Sunday, April 05, 2015

Election - poles apart.

Nope, we are not discussing immigration. But giving a very quick overview on how the various political parties in the coming election would honour this country's commitment to control zoonotic Tuberculosis. And for some, it is a subject about which they would rather not speak at all.

Without saying from which camp we were coming from, or reminding any of them about previous successes, when infected badgers were removed, we either asked directly or picked up from websites, their answers. And they couldn't be more diverse.

 The Conservatives - [link] replied promptly and spoke at length. Liz Truss, caretaker Secretary of State, having seen the results - [link] of the two pilot culls, explains that she is keen for them to be refined and expanded.

While coalition partners over the last 5 years, the Liberal Democrats - [link] fully supported by VIVA, say they are proud to have blocked a wider roll out of any badger culls until the full four years are completed, examined and reported upon. Which is a not particularly helpful policy if you want ££s for skools n'ospitals and you have read up on a bit of history.

 Ulster's politicians - [link] in much the same position as us in GB, are trying to test then vaccinate healthy animals, and remove individual badgers proven to have TB. At least they see the problem, while the Scottish National Party -[link] appear to have made no policy statements at all during the last 6 years, other than to want to distance themselves from Defra's 'disastrous fudge'. Whatever that might mean.

UKIP - [link] say they will "Take and follow professional veterinary advice on the control of bovine TB" which is a bit vague, but possibly in a better direction than this lot. - [link]

In 1997, Labour, having steered the diminutive John Bourne in an armlock to deliver their very own political variety of 'the science' - [link] are not about to abandon its conclusions any time soon.

So that leaves the Green party - [link] who have produced a myriad of county 'manifestos' and appear to want to give animals 'oooman rights'.

One could say that a certain furry creature with a white stripe down its face has acquired too many 'rights' but let that pass. The Greens do not want to kill any badger, infected or not, and together with Labour would stop any culling immediately - as the Welsh Assembly Government has done already.

So, two diametrically opposed views, with a handful of whoring middle ground hopefuls prepared to sell out the control of zoonotic tuberculosis for a cosy seat and pension. Inspiring choice, isn't it?


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

..shame about the cow.

We have been less than supportive of the over generous cattle measures introduced, steered, pushed through - call it what you may - at the behest of his political masters anyway, by the chairman of the AHWB (Animal Health and Welfare Board) Michael Seals.

So given his location, it with no great surprise that we learn from Farmers Weekly - [link] that the small pedigree herd belonging to the illustrious gentleman, no doubt doubly bio-secured, insured and protected, has revealed a reactor.
Mr Seals said of the moment its death sentence was passed:
It was quite an emotional moment. This was a home-bred animal, born here in 2010. It was immensely frustrating because we knew the cow very well as an individual.
And the rest of us do not have 'emotional moments' as good cattle are consigned to the scrap heap?

 He continued:
"However, I was very surprised at the amount of paperwork that followed. I think we could consolidate that."
Whaaaaat? So the chairman of the AHWB has no idea of the shed loads of paper emitting from Defra's various offices, when a reactor is found? You don't say.
That's rich when he's just launched another load - [link] on us.

We examined more of the measures dreamed up by the quango chaired by Mr. Seals in this posting - [link]

So although we are sad for his South Devon cow, her calf at foot, and the calf she was no doubt carrying, we trust that Mr. Seals took his own advice and obtained TB insurance for just this event?
And we assume that unlike the rest of the hoi polloi, he may get a renewal of that insurance, after this breakdown? After all, he seems to think that we can all do that.

He explained that he:
".. now faces an anxious wait until the next scheduled TB test in May."
Don't we all.

In an update to this posting, Farmers Guardian reports that the herd of NFU deputy president, Minette Batters - [link] is also under a TB2 restriction, and awaiting further tests in May.

So these two high profile people, both involved with TB eradication in this country, now have herd restrictions imposed, thus joining the 11.3 per cent of GB herds in that position during the last three years.

And just to remind readers, to trade as a TB free, the international standard for that status is reached when 99.8% of domestic cattle and deer herds have been free of bovine TB for three years. This figure has been set by the Office Internationale Epizooties (OIE) and in the absence of a wildlife reservoir, many countries have achieved it.

With constant cattle testing, but an ignored and protected wildlife reservoir, as our appalling TB incidence  shows, GB needs to move the decimal point several places to the left.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Cows that may squeak.

Just when you think you've heard it all - something pops up which reminds you that really, you must get out more.

This time it's milk; sold as healthy and free range from happy cows grazing green pastures. That is the advertiser's dream and the consumer's hope.

So waddya find in the press this week? GM cows with added mouse genes - [link] which, the Chinese developers say, may make them a tad more resistant to TB.

So what else may you get? Long muscular tails? whiskers? Ten offspring in a litter? Squeaks not moos? And sharp gnawing teeth?

Who knows. The driver of this is cash.

And methinks, we may need some very large mouse traps.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

There's a hole in my bucket,

... dear Lisa, dear Lisa. Remember the old song?

The rhyme goes around in a large circle and comes back to the very same start point. The hole in Lisa's bucket.

And unfortunately for cattle farmers, the Government appointed quango, Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE) under the tutorship of Michael Seals, appears to be doing exactly the same thing.

It was in 2012 that Defra's bean counters - (link) decided that the TB budget must be reduced and reduced considerably. And true to form, the redoubtable Mr. Seals went to work.

Several bright ideas were floated, and although most were completely rejected by the industry, like Lisa's leaking bucket, they keep bouncing back. But as Mr. Seals points out, in true Defra speke:
"This is not a single issue. It is not just about wildlife or cattle movements. It has many different causes on many different farms and that is something some people find hard to admit or accept.”
Rubbish. Tuberculosis is the single issue. Not badgers and not cattle. And Parliamentary questions, so reluctantly answered by Ben Bradshaw MP a decade ago made it clear that it's eradication most definitely is a single issue.
Albeit one which Defra would rather not deal with.

When badgers were removed from a small area of Gloucestershire, the cattle remained clear of TB for at least ten years. So we asked why this should be.
 The answer was recorded in Hansard for posterity - if not Defra staff:
The fundamental difference between the Thornbury area and other areas in the south west of England, where bovine tuberculosis was a problem, was the systematic removal of badgers from the Thornbury area. No other species was similarly removed. No other contemporaneous change was identified that could have accounted for the reduction in TB incidence within the area" Hansard 24th March 2004: Col 824W [157949]
And of course it would be churlish to point out to the AHWBE that many other countries using the same screening test for cattle, and slaughtering reactors, in the absence of a wildlife reservoir, are TB free.

Another bright idea this quango has thrown around is the 'Accreditation' of cattle herds - [link] , which is a way of tying herd health in with the usual bag of cattle diseases, about which cattle farmers can do something. What an insult! To lump a disease over which cattle farmers have little or no control, with BVD, IBR, Johnnes and leptospira - over which most can and do exercise much control.

But Mr. Seals is nothing if not a dogged follower of instructions: and cattle farmers are again urged to back the strategy - [link] - with all the rigmarole attached to bovines and their trading that this entails.

And sadly, the man is still talking about insurance, - [link] when at least ten years ago the loss adjusters described TB claims as a "haemorrhage on their farm business budgets", which were otherwise profitable. And once again, a Parliamentary question confirmed that Insurers no longer offer this cover. The full question and answer are below:
5th Dec 2003: Col 629W Mr. Paterson. To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether farmers are able to obtain insurance cover for TB infection in [dairy] cattle after a TB breakdown and subsequent claim. [141083]
And the quite explicit (if not for Mr. Seals, the AHWBE and the Treasury) answer was thus:
"It is government policy to pay compensation at 100 per cent of market value, with no upper limit, for cattle that are compulsorily slaughtered under TB control measures. Farmers therefore do not need to take out insurance on their animals. Theoretically, insurance can be bought to cover other consequential losses for which compensation is not paid, but that is a commercial matter between farmers and their insurers. Section 34 (5) of the animal Health Act 1981, explicitly allows insurers to deduct the amount of Government compensation from the value of any payout they may make. Insurance companies will make their own decisions on whether to insure, and about the size of the premiums, based on their assessment of risk.
And now the sting in the tail....
Recent contact with the insurance industry in early 2003 indicated that, although companies were honouring existing policies, they are not offering new policies to cover TB in cattle herds, particularly in areas where TB is increasingly prevalent. This is because farmers do not wish to take cover in areas where the risk is low (such as Yorkshire) but do wish to purchase cover in areas of high incidence (such as the South West) However, the insurance companies consider that the financial risks in offering insurance policies in areas of high incidence are too high at present."
That's pretty explicit isn't it? Farmers need not take out insurance. Defra are contracted to pay 100% of valuation, but even if they wanted to insure, exposure to risk is likely to be too high for them to get cover.

 In 2006, the year in which we wrote that piece, the cost of insured TB cover increased tenfold, and that cover halved. That's if you were lucky enough to still have a policy in place, and not been unlucky enough to have made a claim. Any farmer who has made a claim, is uninsurable.

But still the charade continues. In 2013, a series of facilitator led meetings - [link] were held to try and shoehorn these pesky cattle farmers into Mr. Seals' blueprint. After all, we're told often enough that without farmer co-operation, there can be no strategy.

But on February 7th Mr. Seals gave an interview to political editor of the Farmers Guardian, Alistair Driver. And guess what? Like the hole in Lisa's bucket, the same old, same old -[link] same old came around again.
The cost of this non strategy, who pays and some outrageous suggestions for plugging the financial gap, if not the disease one.
Mr.Seals explained:
For me it has always been about creating what I call the English solution; finding a structure which suits England in terms of our disease status and our needs on the ground, delivering services to farmers.”
It was also necessary to define areas which ‘only Government could deliver’, such as badger culling, he said.
Not expanding on the fact that successive Governments have absorbed into statute any semblance of control of this wildlife reservoir - and then, since 1997 have chosen not to exercise their responsibility, he concludes:
“There is one thing for certain about this particular disease - you cannot avoid politics of one form or another and Ministers are in charge".

Yes, I think we had finally got that message. With so many mentions of 'pump priming' us to accept the concept of vaccination and other prevarication gems, it is crystal clear.

 And what is also clear, is that without a policy inclusive of meaningful control of the UK's wildlife reservoir of disease, Defra's TB strategy bucket is still as full of holes as the one in the old song.

Monday, February 02, 2015

2 plus 2 = 4.

In this post, we highlight the 'indescribable frustration' - [link] of a small family run dairy farm trying to cope with politics; which at the moment seem hell bent on protecting badgers, grossly infected with Tuberculosis at the expense of their cattle.

For decades this farm had been clear of TB on annual testing, and ran a 'closed herd' using AI and breeding all their replacements, thus buying no stock in.

So in Badgerist mantra, their cattle should have been fine? Safe - in theory.

But in 2008 they had a brush with zTuberculosis, losing just a couple of cattle, before going clear and staying clear until April 2013. During this time, they invested £9400 in 'badger proofing ' their farm buildings, and also buying their own manure spreading equipment.

In fact doing everything they could to protect their cattle.

This is one of the entrances to their cattle yards, with newly erected shiny, sheeted gates which badgers are said not to be able to climb over, slither around or squeeze under..

They were erected in September 2008.

The herd remained clear until spring 2013.

 Unfortunately, cattle grazing ground is pretty well impossible to 'protect' and in the spring of 2014, dead badgers were found near the farm buildings. And at the TB test that summer, more cattle were lost.

This badger was photographed in March 2014 just before the herd was turned out to grass.

 The 60 day tests rolled on for this herd and in September, 13 animals were disclosed as reactors.

These are two of  those thirteen. When she was slaughtered, the black heifer was 6 months in calf and carrying a heifer calf, having been inseminated with sexed semen.

In early November 2014 a moribund (that means half dead) badger was found crawling around in broad daylight outside the cattle yards.

This was the badger a day later on November 9th.

Or it may have been a different one. This one is dead and has what appear to be open tuberculous abscesses in its throat..

 And inevitably, the November TB test revealed more reactors.

But for this small farm, far worse to come. The legacy of the miserable specimen above, photographed on November 9th 2014, has, in their January test been the deaths of 25 more heavily in calf, homebred cattle.

So as our well publicised modelers, shunt their cattle assumptions - [link] into their electronic machines, believing and recycling their own guff, please humour us.
Why not put a few infected badgers into the mix as well?

Ones like those photographed dead in the fields of this biosecure family farm, with no bought in cattle and no cattle contacts, excellent biosecurity and no shared equipment. But which last week lost 25 cattle in one hit and has a running total of 47 dead cattle, revealed in TB tests since April 2013.

 Then 2 + 2 really would equal 4.

(With grateful thanks to TBInformation - [link] for allowing us to highlight this story, originally published on their site January 2015.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


We gave a fair hammering to the paper released by Moustakas & Evans (M&E) in this posting - [link] and the Guardian - [link] was amongst many media outlets to run with the abstract.

Mathematical modeling is a useful tool, but only if the input data is solid. And even though M&E have listed a hundred references, as we pointed out, many are previously modeled assumptions based on or around papers by the ISG or their followers, involved in the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial or, in the case of other stuff, so historic as to be meaningless after almost 20 years of inertia on badger control.

So let's look at some of the input data, entered by M&E:
Their model area is approx 67 miles square (or 11,500 km2) and contains 1.4 million (dairy) cattle. That's an area slightly more than the size of Devon plus Somerset. The total cattle population of GB at the end of 2013 was 9.7m, of which the dairy herd was said to be 1.8m and the beef herd 1.6m; the rest are calves, young stock and fattening cattle. So they've got almost the entire national dairy herd squashed into two counties, and they're not allowing for sheep, arable, woodland etc, never mind the occasional town or village?

They've also assumed 5.7 adult badgers per km2, which seems on the low side for what appears to be a lovely area of wall-to-wall dairy farms and much lower than FERA have published for Gloucestershire where they trapped 844 in 55 sq km during their vaccination 'Elf n' Safety' trial in 2007/8. That is over 15 per sq km. (or 15.5 if one counts half a badger). And in parts of Oxfordshire, population densities of 38 per sq km have been recorded.
Following those badger numbers, the M&E model starts out with badgers in only 3113 out of 16384 of their "cells" - which seems unlikely.

Cattle-to-cattle infection: M&E say that cattle can transmit TB at even early stages of the disease and so their model reflects this belief. But actual hands on research on reactor cattle [SE3013] -[link] referred to by the ISG - but not in detail for obvious reasons, found that of 1543 nasal samples taken, and a further 1000 in a parallel study [SE3033] not a single one was capable of onward transmission.

 To avoid confusion, we'll quote again the conclusion of this £2.8m study:
"M.bovis was not detected by bacterial culture in any of the nasal mucus samples." and "The results suggest that large concentrations of M.bovis are not present in the nasal passages, and the shedding of M.bovis, if it occurs, is rare in naturally infected GB cattle."
This is also born out by pairings of reactor cattle with in contacts, done in Ireland - [link]Ireland by Eamon Costello and Dr. O'Reilly.

Thus M&E's 'Winter housing' assumption is just that, and not the experience of studies which housed reactors together for months, slaughtered, salami sliced and collected samples to prove or disprove their work.

Their model also seems to assume that all cattle on a farm are housed together in one place. This is not what happens in practice, as is their assumption of cattle moving round their entire farm 'cells' randomly all of the time. Again, not what happens in practice, particularly on a dairy farm.

But the 'assumption' we appreciate most, is that of badger-to-cattle transmission: M&E do not seem to have a clear idea what the rate of badger-to-cattle transmission is, even claiming that it is a "little studied variable". Whaaaaat???

 This has been 'studied' to death - in fact the death of up to 40,000 cattle a year, even if it did not need to be, and as we pointed out in this posting, where we listed the 'postulates' of disease transmission - [link] , a table used by epidemiologists and veterinary scientists - if not modelers.

All papers written over the past four decades - Zuckerman,  Dunnett, Krebbs etc - have concluded that infected badgers pose a significant risk to cattle. And even dear old Defra, in a booklet issued in 2001, instructing readers about reducing the TB risk [to cattle] state:
"The consensus of scientific opinion is that badgers are a significant source of TB infection in cattle...."
So as the conclusions of the model M&E have used, seems to turn all this on its head, one has to question the input data they have used. On the other hand, in a few short months, an election is looming...

But we digress: on badger culls, their model seems to assume that if just one badger is shot in a cull, then all the other badgers in its group will move out? That is taking the perturbation myth a tad too far we think. Particularly as at least twice annually, the badger groups have a shake out of the old, the sick and the young males. And they seem to 'leave' without causing a problem or even a space?

A paper by 'Gilbert' is quoted many times as a source of the M&E assumptions on cattle movements as 'a significant source of TB spread'. This paper is modeled on post FMD restocks, when a handful of cattle were found to have moved, carrying TB. The point here is that their post move skin test identified them, they were slaughtered and that was that. They did not pass their TB on to other cattle on new farm. A point lost on M&E, as is the compulsory pre movement testing of all cattle moving around or from annual testing areas. A policy in place since 2006.

Thus based not on any of the epidemiological work which Defra has produced, taxpayers have funded we have quoted, but assumptions modeled on previous assumptions, M&E published that the "three main factors influencing TB were the percentage of cattle movements, the frequency of testing, and the badger-to-cattle transmission rate."

But hidden within the paper they also say that:
"Culling of badgers does seem to be a strategy that will eventually lead to a lower incidence of TB in cattle."

MAFF / DEFRA knew this thirty years ago, when the Thornbury area of Gloucestershire was cleared so successfully, leading to over a decade of TB free cattle. We asked why:
" The fundamental difference between the Thornbury area and other areas [] where bovine tuberculosis was a problem, was the systematic removal of badgers from the Thornbury area. No other species was similarly removed. No other contemporaneous change was identified that could have accounted for the reduction in TB incidence within the area" [157949]
So from a professional modeler,  a comment on computer modeling generally:
" There are usually a few key variables and you can adjust them to give you almost any answer you want."
 And finally a reminder that less than a year ago, the Guardian - [link] ran a story on computer generated guff, which was published and regurgitated, because no-one was prepared to challenge it or admit they couldn't understand a bloody word of it.

If the input data is 'unsafe' then its modeled conclusions, however seductive to the politics of the day, are even more so.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mistakes and Evans - a modelled scenario

The headlines this week have included an astonishing abstract from Mistakers Moustakas and Evans of Queen Marys University of London (QMUL) in which their computer model suggests that more frequent TB testing and keeping cattle outside in the winter are the best ways to control bovine TB (bTB) And that culling badgers has minimal effect.

Amongst many others, Farmers Guardian - [link] has the story. The abstract which has got the Badgerists so excited is on this link - [link]

But the paper itself is a wonderful fairy land of cells in which badgers move, cells, (square or round) in which cattle move and apparently, so does zTuberculosis. At least in theory. If the cells are correct, the movements are correct and the input data used was solid, this may have been a useful exercise, but...
The paper asserts:

Computational models provide a valid alternative to expensive experimental approaches (Godfray et al. 2004) as a method of testing the likely effects of various strategies designed to control or eradicate TB in cattle. To be useful such models need to represent the modelled system in sufficient detail to allow realistic predictions to be made about the outcome of any control strategy (Evans et al. 2013b
True. but if the data input is incorrect, aged or derived from flawed assumptions? What then?

This justification is part of the basis of this particular 'theory' now expounded by Mistakers Moustakas and Evans who explain:
Model coupling (Verdin et al. 2014) of multiple dynamically acting animals can provide powerful predictive tools (Evans et al. 2013a
However, entering other people's 'assumptions', even if they've been published, is never a good way to begin, especially if actual available data tells you it is way out of date, or just plain wrong.

 Much of the modeling seems to stem from 'Meyer et al : 2007 - who is mentioned quite a lot. As we haven't heard of  an epidemiologist called Meyer, we assume that he may have developed mathematical models, the calculations for some of which is explained below:

Sensitivity analysis of model input parameters (Latin hypercube sampling) indicated that observed and simulated values in terms of percentage of infected cattle were not significantly different from each other (t test statistic = -1.26, P = 0.45).ANOVA results of the most parsimonious mixed model with the number of infected cattle as a dependent variable, show that there were significant effects of the percentage of cattle that are moved in a year (F4, 156 = 54.62, P\0.0001), the distance which cattle were moved (F4, 156 = 7.74, P = 0.006), both the cattle-to badger and badger-to-cattle infection rates (F3, 156 = 4.46, P = 0.036; F3, 156 = 8.59, P\0.004), the inter-test interval (F4, 156 = 59.80, P\0.0001) and the accuracy of the test (F3, 156 = 3.81, P = 0.053), badger culling (F2, 156 = 8.91, P = 0.003) and the initial number of infected badgers (F2, 156 = 16.08, P = 0.0001).
Still with us?

We note that present, factually incorrect and expanded are the 'assumptions' made by the diminutive professor, John Bourne who explained so helpfully in his Final Report (2007) [ 7:24] that actually looking at herd breakdown risk assessments was just too time consuming, so his team had assumed two parts cattle (contiguous or purchased) and one part badger .........   and switched on their model.

This is a chart of what they assumed and 'roughly estimated'.

The data from the same period for the county of Devon,  which they received but failed to examine, showed a completely different picture, with at least 76 percent and up to 90 per cent of herd breakdowns due to infected badgers. This according to the data sheets, painstakingly filled in by AH staff.

This paper of Mistakers Moustakas & Evans is peppered with mathematical terminology designed to baffle brains. They speak of 'regressions, co-efficients and remaining parameters' but also, echoing the ISG models, use words such as 'assumptions and estimates', building on previously well churned ISG sand.
 The sources of cattle and badger data are also predominantly post 2007, and thus ISG / Woodroffe material.

We suppose we should be grateful they didn't include the modeled scenario published in July 2014 by Dr. Ellen Prook-Bollocks,  Brooks-Pollock, who put 100 per cent of cattle into her model, switched on, and then exclaimed that if we culled all the cattle, - [link] zTB would vanish.

This well publicised model took cattle to cattle transmission, cattle into the environment and cattle movement, describing them as 'idealised control measures'.

But we digress: in the Evans paper, badger numbers seem way too low, as is tuberculous infection within the badger population, now given by FERA at around 50 percent in areas of endemic infection.(Chambers et al)

And much as we hate to break into the QMUL modelers' bubble,  actual data on what makes a difference does exist, and has done for some time. As is shown above and in PQs below.

A decade ago, Shadow minister Owen Paterson, MP asked for the results of the Thornbury badger clearance and why it had been so successful at reducing TB in cattle to zero: a situation which lasted at least a decade. They didn't ask a computer, but the answer was unequivocal:
"No confirmed cases of tuberculosis in cattle in the area were disclosed by the tuberculin test the the ten year period following the cessation of gassing" [150573]
 So not 20 years of buggering about trying to cull out infected badgers in ones and twos, very occasionally? (Or even taking pot shots at the scent markers ?)

Was anything else done? Biosecurity? Extra cattle measures? Pre movement testing? No cattle movements at all? Licenses? Shrink wrapped grass, raised troughs and cattle in hermetically sealed boxes?

The answer:
" The fundamental difference between the Thornbury area and other areas [] where bovine tuberculosis was a problem, was the systematic removal of badgers from the Thornbury area. No other species was similarly removed. No other contemporaneous change was identified that could have accounted for the reduction in TB incidence within the area" [157949]
And bringing this right up to date are the published results from the Somerset cull, lasting merely a well publicised (and interrupted)  few weeks in 2013, when 34 per cent of herds in the cull area were under TB restriction.

A herd data check before the second cull in 2014 and reported here - [link] showed that this figure had reduced to just 11 percent - a drop of almost 68 percent.

We are pleased that Mistakers Moustakas and Evans appear to appreciate the accuracy of the skin test though, observing that: "
Accuracy of the test to detect infected cattle explained less than 3 per cent of the variance in the number of infected cattle."
But we also note that their model predicts MORE cattle infected while tucked up in their winter housing.
However, the current advice and biosecurity guidelines issued by the APHIDs  APHA, and expanded by Professor Godfray recently, is to place all dairy cattle - [link] in hermetically sealed boxes, into which badgers cannot gain access.

Thus cattle farmers receive diametrically opposed views even on that one small piece of husbandry advice.

So as all this taxpayer funded 'research' spills into the press with headline grabbing sound bites which inevitably exclude badgers, hang on to those basic facts. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. And sometimes, simple squared really does equal stupid.