Kill the cull – it’s bad for badgers, science and the Government

A new term and the Government looks set to walk straight into a public relations disaster. In a bid to ‘manage’ the spread of bovine TB, Defra will commence a badger cull starting in two areas of the South West – West Somerset/Taunton Deane and in the Forest of Dean/Tewkesbury. It is not just the pictures of indiscriminate shooting and maiming of an icon of the British countryside which will be so damaging for the Government; it is the fact that the cull is based on flawed science.  This is an ill-conceived policy.

The decision by Defra, one of the few departments which does not have a Lib Dem minister, comes despite numerous scientific studies which have shown that culling would be of little help in reducing the disease, and could make things worse in some areas. After 10 years’ work the Independent Scientific Group concluded in 2007 that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.  So why does Defra persist with this course of action?

Defra, it appears, has fallen in line with the farming lobby which makes the case for culling based on circumstantial evidence and traditional views about the spread of the disease. Natural England, Defra’s own wildlife advisory body who have to implement the cull, have said that they have little confidence in them delivering the predicted benefits.

From an animal welfare perspective, only a tiny minority of cattle that carry bovine TB show any clinical sign of the disease. Mastitis and lameness are far more significant and widespread problems in the national herd with large numbers being culled as a result of these common conditions. Of course, bovine TB does cause economic hardship for farmers in endemic areas.  The problem is, its transmission is complex and difficult to predict.

True, badgers are ‘reactors’ of bovine TB, but so are other wildlife such as deer.  Blanket culling of badgers, one set of bystanders in this story, makes little scientific sense. Vaccination, on the other hand, does. Badger vaccination has already been shown to significantly reduce the prevalence and severity of disease in the badger population and could reduce the potential for transmission of TB from badgers to cattle.

This is the strategy adopted by the Welsh Government which announced it would not be carrying out the cull.  Instead it will be investing in a five-year vaccination programme .

Charities such as the RSPCA and The Badger Trust fear that Defra’s cull could see badger populations decline far beyond the target 70% cull; in some areas none may survive. There are no safeguards in place to ensure the numbers don’t exceed this figure.

It makes no scientific or ethical sense to decimate this country’s wildlife in a bid to address a complex challenge when other viable solutions exist. If a re-shuffle takes place this autumn, let’s hope a fresh set of eyes at Defra will view the science rather differently.

* Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He previously managed community and public affairs for an oil company with facilities near In Amenas.

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34 Comments

  • SleepNoMore 5th Sep '12 - 1:56pm

    Hoorah for common sense!!
    It’s time the British public started asking themselves WHY the Government is so hell bent on carrying out this atrocity?
    Time to think and explore the reasons why this cull was given the green light despite the Government’s OWN full scale study which concluded, as mentioned above, that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.
    Come on Britain..think about this.
    Do you want our iconic badger population decimated?? If not then write to your local MP’s – it is their legal duty to act on your behalf – you can take a stand against this blood thirsty farce.
    We are many and if we shout loud enough our voices will be heard!

  • So, either farmers are going to be annoyed as the cull will be cancelled, or other people will be annoyed because it goes ahead.

    And who is the new farming minister? Wouldn’t that be the Lib Dem MP David Heath? Not a good time for the Lib Dems to get this position really.

  • To put the rationale for a badger cull into perspective. If we applied the same logic to MRSA we would be culling doctors and nurses … instead we dug deeper and found that there were serious lapses in standards of basic hygiene, specifically hand washing …

    It is worth reading the research as it is, as things are not clear cut. There is a significant level of TB in the badger population, however, we still don’t know with any real level of confidence of the level of bTB in other species nor how it is transmitted to cattle. Additionally, modelling is is showing that, like MRSA, animal movements and people who come into contact with multiple herds may also have a role to play and hence bio-security may have a bigger role to play than we are currently prepared to admit.

  • Tony Greaves 5th Sep '12 - 4:21pm

    Well it seems that David Heath is now the farming minister in DEFRA.

    I suspect he is lumbered with this policy for the time being but it could mean a significant change of emphasis over the next year. (Of course he could abandon it but I doubt if the rest of the DEFRA ministers would allow that just yet).

    Tony Greaves

  • Is it even necessary to cull badgers? Do they spread TB?

    When farmers moved untested cattle around the country to replenish stock after Foot and Mouth, strains of TB in the South West started to appear in counties such as Cumbria. This admirably illustrates how cattle-to-cattle transmission is so influential. Cumbria was by far the worst affected county by Foot and Mouth. In fact as a result of Foot and Mouth, cattle numbers in Cumbria in 2001 were half what they were in 2000. Untested, TB-carrying cattle from various parts of the country were moved into Cumbria to fill this void. As expected, this has caused levels of TB to absolutely rocket up in Cumbria as a result of cattle-to-cattle transmission. In fact, levels of TB in Cumbria are now comparable to what they are in the South West.

    Errr, well no, actually they are not. Although disease levels did start to rise after so many TB-carrying cattle were moved around the country, they have now largely recovered. As a result of this, cattle in the vast majority of parishes in Cumbria are still only tested once every 4 years whereas in Devon all cattle are tested once every year. I am now really confused. Perhaps we need to drop this argument and find another one. There is no doubt that cattle-to-cattle transmission is the major factor for transmitting TB over long distances but it would be absolutely brilliant if we could find a plausible argument for why cattle-to-cattle transmission is dominant in counties such as Gloucestershire where levels of bovine TB have been the highest in the country for decades.

    Does anyone know an argument which would apply to Gloucestershire and to Devon, Dyfed, Hereford and Worcester for that matter? It does not have to be a good explanation just so long as it is half convincing and takes the heat off of our poor badgers which are being scapegoated in these areas. Most of us lead busy lives and we just have not got the time to look into why such an explanation may not apply so we are easily convinced. Anyway we do not need to justify this on scientific terms at all because badger culling is morally wrong and just has to be stopped. The only important criteria is that the arguments must support our view and sound sufficiently convincing to swing the opinion of others.

    PS. I think we also need to take the spotlight off what is happening in the Irish Republic – either that or ignore the last 4 years. In fact why not continue to emphasis what happened back in 2007 when bovine TB levels increased in the republic and dropped in the north. It goes without saying that we should also ignore the continuing benefits of reduced cattle TB over the last 6 years due to the culling performed in the RBCT. Obviously we very much want to continue to broadcast the very powerful statements made in FJ Bourne’s covering letter when the RBCT final report was submitted in 2007. For anyone who is unaware of them they are as follows.

    Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.

    and

    Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.

    Although these statements take no account of the continuing benefits from the RBCT and offer no explanation for why TB levels have not recovered in the South West whilst they have in Cumbria, that does not matter, because they support our cause so well.

  • ssimples.. there are more pigs in the 5 counties you list than in Cumbria, the water supply to large parts of these counties comes from the Severn… and there’s more people.
    Are farmers at cattle market required to wash hands and boots as they go in, or is mere attendance at such a place the main point of transmission(a similar point to the one about hygeine in hospitals).?
    But the badgers were here first.. it’s a parallel argument to ‘kill the foxes because they ate my chickens’.. leave nature alone and look after your livestock properly. Farmers want to be able to choose what they want to produce and then eliminate anything that gets in their way, just as in monoculture arable fields.

  • I swear that I’ll not buy a single English farmed product again if this cull happens. If my feeling is shared by many (as I think it will be) then this is hardly good for the crumbling economy…

  • peter.. Farmers are not doing the choosing when it comes to deciding what to produce. That choice is made by the mechanism which dictates financial reward. If the reward is not there, the farmers will not produce. You only have to look at how milk production has moved out of England into Wales and Scotland since subsidy in England for production started to be phased out and replaced by subsidy based on area of land owned. In Wales and Scotland subsidy is still production based. As a result in England there has been a swing to using land as an amenity whereas in Wales and Scotland the drive to produce has continued. According to Rural Payment Agency data, in the last 10 years milk production has reduced in England whilst it has increased in Wales and Scotland.

    Regarding farmers looking after their livestock properly, the ethos behind the Soil Association and organic farming is that that stress is one of the primary causes of disease and welfare problems in intensive livestock farming. The Soil Association standards for organic farming are designed to reduce stress to farmed livestock through a variety of management techniques. Regarding bovine TB if stress reduction and more extensive farming practices were having any impact, some lowering of herd incidence would be expected if a large enough number of registered organic farms were to be taken and their incidence compared with the incidence on conventional farms. In the Irish Republic on 31 December 2009 there were 972 organic herds recorded on DAFF records of which 45 were disclosed as reactors. This is 4.6%. The number of herds in the country at this time were 117,287 of which 3,222 were reactor herds. This is 2.7%.

    Evidently going organic and farming more extensively to reduce stress levels in cattle makes bugger all difference!!

    What level of experience and insight do you think you have at the sharp end which qualifies you to comment on how farmers behave and what they should do?

  • Aaron Blair 6th Sep '12 - 1:08pm

    Ssimples asks why the bovine TB problem varies between the south west and Cumbria. It’s a difficult question to answer, not least because Defra has now started leaving out key information from its statistics, such as how many herds there are in a given region and how frequently they are tested.

    But the following are likely explanations for why bovine TB was (in theory) brought under control in the NW while it still rampages across the west.

    1. Local cattle trade. Back in 2005, a team based at the University of Oxford conducted a major analysis of cattle movements and concluded “movements as recorded in the Cattle Tracing System data archive, and particularly those from areas where BTB is reported, consistently outperform environmental, topographic and other anthropogenic variables as the main predictor of disease occurrence”. (See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v435/n7041/abs/nature03548.html).

    In the SW, there is a strong pattern of local trade between farms via livestock markets. Moreover, farms with TB can trade with other TB farms.

    It’s easy to see how local patterns of trade not only spread TB in parishes still under 3 or 4 yearly testing, but maintains the disease thereafter, even when annual testing is introduced. In NW and to some extent the NE, there is less trade between local farms, but plenty of buying in from the SW, W and Ireland. Because these bought-in cattle are confined to specific herds they are either slaughtered before they are ever tested or slaughtered after testing. Because the gamma interferon blood test is also often used in these herds, there is a greater chance of finding most of the reactors and culling the disease out before it gets fully established.

    2. Movements on premises and commons. In the SW, farms are extremely fragmented. The Badger Trust has shown that farm premises are not solid and coherent, with just one or two neighbours. Instead, the farm is scattered in pieces across a few square miles, sometimes with fields ten, 20 or even a hundred miles away. Consequently, each farm can have direct contact with many other farms. They may share the same water troughs, there are no double fences to prevent contact between herds, and some even share barns and milking parlours. This geospatial element is never considered by vets when they consider “dangerous contacts” between one herd and another. But it means that cattle which have spread the disease to other herds whilst grazing in remote fields, and test positive on their return to the farm in the autumn, have long since spread the disease far and wide.

    In addition, some cattle are grazed on commons in counties like Gloucestershire, where there are unhindered contacts between different herds.

    The Badger Trust did not explore the layout of farms in Cumbria, but if they are in general more coherent and less fragmented and perhaps even more isolated than farms in the SW, then this would reduce the opportunity for disease to spread and be maintained between herds.

    3. Climate. The SW has a mid and damp climate which favours the survival of bovine TB. The NW is also damp, but greater extremes of temperature may reduce the ability of bovine TB to survive outside its hosts.

    4. Wildlife. It would be rash not to acknowledge that badger densities are higher in the SW than in much of Cumbria and the NW. However, one interesting finding of the badger culling trial was that, in the wake of foot and mouth disease, the incidence of bovine TB declined in badgers AFTER cattle testing restarted.

    The trial was not designed to test this hypothesis, but the data that exists does suggest that cattle are the major reservoir for bovine TB, not the badgers themselves; the badgers are merely sentinels.

    Even in areas of relatively high badger density in the NW, such as the Furness Peninsula, bovine TB has not been found in badgers. This may indicate that the more isolated status of bovine TB within herds ensures that it does not spread very far into local badger populations.

    In contrast, in a famed outbreak of bovine TB on Furness – when Defra announced that it was testing badgers for the disease – the actual source was farmed deer, some of which had escaped into the local area. Others had been bought up by a farm near Kendal and bovine TB rapidly appeared in neighbouring cattle herds there.

    So, there are some possible explanations for the regional variations in disease. There could be others, such as differences in livestock management practices, but these are exceptionally hard to tease out.

    The bad news is that we are not likely to see any sensible progress on this issue following the appointment of Owen Paterson as SoS for Defra. He famously (or infamously, if you were a Defra civil servant at the time) asked more than 100 PQs on bovine TB, virtually all of which focused on badgers but shed no light at all on the possible role played by cattle. He studied history at Cambridge and made his mint tanning leather, and now owns agricultural land and buildings which are let. So there’s little evidence that he’ll be able to grasp the significance of the science behind bovine TB and, besides, he already has a badger-culling agenda.

  • Aaron Blair.. Prof Christl Donnelly was vice chair during the RBCT trial which you refer to and was partly responsible for designing the trial. In a letter to DEFRA dated 6th Jan 2012 she referred to the RBCT data and stated that estimates obtained by Donnelly and Hone (2010) indicated that on average, at initial proactive badger culls, roughly 50% of bovine TB incidents could be attributed to infectious badgers. In addition to this, in March 2010 she submitted a report which stated that based on a subset of data taken from the RBCT, results indicate that TB in cattle herds could be substantially reduced, possibly even eliminated, in the absence of transmission from badgers to cattle.

    You however say that the data suggests that cattle are the major reservoir for bovine TB, not the badgers themselves; the badgers are merely sentinels.

    It would appear from this that you know something which the scientists, who analysed the data, do not.

  • dodgethebullets.. In the UK, badgers are considered to be the primary host.

    The following is an extract taken from a memorandum prepared by Former Veterinary Officers, State Veterinary
    Service in Feb 2008.

    Once a badger develops disease all the members of that social group are likely to become infected due to the confined living space in their underground tunnel systems, their highly gregarious nature and constant mutual grooming. But that seed of infection (the primary focus) will usually only progress to produce disease and eventually death in a minority of cases. Latency is a feature of TB in many species and this is so in badgers and cattle. The bulk of infections in badgers, usually 70% or more will become latent or dormant. A small number of badgers may resolve the infection completely and self cure. But the latent infections remain fully viable and may breakdown under stress which may be of nutritional origin, intercurrent disease, senile deterioration or social disturbance and disruption. Some badgers may develop fulminating disease (Gallagher et al 1998).

    Badgers with terminal generalised tuberculosis can excrete vast numbers of bacteria particularly when the kidneys are infected. Counts of several million bacteria in a full urination have been recorded (Gallagher and Clifton-Hadley, 2000).

    When infection is acquired by a bite wound from the contaminated mouth of another badger, the bacteria are inoculated either deeply subcutaneously or intramuscularly and rapid generalisation of infection usually occurs, causing progression to severe and often fatal tuberculos is which may develop in a matter of several months (Gallagher and Nelson, 1979). Respiratory origin infections have a longer duration and cases in an endemically infected population (Woodchester) have been monitored showing intermittent excretion of infection for a year, with the longest recorded case excreting for almost three years before death.

    The above ground mortality due to TB is estimated as about 2% of the population per annum. Thus in the South West alone with its now extensive endemically infected areas the annual deaths due to TB will be of the order of at least 1000 to 2000.

    Tuberculosis has an unfettered progress in the badger population and the cycle of infection and disease in the badger has long been known to be self sustaining (Zuckerman 1980). Over time the badger has become well adapted as a
    primary reservoir host of bovine TB infection.

    Eliminating this particular wildlife vector will allow highly effective cattle control measures to work in the South West and Wales as they have done in Cumbria. The following is an extract taken from an EU report titled “Eradication of Bovine Tuberculosis in the EU” issued in 2006.

    It has now been reliably demonstrated that the persistence of an infected wildlife reservoir that enters into contact with cattle is a major obstacle to the eradication of TB. This obstacle should be addressed in tandem with the measures implemented in relation to the cattle population.

    While future prospects for the development of suitable TB vaccines for use in wildlife are promising, considerable obstacles remain which make it difficult to foresee the use of such vaccination on its own as the most suitable tool to use to address the persistence of the variety of infected wildlife reservoirs worldwide in the near future. In the meantime, therefore, alternatives to vaccination, in order to address the role of infected wildlife in the persistence of TB should be implemented without any delay so as to allow the progress of the eradication programmes.

    The elimination or reduction of the risk posed by an infected wildlife reservoir enables the other measures contained in the programme to yield the expected results, whereas the persistence of TB in these wildlife populations impedes the effective elimination of the disease.

  • Aaron Blair 7th Sep '12 - 10:32am

    Ssimples asks if I know something that “scientists who analysed the data do not”.

    Well, I don’t. But I do know that basing a policy on one figure – the 50% of breakdowns attributable to badgers cited by Ssimples – is bad policy.

    Below are a couple of interesting paragraphs from this reference by Donnelly et al. The full reference is available here:

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0018058#s1

    I cite it in full because the relevant question is not “should we cull badgers”, but “is culling badgers the most effective way of controlling bovine TB”? If we ask the latter question, the scientists, including Donnelly, stated quite clearly that badger culling can make “no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Great Britain” in their analysis of the badger culling trial. I have not seen Donnelly alter this position in the light of subsequent data and this is, no doubt, because killing badgers is a hugely costly and difficult challenge which yields very modest reductions in bovine TB.

    Here’s those two paragraphs:

    “The movement and trading of animals from high bTB risk herds has been found to contribute to both the local and long-distance geographic spreading of the disease. We found that farm area was positively correlated with the number of cattle movements onto the farm. Larger farms purchased more animals, suggesting a higher probability of introducing the disease into their herd. The retention of historic bTB incidence in the multivariable models suggest that this risk factor is important in determining whether herds in a parish group are likely to experience a bTB breakdown in a particular year. Herd breakdowns tend to be recurrent possibly as a result of the failure to clear the source of the disease, especially from larger herds, by test and slaughter. Subsequent breakdowns could therefore arise from undetected (tuberculin-negative) infected animals. This factor is probably exacerbated for dairy herds whose turnover is less important than stores or beef enterprises. Other permanent factors (such as the presence of badgers and/or contiguous herds) may make these areas particularly prone to bTB reemergence.

    “The analyses of RBCT cattle incidence data using individual-herd-based models also provide insights into how local cattle herds and local badger populations affect the breakdown risks on individual cattle herds in survey-only areas (unculled areas). The presence of badgers (measured here as the number of active badger setts) was associated with an increase in bTB risk, even after adjusting for local farm-level risk factors. The higher the number of badger setts identified within 1500 m of the land parcels, the higher the probability of at least one confirmed bTB breakdown for the corresponding herd, a pattern that has also been observed in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Similarly, the number of herds within 1500 m of a farm was a very significant predictor of both the probability and the time to the first bTB breakdown for that herd. The larger the cattle population surrounding a farm, the higher the number of contiguous herds that are likely to have had experienced a confirmed bTB breakdown in the past. A case-control study in Northern Ireland showed that the odds of a bTB breakdown are increased by more than two-fold if a herd has a contiguous neighbour which has experienced a confirmed bTB within the last three years, with a similar pattern once again observed in the Republic of Ireland.”

    Donnelly et al then go on to conclude that whilst the presence of badgers and their setts, and the level of infection within culled badgers, are significant predictors for the next bovine TB breakdown, the same is also true of “further evidence that the livestock population within 1500 m of a farm, but not counting the index herd, is associated with the risk of detecting bTB”.

    So, both cattle and badgers are predictors for bovine TB, but we know that badger culling only reduces TB by around 16%. So which predictor is more likely to be the true one, rather than a sentinel or analogue, for the primary reservoir of the disease? Clearly, cattle.

    The next problem that arises is this: If we acknowledge that cattle are the primary reservoir but that badgers also play a part in disease transmission, should we also cull badgers as well as dealing with the primary reservoir?

    When Jim Paice MP announced the badger cull on 15/9/10, he said: “there is no doubt that badgers are a significant reservoir for the disease and WITHOUT TAKING ACTION TO CONTROL THE DISEASE IN THEM, it will continue to spread. No country in the world has eradicated bovine TB without dealing with the reservoir in wildlife”.

    These are my caps and there is nothing in Paice’s statement, that I can see, which suggests that KILLING badgers is an essential action for controlling the disease in them. My reasoning is that if cattle are the primary reservoir, and if testing of cattle post foot-and-mouth disease led to a drop in bovine TB incidence in badgers, then the best way of controlling the disease in badgers is to better control it in cattle.

    Cattle controls are required by EU law anyway, so improving the testing regime is one of the most straightforward ways to significantly reduce bovine TB.

    It is worth noting that Paice has recently introduced new restrictions on cattle controls at cattle shows and on farms which are known as single occupancy authorities, as well as tougher rules for farms which go overdue for their tests. Note that Defra’s last statistical report for May 2012 said that data for the number of overdue herds were “unavailable”. It’s not surprising that they’re covering this up – the data has been unavailable for more than a year – because in May 2011 almost 3,000 herds were overdue for testing. It’s worth noting, in the context of Ssimples’ original question about the difference between the North and SW, that while just under 5% of herds in the north were overdue, it was 15% in the SW…

    The Badger Trust had called for these changes to cattle controls as far back as May 2008. But farmers and Defra resisted them. They were only introduced this year, because EU vets refused to part with a huge chunk of TB subsidy to the UK without them.

    And this really illustrates the depth of the TB problem. The culture of farmers to blame everyone but themselves for their woes. During the FMD outbreak, they blamed badgers, starlings and ramblers for spreading the disease, while under the cover of darkness trading standards officers were catching farmers illegally moving livestock.

    With bovine TB, the denial has been even worse, thanks to the vets in Defra (the State Veterinary Service was once memorably described as Defra’s “greatest asset and greatest liability”) who have always maintained that killing badgers was the silver bullet needed to end bovine TB. Every major policy recommendation by the Badger Trust over the last 12 years has been resisted by vets and farmers alike, but eventually introduced fully or in part. Most notably these include gamma interferon testing (which chief vets initially briefed against), movement restrictions and pre-movement testing, penalties for overdue tests, and the abolition of Single Occupancy Authorities and Linked Holdings.

    A rational future, based on the science and on the raw economics of bovine TB, would be one where the testing regime was annual across the whole country (and perhaps even every ten months in hotspots, since Cox et al show that this would reverse the disease immediately), supported by gamma interferon, a robustly enforced cattle tracing system, the abolition of livestock markets and, possibly, an end to livestock shows.

    The short term costs would be high (and therefore politically disadvantageous to politicians) but of medium and long term benefit to tax payers. If, after 5-10 years of robustly implementing these policies TB remained a significant problem in certain areas it MIGHT be cost effective to cull badgers and fallow deer. But to introduce the vast cost of badger culling when the disease is at its most widespread thanks to cattle to cattle spread, is utterly daft. What’s extraordinary is that some farmers are rash enough to even try it. Hoever, with four decades of foolish claims driving a dogmatic resentment towards badgers amongst the daftest farmers, it is perhaps not that surprising.

  • Aaron Blair.. Transmission in areas where TB is not endemic in badgers is clearly principally due to cattle-to-cattle transmission. In these areas there is no doubt that cattle are the primary source. These areas are not the problem areas however. If the incidence in the South West and Wales was the same as it is in Cumbria, we would be in a much better place.

    If you are saying that it is clear that this source is also primary in the South West and Wales, this is YOUR opinion. This opinion is not shared by the majority of reputable scientists who have studied the evidence in any depth.

    Are you really so incapable of reading technical reports and interpreting what they say? I think you need to ask yourself what your primary objective is. Is it really to eradicate bovine TB in badgers and cattle?

  • Actually eradicating TB may not be possible. However there is vast potential to control it to reduce the suffering which it causes. Perhaps the aim should be to reduce it in the South West and Wales to the level seen in Cumbria over the next 10 to 20 years. In the light of prospects for current alternatives, putting off a cull carries the risk of prolonging the suffering.

  • Aaron Blair 10th Sep '12 - 1:44pm

    ssimples claims that my suggestion that cattle are the source (in fact, I said primary reservoir) of bovine TB “is not shared by the majority of reputable scientists who have studied the evidence in any depth”.

    But s/he does not offer any references in which “reputable scientists” claim that badgers are the primary reservoir of bovine TB in the SW. In fact, the Independent Scientific Group which studied the disease in depth for more than a decade complained that “It is unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control.”

    Interestingly, today the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England has launched a consultation with farmers, asking them what the Government could do to “crack down on practices which spread bovine TB” within the industry itself.

    Its briefing document states that “the evidence clearly suggests:
    • Badgers play a role in making the disease worse in some parts of the country.
    • Cattle movements and trading also play a role in spreading the disease, and some movements are riskier than others.
    • The TB tests we have available at the moment are the best we have but are still imperfect.
    • We need to make sure that our existing policies and regulations are implemented and complied with effectively.”
    Ref: http://www.defra.gov.uk/ahwbe/work/bovinetb/

    So, three out of the four areas under examination recognise the problem of bovine TB within cattle, rather than badgers. The last one is particularly important. There is a tacit admission that existing approaches to bovine TB are NOT being effectively implemented yet.

    An excellent example of this has been the discovery by trading standards of the “widespread practice” of farmers swapping ear tags on cattle. If a good milker is disclosed as a TB reactor, the farmer swaps its ear tag with another animal that’s past its best, and sends that off for slaughter instead. The infected animal remains in the herd.

    The practice is so commonplace that, now, reactors are having to be subject to blood tests so that their genetic identity can be confirmed at slaughter. This is further evidence that the social cause of bovine TB – the fatalism and apathy of farmers – is possibly the biggest problem facing the industry as a whole.

    A sane Government, rather than one which populates its environment department with farmers themselves, would ask the farming community to clean up its own act before exterminating badgers – the vast majority of which will not have bovine TB. The fact that they do not demonstrates that Spelman, Paice and, no doubt, Paterson, are more interested in looking after the interests of their farming friends than the interests of the tax payer.

    One other thing. The latest consultation from the Health and Welfare Board claims that “we now have a series of local bTB epidemicsepidemics, rather than one large epidemic – making the problem greater and the task of reversing the worsening trend even harder”.

    I disagree with the latter part of this statement. A localised problem is likely to be more easily addressed than a national one. But I agree broadly with the argument that bovine TB is largely a local phenomenon because, as explained in earlier comments, trade between farms and direct contact between fragmented herds is also a local phenomenon.

    In their earlier comment, Ssimples cited a submission by former state vets, blaming badgers as the reservoir of bovine TB. Presumably, these are the “reputable scientists” to whom s/he is referring. These are presumably the same State Veterinary Service who, once they started blaming badgers, failed to realise that bovine TB was spreading because they treated it on a herd by herd basis, and only after it had become firmly established in a parish, rather than recognising that herds in a region form what biologists would call a meta-population – it’s one large group, constantly mixing.

    There now appears to be the faintest inkling that vets are realising that in the west and south west, as in Ireland, the failure to tackle bovine TB in a meta-population is the cause of the problem and the one which must be addressed.

    Incidentally, if Ssimples is about to claim that Ireland has solved bovine TB by virtually eradicating badgers, let me pre-empt that by reminding him/her that it has the worst TB levels in Europe. If ever you wanted an illustration of why killing badgers is a huge waste of time, Ireland is the perfect example of this crassly stupid act failing to deliver.

  • Aaron Blair.. You commented as follows

    [START OF COMMENT]
    if Ssimples is about to claim that Ireland has solved bovine TB by virtually eradicating badgers, let me pre-empt that by reminding him/her that it has the worst TB levels in Europe. If ever you wanted an illustration of why killing badgers is a huge waste of time, Ireland is the perfect example of this crassly stupid act failing to deliver.
    [END OF COMMENT]

    Ireland have not solved TB – far from it. In fact I think the culling which they are doing is too localized to avoid the affects of perturbation. Having said this the Irish Republic was the only country out of Northern Ireland, Wales and England to see a drop in the incidence of TB in cattle in the last 3 years up to 2011. (Of course 2012 figures are not yet available) In fact according to latest annual data it now has the lowest level of cattle incidence out of all 4 countries. Although the difference is not substantial and the order may reverse, the trend over the last few years has been encouraging. In fact a lot more encouraging than in the UK.

    Unfortunately you still appear to be clinging to what happened back in 2007. See the fist comment I made on 5th Sept.. This assertion about Ireland having the worst TB levels in Europe is a perfect example of opinion fueled by ignorance. Why are you so averse to looking at data to get a true picture of what is happening. Do you not consider this to be important?

  • I find the advice given out by USDA – APHIS on tuberculosis interesting, specifically the advice on keeping herds free of bTB: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/animal_health/content/printable_version/faq_tb_free_herds.pdf

    Basically, the main transmission vector in the USA is livestock movements, although a few states do have a problem with TB in the wildlife.

    I would be interested in knowing if any UK farmers normally practise the level of biosecurity APHIS advises and the incidence of bTB they experience …

  • Roland.. Regarding comparing farming practices abroad with our own, I very much doubt if this can cast any light on why GB, in terms of TB control, has gone from being world leading from 1997 to 1986 to the dire situation in which we are in today.

    What happened to GB to cause this massive change around? Is it because in 1986 farmers in GB started to behave very differently to farmers abroad where countries are either TB free or have TB under control? From comments in many forums, including this one, many people believe farming practices are the cause. Perhaps farmers in GB need to act like farmers abroad. Of course this is rubbish.

    In just 25 years the incidence of TB in cattle in GB has increased by more than 40 times as seen by these figures which were taken from the Chief Veterinary Officer’s Annual Reports and were supplied to me by DEFRA.

    Year….Number of cattle slaughtered
    1977….764
    1978….668
    1979….633
    1980….873
    1981….784
    1982….569
    1983….621
    1984….660
    1985….699
    1986….513

    Now let’s look at the next 10 years.

    Year……Number of cattle slaughtered
    1987…..810
    1988…..688
    1989…..901
    1990….1048
    1991….1124
    1992….1244
    1993….1965
    1994….2304
    1995….2896
    1996….3253

    This represents a four-fold increase in 10 years.

    In 2011 in GB, the number of cattle slaughtered (not including cases detected in slaughter houses or direct contacts) had reached 22,437. This is over a 40-fold increase from the number in 1986.

    If anyone is interested to know what went wrong, Google “1986-1997 Interim strategy”. Compare the clean ring strategy with the interim strategy. Removal of infected badgers is the only sure way of addressing this problem. Relying on other solutions is high risk in view of timescales involved and unknown performance when it comes to reducing TB in cattle.

  • ssimple,

    > From comments in many forums, including this one, many people believe farming practices are the cause. Perhaps farmers in GB need to act like farmers abroad. Of course this is rubbish.

    I would be careful making such sweeping statements; remember a large factor in MRSA becoming a problem was that medical personnel had forgotten about the importance of basic hygiene procedures in their work (ie. biosecurity practises) and needed an “in your face” campaign to get the message across that hand washing etc. applied to them.
    There is a lot we can learn from farming practises from elsewhere, the skill is in interpreting it and applying the understanding gained. What is surprising is that there is little evidence in the published research of experiments around bio-security, even though there is evidence that bTB has been spread by livestock movements that did not take account of basic bio-security…

    Remember a big problem with the research results available on the bTB in the UK is that we don’t have any definitive explanations to support sensible decision making. What is known (from looking at other countries) is that neither the culling of wild life or implementation of bTB control measures in livestock are sufficient, if the desire is to minimise the incidence of bTB.

    The raw data you give is interesting, although it presents better when converted to n in a 1,000 cattle tested, however the research todate does not make comfortable reading, as inspite of the change of strategy for dealing with outbreaks, there is no clear evidence as to what actually happened ie. was it really the badgers (during the interim strategy there was no badger sampling!) ,or was it something else that was going on either as a part or a consequence of the clean ring strategy, or did something else change such as the testing regime.

    Likewise having seemingly established a potential connection between badgers and cattle, there has been no substantive experiments to really explore this avenue , for example whether the bio-secure separation of cattle from wildlife results in a reduction in bTB (remember if cattle can contract bTB from badgers then cattle can reinfect badgers…)

    As I said previously, it is worth reading the research as not only are things not clear cut, but that there are significant lapses in the scientific investigation, as many times you read of suspected connections that could be scientifically tested but can find no subsequent investigation of the conneciton.

    What is clear, culling badgers will not eradicate the relatively long lived and hardy TB bacterium from our fields.

  • Roland.. The EU earlier this year came out with quite a detailed appraisal of the situation in the UK. They do not appear to be very impressed with the u-turn which Wales have made when switching from culling to vaccination. This is what they said.

    [START OF EXTRACT]
    The Welsh eradication plan will lose some impetus as badger culling will now be replaced with badger vaccination. This was not part of the original strategy that consisted of a comprehensive plan that has now been disrupted. There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.

    UK politicians must accept their responsibility to their own farmers and taxpayers as well as to the rest of the EU and commit to a long-term strategy that is not dependent on elections.
    [END OF EXTRACT]

    It is to the EU which we are having to turn in order to get the law changed regarding the DIVA test on vaccinated cattle. Perhaps they view the situation in the UK to be largely self inflicted due to a reluctance by politicians, who are faced with a misinformed and mislead public, to effectively tackle the wildlife vector.

    The full report can be read in the reference below.

    REPORT OF THE BOVINE TUBERCULOSIS SUB-GROUP, EUROPEAN COMMISSION HEALTH & CONSUMERS DIRECTORATE-GENERAL, Veterinary and international affaires, Meeting held in The UK 27-28 March 2012.

    http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/diseases/docs/tb_subgroup_uk_2012_en.pdf

  • @ssimples
    Thanks for the link to yet another flawed report – ho hum!

    One of the irritations with this report is that the conclusion is not backed up by the content. So as you point out the conclusion is very negative of the Welsh Badger vaccination proposals; however, in the main body of the report we see the statement “The badger association with TB is no longer debated, the remaining issue is how to handle TB in badgers. Vaccine for cattle and/or badgers is regarded as an important key feature for success.”

    As I said before the published research doesn’t make comfortable reading,

    The question I find myself asking is just what are we trying to achieve, as the data you provide shows, going back to culling Badgers will only reduce bTB not eradicate it; whether it will reduce it to pre-1987 levels is uncertain, particularly as it seems that we now have larger herds and a higher density of cattle on the land – both factors known to facilitate the cattle-to-cattle spread of bTB.

    Yes, there is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle, because there has been no scientific research into the potential effects of vaccinating the badger population. So the EU conclusion is akin to the Vatican continuing in it’s believes and refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope.

    The problem we have in moving forward with both the Welsh vaccination proposal and the DEFRA culling proposal is can be we trust their methodologies and execution to be scientifically-based and for real data to be gathered – based on the published research and the history of the organisations involved I’m highly skeptical that real science will be done in either case.

  • Roland.. You asked what are we trying to achieve, as the data I provide shows, that going back to culling Badgers will only reduce bTB not eradicate it. Whether it will reduce it to pre-1987 levels is uncertain, particularly as it seems that we now have larger herds and a higher density of cattle on the land.

    Cumbria has larger herds and as I showed in an earlier comment England was able to reduce TB in that county after the restocking after Foot and Mouth in 2001 increased it. This gives some hope but obviously the disease was not as established in Cumbria as it is in the South West – plus there are pockets in Cumbria where they still testing for TB annually. Regarding higher density of cattle I am not sure what you are referring to as there has been overall a steady decline in the number of cattle . In fact in 1997 GB had over 12 million cattle and in 2011 GB had just over 8.3 million.

    I think total eradication would be over the top and very difficult to achieve. However a substantial reduction in both cattle incidence and level of infection in badgers would be very welcome and very much needed.

  • Roland.. Regarding the conclusion of the EU report being very negative of the Welsh Badger vaccination proposals and not backed up by content, the link below lists some issues which support the view.

    http://www.bovinetb.info/wales.php#iaa

    My view on this is that badger vaccination may play an important role but the outlook for using it without resort to culling is poor. My biggest concern is a lack of resolve by governments who are only elected for 5 years and are not committed. If there was commitment over successive governments perhaps problems would then start to unravel.

  • Ssimples,

    I also conclude that to get bTB down to levels that reduce incidents of bTB to a minimum ie. infection is from other wildlife reserves or human activity/in-activity, that we will need to have a co-ordinated programme of badger vaccination and selective culling of infected animals and sett fumigation (remember part of the problem is that setts provide a favourable environment for the TB bacterium), combined with improved biosecurity around livestock.

    But as I think we are both agreed any approach needs long term government commitment and be rigorously scientifically based so that we can see valid trends and be confident in our conclusions.

    Yes this may be expensive, but given that the government is already paying out £500m pa in compensation to farmers and is preparing bung another £10bn at the domestic housing market which will have minimal impact on: our trade with Europe, reputation – both farming and scientific, pharmaceutical R&D (vaccines and testing), likewise the £2bn pa being earmarked for HS2, I conclude that the money is available, the only question is whether government is prepared to make the hard decisions and spend it in areas that will actually benefit the economy and our ability to trade…

  • Update,

    Just seen Ann McIntosh MP (Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee) speak on Newsnight and am left wondering to what extent she has actually read the available materials around bTB. In the interview she raises the question “what happens to the meat and the milk from cattle whom show signs of TB after being vaccinated? will they be allowed into the food chain or the meat allowed to be exported.” If she had actually read the materials available from the Food Standards Agency ( http://www.food.gov.uk/about-us/how-we-work/our-board/boardmeetoccasionalpapers/2004/tbinmeat0204#.UFemarIiZ8E ) she would know the answer to her own question !

  • I’m back to find that Ssimples complaining that I am averse to looking at the data. It’s a curious grumble because my first submission contained plenty of data which s/he cheerfully ignored, whilst his/her latest response to me contained no data supporting their case.

    Nevertheless, Ssimples’ claim – that bovine TB is going down in Ireland but not in England, NI or Wales – should be addressed. S/he has chosen the last three years as the reference window. Prior to that, bovine TB continued to rage in Ireland, with the Badger Trust reporting in Feb 2008 that a rise of 13% over the previous year was unexplained and occurred in spite of the near extermination of badgers in Ireland’s primary cattle regions:

    http://www.badgertrust.org.uk/DocFrame/DocView.asp?id=203

    Since then, it’s not been very clear what’s going on in Ireland. Some reports suggest that, because the Government’s broke, badger culling has all but ceased. Others suggest that enforcement of the testing regime is failing due to cuts in public spending. Either of these could be causing the apparent decline in bovine TB. Remember that a decline in detected bovine TB is not necessarily the same thing as an actual decline in the disease.

    The more important point, however, is that comparing Ireland with England, NI and Wales would only be relevant if all four countries had identical policies apart from badger culling in Ireland. But they don’t. The crucial difference is that in England, NI and Wales the respective administrations have been toughening up on the cattle testing regime during the time window that Ssimples refers to.

    It’s hardly surprising that if you start annually testing all cattle in a given region (as has happened in the SW and W of England since 2009) you will find the infected cattle that were previously being missed by the inadequate regime.

    So the fact that detected disease is rising in England is no bad thing. Turning this ship around is going to take decades and a steady increase in detected infection is inevitable as the regime gets tougher. Remember that there is a distinct difference between actual infection and detected infection.

    Ssimples has also responded to Roland by citing the summary of an EU sub-committee meeting. It is suggested, both here and in the farming press, that the European Union as a whole has condemned Wales for replacing a badger cull with badger vaccination. But this is not a policy document and NONE of the recommendations, which come after the discussion, calls for the introduction of badger culling in Wales.

    Instead, the Recommendations start with this stark statement:

    “While the need to deal with wildlife is recognised, the focus on TB in cattle must be maintained.”

    Note that there is no explicit recommendation to deal with wildlife by killing badgers. But note especially that the emphasis across virtually the entire document is on the urgent need to fix the “weaknesses” in the various testing regimes across the three countries.

    In addition, this report builds on a formal Audit carried out by the EU at the end of 2011:

    http://ec.europa.eu/food/fvo/rep_details_en.cfm?rep_id=2830

    It contains 13 formal recommendations and NOT ONE OF THEM relates to badgers. Instead, the overwhelming focus of the report is on the risk of transmission between cattle, due to failings in the structure of the industry (e.g. Single Occupancy Authorities) and in the testing regime (e.g. information not being exchanged or effectively acted upon between different agencies).

    And, just to re-emphasise my earlier point, both documents make it clear that the areas of highest TB incidence (NI, SW and W England) have two clear characteristics: very high densities of cattle and very fragmented farms. In short, a meta-herd. NI has lower densities of badgers than England while Ireland, as I’ve already mentioned, has virtually eradicated them in livestock areas. Once again, the overwhelming evidence points to cattle as the primary reservoir, and to state vets as lazy, incompetent and prone to subjugate themselves to the interests of farmers first and taxpayers only as a last resort.

  • “It has now been reliably demonstrated that the persistence of an infected wildlife reservoir that enters into contact with cattle is a major obstacle to the eradication of TB. This obstacle should be addressed in tandem with the measures implemented in relation to the cattle population.

    While future prospects for the development of suitable TB vaccines for use in wildlife are promising, considerable obstacles remain which make it difficult to foresee the use of such vaccination on its own as the most suitable tool to use to address the persistence of the variety of infected wildlife reservoirs worldwide in the near future. In the meantime, therefore, alternatives to vaccination, in order to address the role of infected wildlife in the persistence of TB should be implemented without any delay so as to allow the progress of the eradication programmes.

    The elimination or reduction of the risk posed by an infected wildlife reservoir enables the other measures contained in the programme to yield the expected results, whereas the persistence of TB in these wildlife populations impedes the effective elimination of the disease.”

    Working Document on Eradication of Bovine Tuberculosis in the EU accepted by the Bovine tuberculosis subgroup of the Task Force on monitoring animal disease eradication. 10/08/2006,

    http://www.bovinetb.info/docs/tb_workingdoc2006_en.pdf

  • Ssimple,
    10/08/2006 is in this case a relatively long-time ago, so the opinions (rather than the hard findings) need to be treated as reflecting what was known at the time, rather than a statement of what is now possible; namely we now have some badger vaccines that need to be field tested – lets hope the Welsh studies are truly science-led unlike the politically driven pseudo-science of the English pilots …

  • Aaron Blair 20th Sep '12 - 2:09pm

    Ssimples has cited a further reference which identifies bovine TB in wildlife as an impediment to the eradication of bovine TB in Europe. But, importantly, this EU document does not call for the widespread culling of any native species. As I said in a previous comment about Jim Paice’s statement, there is nothing here which demands culling.

    A further point is that this document talks about “eradication”. It assumes (a) that eradication is a realistic prospect, rather than simply a desired state; and (b) that all measures to bring about eradication should be implemented in tandem.

    This is where the EU takes leave from reality.

    First, in the complex, dynamic livestock environment of the UK, and parts of Spain, Italy and all of Ireland and NI, eradication is unrealistic without a vastly superior system for detecting bovine TB in cattle. Too many animals move too often for the antiquated system to function and the other EU documents cited above have recognised that parish testing has failed to deliver – not because of badgers but because a parish has no spatial relationship to the movement of the disease.

    Second, no cost benefit analysis is offered to justify implementing strategies in tandem simply because they appear to complement one another. Ssimples presumably imagines that we should test cattle in tandem with slaughtering badgers, assuming that the former is pointless without the latter.

    Owen Paterson, the new SoS for Environment, has recently indicated that he hopes that badger culling will go nationwide. It beggars belief that that might become a reality when at least 86% of the disease problem resides in cattle and farmers continue to oppose nationwide annual testing on cost grounds.

    It makes more economic sense to focus on the easy wins (cattle), leaving any residual wildlife issue until the bulk of the problem (cattle) has been effectively resolved.

    When we hear Ssimples, farmers and vets complain that decades of increasing bovine TB is the fault of badgers, they are being shamefully dishonest. It was cattle that spread the disease while complacent vets and compensation-obsessed farmers looked wilfully in the opposite direction.

  • Chris Redston 24th Sep '12 - 11:58pm

    Now that the badger petition has passed 100,000 – and is still climbing fast – there may well be a parliamentary debate on this issue. Would the Lib Dems vote with the majority of the country and against the cull in parliament? If not, then the party’s mantle of the being the party of the environment will look even more like Emperor’s new clothes.

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