Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Michael Jack - "There's no Silver Bullet"

Devon farmer Bryan Hill - "Yes there is"

Efra committee chairman Michael Jack, this week urged government to make use of all the tools available to them to combat the scourge of bovine Tb. If current policy remains unchanged, this is forecast to cost the treasury £300 million annually by 2012. Athough he mentioned vaccines (10 years away?), bio security (passing the buck) and BCG for badgers, he said there was no 'Silver bullet' to solve the problem of a predicted 20 percent annual increase in cattle Tb.

Enter Devon farmer Bryan Hill, with just such a tool.It's called population management.

Over the last few years Mr. Hill watched as his badger population exploded. At its peak he estimated there were over 1000 surrounding his farm - 10 times as many as the land could cope with.
He and his heighbours watched in horror as Tb crept towards them. First 15 miles away, then 8 and then 3. Mr. Hill knew his badger population was at territorial saturation point, and after 40 years clear of Tb, should the disease hit them, the consequences for the cattle farms where they lived and bred so successfully, would be catastrophic.

He warned Defra. Their solution was to suggest Mr. Hill applied to them for a license to close down some sets. Move the badgers on.

Horrified, Mr. Hill refused the offer. Defra's one way gates at about £25 each, would have cost him £1000 - the set he was concerned about had 52 entrances! But his main concern was the effect on the badgers and his neighbours. To move the badgers on as Defra suggested, would encourage the fighting for territory which is known to spread Tb, and to further saturate an already overpopulated area. Reckless and short sighted under the circumstances.
The only license Mr. Hill has applied for (and obtained) has been to close an empty set off. This to prevent incoming badgers being re infected.

In 1998/99, only a few months after the first dead badgers were found in the fields, one after the other the farms started to go under Tb restriction., Many cattle were slaughtered, and at its height, 19 farms formed a major hotspot outbreak of bovine Tb.

The great and the good came to inspect. John Bourne and Rosie Woodruffe of the ISG were taken around the farm to see the problems. Bourne remarked that it had the highest population of badgers he had seen. He also confirmed that Defra, having been cajoled into collecting and post morteming just one of the many dead badgers found there, would exercise 'contructive ignorance' and not see fit a to allow Mr. Hill sight of the result. On another educational visit, Debbie Reynolds who is now dealing with Tb from Defra's Page St. headquarters, suggested fencing off the farm. It has over 10 miles of boundary fence in 6 blocks. And 1000 badgers would starve.

All these highly qualified professionals were reminded by Mr. Hill of cause and effect. "When the South West and beyond becomes a huge area of bovine Tb, don't say you weren't warned - and don't pass the buck, and blame the farmers", he told them. Do they remember that?

Mr. Hill filmed dead badgers, emaciated and starved with overgrown claws and abscessed bodies. A compassionate countryman who cares deeply for his animals, both farmed and wild and the land under his tenure, he examined the Badger Protection Act in detail and found that there was scope in it for him to alleviate the suffering of these sick and dying badgers, on welfare grounds.

He filmed some to record their miserable state, and then shot them. And he has continued to do that. Any individual turfed out by the main resident social groups, is targeted in single hole sets left for the purpose. 'Hotel' sets. "If the badgers don't want it, then it's sick and I don't want it either" says Mr. Hill.

His silver bullets have slowly cleared not only his, but most of his neighbours' farms of Tb and they have remained clear.

Today there are several sets of badgers on Bryan Hill's farm and those of his neighbours, but they are a world apart from the ones he filmed 5 years ago. These are healthy and vibrant, a valued part of area's ecology and a part of which he is quite rightly, very proud.

The BBC showed Mr. Hill's films of sick and dead badgers, after Michael Jack's announcement. Although invited to comment on Mr. Hill's badger management strategy, the reporter said that the National Federation of Badger Groups had declined the BBC's offer.

And the result of his strategy?
His own herd, and 90 percent of his neighbours are clear of Tb.

Stress on the 19 herds of cattle of 60 day tests? None.
Cost to neighbours of moving diseased badgers on to them? None.
Effect on badger health and welfare? Huge improvement.

Cost to the taxpayer? Nothing. Not a penny.
Mr. Hill's Silver bullet of management of a population, would appear to have hit its target.

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