Saturday, March 19, 2005

Report? What Report?

The latest in a long line of eminent professionals whose reports into bovine Tb have been studiously ignored by MAFF / DEFRA is Prof. Charles Godfray of Imperial college. Just over a year ago he was commissioned with our money - never underestimate bureaucratic eagerness to spend that - by Defra to have a look into Kreb's RBCT, its progress and likelihood of delivery.

Professor Godfray's executive summary concluded:

" Control of bovine Tb has proved difficult in countries where there is a wildlife reservoir for the disease. In the British Isles, badgers are often infected by bovine Tb and there is substantial evidence that they may be the cause of infection in cattle".

Here Prof. Godfray is following in the distinguished footsteps of Sir. Solly Zucherman who said the same in 1986, but then saw government policy sanitised even further with a 7 fold reduction in land available for badger control and gassing replaced by cage trapping. Taxpayers then supported Prof. Dunnet whose similar conclusions led to the 10 year 'Interim Strategy' - which one might reasonably have described as an extraordinarily long time to decide a strategy on a highly infectious zoonosis - until now.
Then along came Prof. Krebs, who chaired the penultimate review in 1997 and concluded (as had his predecessors) "The total available evidence for a reservoir (of tuberculosis) in badgers is 'compelling'. And having been to the Republic of Ireland to look at their 4 county trial, he set up the Krebs Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) under judge, jury and executioner Prof. John Bourne.

Prof. Godray's carefully chosen words in 2004 described the progress of the trial:

"Delays in training skilled staff and FMD in 2001, have delayed the RBCT which is currently about 2 years behind schedule. In November 2003 the Reactive part was suspended. There have been substantial delays in the TB99 case control study, and RTA badger infection status projects.

There has been a lack of clarity and agreement over the key information that Proactive treatment of the badger culling trial can furnish.

As originally envisaged, badger densities would have been reduced to near zero in procative sites. A variety of factors have made this impossible.

As implemented, the RBCT cannot prove that badgers are not involved in bovine Tb transmission to cattle. It can however put a lower bound on the importance of badgers as reservoirs of infection. It is important to realise though, that an inconclusive result does not in itself mean that badgers are not a significant wildlife reservoir, or that other types of culling will not work"

Prof. Godfray went on to point out that the trial may not yield data until 2008, and it was his opinion that this later date would be more likely than any earlier time frame given. He urged that interim results were made available to ministers to act on.

"We believe that the formulation of bovine Tb policy by Defra should not wait until the RBCT is complete. Based on the conclusions of Krebs, and research since then, especially in the Republic of Ireland, we recommend that policy is based on the assumption that badgers are involved in disease transmission as a wildlife reservoir. "

And on the judge, jury and executioner?

"We believe that the ISG has borne (Bourne??) too heavy a responsibilty for the running of these projects and that links between policy formation by Defra and the scientific input from the ISG have not been as seamless as would have been desirable.

We believe that a single relatively senior figure within Defra, takes ownership of the whole research programme. He or she should have a strong science background, and should report directly to the Chief Scientific Advisor who we believe should have overall responsibility for ensuring the quality and policy relevance of the science produced."

Translated into ordinary language we get the feeling that Prof. Godfray actually said 'Get your finger out, accept badgers play a reservoir part in this disease, use what you've got and get a Tb policy sorted which includes infectious wildlife. And the ISG should not have ultimate control, but should report directly to a senior Defra scientist.'

And what did Defra do with this advice?
In 2004, they appointed 2 new committees.
They wasted a lot of people's time on 'stakeholder' meetings.
Issued a further vaccuous 'Framework' document outlining their 'Policy for Going Nowhere - slowly'.

And of course slaughtered 25, 000 more cattle, lifting the percentage of herds under tb restriction in 2004 to nearly 6 percent and putting the UK in the firing line for another trade ban - and spent another £100K of our money doing it.

This is a government department which has united its consumers (farmers), advisers (ISG), vets (both private and SVS), ecologists and several eminent scientists (see above ) in disenchantment. It used to be called 'flirting with the enemy', and like moths around a candle, those taking part in the charade expected little, often gaining only extinction.

Welcome to the madhouse Prof. Godfray - you're in good company.

Are the current players yet so seriously disenchanted with 'treading water' and woolly non- policies bearing their distinguished names that they produce their own joint strategy...??

We hope so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There seems to be endless taxpayers money spent on research, reports, Kreb trails etc etc but for what purpose.

I have just had a survey finding sent to me from Warwick University who came to our farm between 2000 and 2003 to survey our badger activity and to obtain information from us on our farm management practices. This was to aid research to identify any common factor that could increase the rish of herds with BTB breakdowns. In particular they wanted to evaluate the relationship between badger density and breakdown risk.

They have after two years completed the first phase of there study culminating in a final report to DEFRA.

They surveyed a total of 292 farms with cattle in the last 10years where a total of 883 setts and 2409 latrines were located.

The report went on to cover:
What habitats do badgers prefer?
What management practices encourage badgers?
What factors are associated with BTB breakdown rate?
Environmental conditions/ Farm management.
Badger density.

I will not bore you with there findings all of which we could and did tell them during their visit. However there conclusions are as follows:

A high number of badger signs on your farm is not an accurate predictor of BTB breakdown risk. Consequently, it is not yet clear that the presence of badgers on a farm is the total explanation for experiencing or not experiencing a herd breakdown. While we suspect that the presence of stored foodstuffs that are accessible to badgers, and cattle access to badger setts and latrines, may act to increase the contact rate between cattle and babgers, more information is required to improve our understanding of the important routes of transmission between and within badger populations and cattle herds.
None of the management practises we investigated proved to be strong risk factors for BTB breakdown, therefore changing one aspect of farm management may not reduce your likelihood of experiencing a breakdown.

After coming up with a big nothing they now need to go on to study two important questions and off course get funding for it:
1)what is the risk associated with cattle to cattle transmission?
2)what are the relative abilities of badgers and cattle to shed the BTB causing organism for its transmission?

They did say that to understand the significance of a reservoir of infection they would ideally wish to live-capture all badgers to examine them for infection. However they felt this would be too labour - intensive on the scale required to be pracitcal.But would they have been allowed to do this anyway??????

What is this all going to prove that isn't already available from the Irish. How many University's and research programmes are being given loads of money to do this endless research. All costing us time and money as our herds continue to go down. Why not cut out this consultant/researcher middleman and ask us? Or is the BTB problem actually helping the government to maintain its low unemployment figures.