At a meeting in Exeter on April 14th., representatives of the countryside organisations, veterinary practitioners and researchers, rural businesses and farmers met under the NFU's stewardship to prepare the draft 'Strategy' for eradicating bTb. This had been requested by the outgoing minister for Conservation and Fisheries, Ben Bradshaw (see post below).
Our comments on that move were scathing. But having told vets 18 months ago that his 'strategy' on bTb was "Not to be in the hot seat when any decisions had to be made", we take our hats off to the upwardly mobile political animal, Ben Bradshaw. He's made it, and as he energetically defends his (Exeter) seat, has thrown the ball back to the industry.
But we digress. At the meeting delegates heard of:
*New work by Exeter University which is finished but now languishes under a government 'purdah' until after the election. This mirrors work at Reading on the effect of Tb breakdowns on farming businesses and the wider rural economy, which found that 75 - 80 percent of Compulsory Purchase valuations were broadly in line with market values.
* 7.25 percent of cattle herds are now under restriction.
*At the beginning of the RBCT (Krebs) 75 percent of the breakdowns were within a Krebs' area. Currently 12 percent are - meaning that the 'hotspots' have exploded outwards - just as Prof. Steve Harris predicted. "It gives me no pleasure to say, we told you so", was his comment.
*Veterinary researchers told the group that transmission chain of bTb is primarily badger - badger, (given the close knit sharing of air space in the sets) then badger - cattle. Cattle - cattle is slight and cattle - badger insignificant.
*Work on cattle to cattle transmission, exactly mirroring current ISG recommendations had been done in the 1980's in the Republic of Ireland. 'Very intensive measures' including annual testing, pre and post movement testing had devastated the industry's ability to trade, vastly increased costs but had minimal impact on the incidence of bTb. (See post above. Anything you can Do ...) The Republic then conducted the trial at East Offaly, followed by the recent 4 County trial and now a 'population management + BCG' thrust. (see post; The Luck of the Irish.. below)
*On BCG for badgers, the R of I are much nearer to a field trial with a badger vaccine than our own VLA, as are NZ. And their most promising candidate gives more protection against lung lesions. (see post below Damping Down)
*Gamma Inteferon can be helpful under certain circumstances, but with a wildlife interface, it needs a 'bottomless pit of money'.
*In 1988 our own UK veterinarians and scientists conducted a BCG field trial - and it worked.
*RTA badger surveys were a vital tool. Tuberculosis in RTA badgers was followed within 3 years by Tb in the cattle herds nearest the RTA casualties. "A useful technique - stopped by politicians." Another 'purdah' is in place on current RTA survey for hotspots v. cattle herd breakdown maps. (Why are we not surprised?)
*Prof. Harris' latest population survey - approx. 800,000 badgers. Given the time from his survey to publication to today, the figure could be 1,000,000. At that density, changes to the weather and farming practises, constriction of available land etc. put them at considerable stress, and vulnerable to territorial aggression.
*The effect of this density on the wider ecology. Ground nesting birds, hedghogs and incursion of sets from woodland into fields and property causing danger and damage.
Conclusion and Draft Strategy.
The group confirmed that they would work with government in 'partnership' short term to reduce, and ultimately eradicate bTb from the environment.
They urged that the best testing methods available be used, to identify and remove infected populations of badgers, using vaccines to protect non-infected badger populations. A recommendation was made that Government to work closely with Irish researchers in urgent field trials using BCG based vaccines to reduce tb infection in badgers, and that published RTA surveys should recommence for England and Wales.
Subject to the adoption of the above, and simultaneous with it, the group would recommend extra cattle testing - at the moment pre-movement - but with a feasibility of post- movement to be urgently evaluated. Farmers to be encouraged meanwhile to isolate and test all bought in cattle (not for slaughter) before they join the host herd. In parallel to the proposals, an urgent enquiry to be set up into the wider issue of 'badger population management'.
It was made clear to the chairman, that this draft Strategy came as a package, and was not to be 'cherry picked'. Delegates stressed that the word 'Simultaneous' was key to their proposals on a wide range of measures, all of which had been proved successful in the eradication of bTb, both in this country and elsewhere.