06pm

    I’d be very surprised if anyone would argue that farmers aren’t businessmen. Or that they have no interest in the pound in their pocket. Incidentally, that is only the second time I’ve mentioned pockets! This is an example of data fudging which we are here discussing rather than the whole bag of other issues which interest you. Why not write your own piece about veganism – which you feel strongly about – and also Customs & Excise data? But please let’s not confuse it with the epidemiology of a bacterial infection – that is quite difficult enough!

  • Regarding,

    “What is particularly disturbing is the number of visually healthy cattle that are destroyed as reactors or second time inconclusives, many of which are found to have no lesions and tissue culture proves negative too. Clinical symptoms are extremely rare. This is a comment that is made time and time again by farmers. Defra and WAG’s explanations are weak and cannot be substantiated as there is a definite lack of research in this area”.

    You may already be aware of the following but just in case you are not…

    “Detection of M. bovis by culture is affected by many factors including the sampling process, with visibly lesioned animals giving a greater chance of detecting infection. Animals at early stages of disease and latently infected animals do not present with visible lesions at post-mortem and will result in some animals escaping detection.

    5-10% of latently infected humans develop clinical tuberculosis during their lifetime through re-activation of the latent infection (re-activation tuberculosis). The argument that latently infected individuals (culturenegative NVL, skin test reactors for example) constitute a continuous and unpredictable source of reinfection, is equally valid for cattle as it is for human TB. At the early stages of infection, or in latently infected cattle, a period will occur when M. bovis appears to be absent because the bacillary load is not large enough to be detected by culture. In addition, the pathological changes caused by the bacilli are not yet profound enough to be detected during routine abattoir inspection. However, cellular immune responses will be detectable in these animals at an earlier stage of infection than the pathological changes caused by the disease (e.g.visible lesions), or before the bacterial loads exceed the numbers necessary to be able to culture M. bovis from tissue samples.”

  • Dr Richard Meyer 30th Nov '10 - 7:56pm

    “5.23 In UK, RoI and in other countries, some 50-80% of all cattle reacting to the skin test show no signs of disease at slaughter (no visible lesions and failure to isolate M. bovis on culture).”

    ‘Bovine Tuberculosis – - – an update’
    Tony Wilsmore & Nick Taylor
    February 2008
    Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics Research Unit, University of Reading

    PS. And Very sorry Ms S Hall, I’m deeply ashamed

  • I get the impression that the three stoppers with going the cattle vaccine route is loss of foreign trade, effectiveness of the vaccine, and the greater challenge the BCG places on testing.

    Regarding effectiveness, “it is unlikely that a cattle vaccine will be developed in the short to medium term (i.e. within the next 5 years) that confers over 80% protection against bTB in the vast majority of cattle although this is currently a long term research aim. ”

    “In the short to medium term what is more probable, is that a BCG vaccine is available that confers full protection against M. bovis infection to 50% of vaccinated animals. Of the 50% that remain susceptible to infection, over half will be partially protected and have a much reduced capability of transmitting M. bovis should they become infected. The benefits of vaccination are likely to last for at least 12 months.”

    Regarding testing ability, “experimental evidence suggests that the BCG vaccine is most effective in animals under six weeks therefore the DIVA test will also need to be effective at this age. Although the test will function effectively below this age there may result in some drop-off in accuracy (sensitivity or specificity) compared to older animals.” Testing currently accounts for just less than half the annual budget to address bovine TB in Great Britain. I assume animals in close proximity to humans are not allowed to reach advanced stages of the disease because of increased risk of cross-species transfer. I noticed that the paper titled “Public health and bovine tuberculosis:
    what’s all the fuss about?” by Paul R. Torgerson et al says the following

    “An extensive report of 2101 cases of pulmonary TB from the Cheshire sanatorium represented the period 1934 to 1943. Of these, just 48 cases (2.28%) were bTB and only 10 were strongly suggestive of airborne transmission from cattle. Three cases were of familial airborne transmission, 16 were alimentary acquired, and in the remaining 19 cases the mode of transmission was not elucidated. The study confirmed that pulmonary bTB is an occupational health risk: M. bovis was detected in 16.4% of diseased individuals with cattle contact, whereas only 1.6% of patients without cattle contact were positive for bTB. However, the study also indicated that the absolute numbers of bTB transmission are small even when the disease is highly endemic in the cattle.”

    Regarding loss of foreign trade, it would be interesting to see what this may do to the viability of an industry which is already in rapid decline. I may actually spend some time looking into what loss of foreign trade will mean and how this will affect the various farming sectors.

    Many of the above passages which are shown in quotes are extracts which were taken from clearstats.

  • Dr Richard Meyer 2nd Dec '10 - 6:54pm

    All these are fair points and of course it’s fine to veer off into disease control in cattle, but I’d like to reiterate my original post: that whatever the agricultural situation, turning badger into scapegoat was misguided and simply wrong. It’s unfortunate but understandable that farmers want a straightforward cut-and-dried solution – which preferably doesn’t impinge on them too much – that solves the problem at a stroke. This ain’t it.

  • I think that the RBCT results and the reducing cattle incidence in both the culling areas (30% positive impact at the end of the 4th cull) and adjoining lands (reduced to 10% negative impact at the end of the 4th cull) says that it is. If the cull goes ahead (which is by no means certain) the continuing persistence of the reduced incidence in the culling areas are an added bonus should it be decided to stop the culling after 4 years.

    It will be interesting to see if Imperial College and the Insititue of Zoology issue a further paper in view of how data in the last 12 months has diverged from the line drawn which asserted a 14.3% decline in culling benefit every 6 months.

  • I am not sure what you mean when you say the figures are hypothetical and cannot be substantiated. They were taken from the following reports authored by members of the ISG team at Imperial College and the Institute of Zoology. I understand that these university staff were commissioned by DEFRA to analyse the RBCT results during and after the trial.

    Report released in Feb 2010

    Post released in July 2010

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