Sunday, July 23, 2006

Dear Mr. Miliband...

In a letter to the newly appointed Secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a core group of leading experts on the control of bovine tb in practise, has pointed out the weaknesses of the 'robust science' his department is leaning on, to avoid its obligations in eradicating bovine tb.

Farmers Guardian has the piece in this week's edition:

and we are grateful for sight of their core list of RBCT failings which we reproduce below:


Our view that the RBCTs were fatally flawed by a poorly conceived and badly implemented methodology is based on the following facts.
Poor culling efficiency.
1. Commenting part way through the RBCTs Mr Bradshaw noted culling efficiency was as low as 30% in some triplets (1). And in the consultation document the final trapping efficiency was reported to be 20 to 60%. (2). Previous trials were carried out to far more exacting standards; virtually 100% clearance was effected by gassing in the Thornbury and Steeple Leaze Trials whilst the clearance at Hartland, using trapping, achieved well over 80% removal. In the two Irish trials over 80% removal of badgers was achieved.

2. Inadequate number of days’ trapping per year.
Badgers were only trapped on average for 8 days per annum in the proactive triplets (3). This low level of trapping activity is wholly inadequate to remove sufficient badgers to reduce spread of infection to cattle. The DEFRA Wildlife Unit (WLU) customarily continued trapping for as long as necessary sometimes up to 3 months to ensure complete removal of all badgers on infected farms.

3. Substantial areas of land unavailable for culling.
In total 32% of land in the proactive areas was unavailable for culling with variations in different triplets from 18% to 57% (3). Thus substantial areas of land within culling triplets were left to support infected populations of badgers and provide a retreat for badgers dispersed by inefficient culling on adjacent land.

4. Inconsistent farm participation.
Consent status for culling inevitably altered as landowners withdrew permission to cull and new occupiers changed consents or prohibitions dictated by previous owners (3). Thus, the number of farms participating in particular triplets was variable, as was the time during which they were culled.

5. Significant interference with trapping and poor trapping strategy
The Independent Scientific Group naively posted the start time and place of the first trapping exercise on their website thus assisting the threatened animal activist interference. This interference persisted and by October 2003 had resulted in 8,981(57%) of 15,666 traps being interfered with and a further 1,827 (12%) being stolen (4). The ISG allowed trapping at setts to continue for 4 years (1998-2001) despite widespread interference, and it was only after Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001, following pleas from the WLU, that traps were laid away from setts on badger runs to avoid interference (5).

6. Failure to clear badgers effectively
The number of badgers killed in the Proactive Triplets was 8892 over 8 years. This figure is inevitably lower than it should have been due to the failure to achieve culling across all 10 triplets for 4 years. And once culling had started in all areas in 2002-03, the total number of badgers removed in that year was 2057 and in each subsequent year well over half this number was again removed, demonstrating that these areas had never properly been cleared of badgers. (3).

7. Inappropriate timing of culls
Badgers show greatly reduced activity during late autumn and winter. Thus trapping is likely to be relatively ineffective during November to January (February-April is the closed season when culling is prohibited). However, in the RBCTs, 15 out of the first 30 culls (culling years 1 to 3) took place in November, December or January and 16 of the total of 51 culls (29%) were in these months despite WLU’s advice to the contrary (3). As a result, some triplets went 2 years without an effective cull eg. Triplet B, North Devon (5).

8. Unscientific abandonment of the Reactive Culling Triplets
This occurred in 2003 when three triplets (D, I and J) had only completed one year’s culling, and a further 4 triplets only completed 2 year’s culling. This was regarded by many, including Professor Godfray in his independent review of the RBCTs (6), as a precipitate and unjustified decision, no doubt brought about by the sharp rise in disease in the reactive triplets attendant on the gross badger disturbance caused by poor culling methodology. The ISG should have understood the cause of the rise in cattle infections and could have rectified the situation had they listened more carefully to the WLU’s advice and redoubled their efforts to cull more effectively (5).

9. Temporary abandonment of the trials during 2001.
The unavoidable suspension of tuberculin testing of cattle and control of badgers in seven of the 10 areas for a year during the FMD crisis completely disrupted the RBCTs for at least a year.
July 2006.

(1). Hansard, 29 April 2004, column 1189
(2). DEFRA (2005) – Controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle in high incidence areas in England: badger culling.
(3). Donnelly, C.A. and others (2006) Positive and negative effects of widespread badger culling on tuberculosis in cattle. Nature 439, 843-846 (and Supplementary Information)
(4) Hansard, 8 December 2003, column 218 W
(5). EFRA Select Committee, 6th Report into bTB, 8 March 2006, ref BTB 33 Evidence from Paul Caruana, WLU, Truro.
(6) Godfray H.C.J. and others (2004) Independent Scientific Review of the Randomised Badger culling trials and associated epidemiological research.

As farmers with land within RBCT areas in three counties, we would agree, adding our own experiences of this protracted farce which include the introduction of several hundred acres into a Devon 'Pro active' trapping area - half way through the 'trial'. Boundaries were changed and changed substantially. And not only did our SW 'Matthew 5' not have a 'reactive ' cull for three years, a correspondent in Wiltshire was similarly ignored in a so-called proactive area!

And of course the much hyped figures of RBCT badger dispersal, were taken only from its first dismal year. The data has to be tortured for another seven years, until we see the full extent of its 'achievements'. And clouding those waters are the numbers of cattle breakdowns, on which this data relies, somewhat out of kilter with expectations and trends, i.e DOWN.
With a mixture of Lelystad tuberculin, the weather (the man in the moon?) thrown into the melting pot of possible explanations. On the other hand, the final years of the RBCT could just have worked. Now there's a thought.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Just like double decker buses...

....either none arrive at all - or two come together. And so it was with Defra's Tb statistics. Shock, horror and nothing (that we can find) in February, then the March figures diluted with missing February and a still-increasing January. Defra released figures for the four months to April only a week ago, unusually pointing out a drop in incidents / cattle slaughtered of 27 percent. Which was less than Jan - March 29 . 'something' percent, but we won't dwell on that.

But the figures for May are now published, also showing a 'drop' over the 'five months' - of 20 percent. Defra explain:

"There has been a substantial reduction in the number of new TB incidents in January - May 2006 compared to the same period in 2005. The provisional statistics presented here indicate that this reduction is 20%, although this figure will reduce as further test results are input by AHDOs. It is too early to draw any conclusions about whether the decrease is a temporary or a more sustained reduction and further analysis is needed to identify the reasons for the fall. However, it is likely to be caused by a complex combination of factors. There is no evidence at the moment that the switch in tuberculin supply has caused this reduction although further analysis is required before this can be confirmed."

As the switch to Lelystad happened progressively from last autumn and the parachute drop in numbers only occurred after Christmas, and then only in certain counties, with that we would agree. However, we do hope that Defra's "analyses" include batch numbers of the tuberculin which in some instances gave no 'reaction' at all, not a single lump, for over a month. But we wouldn't bank on them asking those sort of questions, to the right sort of people.

Anyway, it seems to us, that there has now been a dramatic increase in herds going under Tb restriction, and cattle slaughtered. The tuberculin intradermal skin test is working again. Whatever happened to the serum in late January / February, ain't happening now. An extra 324 herds are under restriction from last month, and Defra shot 1,911 cattle (568 in April)
And Defra's unannounced almost 30 percent drop in cases, is now 20 percent.

Defra - Responses to 'consultation' on if, when and how to cull badgers.

Defra's computer geeks have been working overtime with stacks of responses on the following link:

That this so-called 'consultation' was deemed necessary at all is debatable, as m.bovis is a very serious zoonosis, responsibility for the control of which is wholly and completely - Defra's.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs however, seems to want to shaft that responsibilty and is not shy of using any half baked piece of 'data' to avoid its obligations.
But as a vet writing in the Vet times remarked, if data is tortured long enough and hard enough - it will prove anything you want it to prove.

Monday, July 10, 2006

"TB in a local badger may increase the risk..."

... of your herd contracting the disease".

Farmers in Wales are starting to receive letters from the State Veterinary Service, in response to postmortems carried out on the dead badgers submitted under this spring's survey.

We covered the somewhat premature end to this in our post: .. but results now trickling out, generate the following letter:

"A dead badger found within 3km of your farm, and tested for TB as part of an on-going (err - we understood it had closed - ed) badger road traffic accident survey in your area. This animal tested positive for TB. Confirmation of TB in a local badger ( how do SVS know it was 'local'? or how far it travelled? 3 miles/km? 6? 10? - sorry, we digress) may increase the risk of your herd contracting the disease".

The letter then asks that farmers concerned test their cattle.

FUW representative Evan Thomas, said that the Union had emphasised the importance of testing cattle in areas where badgers had been found with TB, and that he was glad the Welsh Assembly was undertaking these measures. He pointed out that it gave SVS an opportunity to 'nip TB in the bud' early, but criticised the decision to end the survey (of dead badgers) early as 'premature'. "It is important to monitor the disease in badgers" he said.

And? His point is? OK, you've got a dead badger. One dead badger, and you've tested local farms in a 3 km. radius of it's demise. And if they test positive? Watchyagonna do then?
The same as the rest of England I suppose: keep testing and killing shed loads of cattle, ignoring the message they're sending you. That'd be about right.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The demise of Mrs. Tiggiewinkle.

In previous postings we have explored the relationship - annihilation? - which a burgeoning population of badgers has on other less high profile inhabitants of the British countryside. Earthworms may be their preferred food source, but when the soil is hard, or their population density is too high, (or even the good Doctor Cheeseman is not available with shed loads of peanuts) then practically anything else will suffice. And their number one target is a slow moving hedgehog.

We are grateful to the Farmers Union of Wales for their press release highlighting research from the Central Science Laboratory, which suggests that in areas of high badger density, hedgehogs may be completely wiped out by 2025. To that we may add, as Professor Willie Stanton of the Somerset Wildlife Trust did in his excellent paper which we covered:
..... grey partridge, lapwing, skylarks, bumble bees and slow worms......

NEW research suggests the near extinction of hedgehogs in the British countryside should be blamed on the massive rise in badger numbers and not farming practices, says the Farmers’ Union of Wales.
A scientific article in July’s Journal of Zoology entitled "Abundance of hedgehogs in relation to the density and distribution of badgers" coincides with claims in the current edition of National Geographic magazine that hedgehogs could be extinct by 2025.
The research, by Richard Young of the Central Science Laboratory, showed that "as [badger] sett density increased, both the probability of occurrence of hedgehogs and their abundance decreased". It also suggested that hedgehogs have been eliminated in areas where badger densities are high.
In response to claims that farming practices are to blame for the rapid decline in hedgehog numbers, Carmarthenshire FUW County Executive Officer Peter Davies recently wrote to hedgehog researchers at the University of London expressing the Union’s conviction that badgers are responsible.
He said: "This research highlights what we have been saying for many years, and reiterates what other research, dating back 15 years or more, has also demonstrated.
"Badgers eat just about anything, and hedgehogs are at the top of the menu if they come across them. It is a predator prey relationship, and one wipes out the other.
"By allowing the badger population to grow out of control, politicians and so called conservation groups have upset the balance of nature. As a direct result hedgehogs are now on the endangered list and farmers are getting the blame.

"Some scientists seem obsessed with the idea that the decline is caused by farmers spraying pesticides. Those people should come and visit Wales, where both hedgehogs and pesticides are rare, but we’ve got badgers everywhere.

"In fact, in suburban areas, where hedgehogs do survive, it seems likely that there is far more use of pesticides than in rural Wales."
Last year, the FUW called on conservation groups and politicians to come clean with the general public and admit that badgers were out of control and endangering hedgehogs.
"But the conservation groups kept their heads down and Countryside Minister Carwyn Jones even suggested that the decline could be due to a shortage of earthworms!" said Mr Davies.
"This seems highly improbable since badgers, whose numbers continue to grow unabated, also depend on earthworms in their diet. I would respectfully suggest that the Minister can’’t have it both ways!"

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Latest Tb figures

Defra have published their latest Tb figures for the 4 months up to April. Unusually, they add the following comment:

"There has been a substantial reduction in the number of new TB incidents in January - April 2006 compared to the same period in 2005. The provisional statistics presented here indicate that this reduction is 27%, although this figure will reduce as further test results are input by AHDOs. It is too early to draw any conclusions about whether the decrease is a temporary or a more sustained reduction and further analysis is needed to identify the reasons for the fall. However, it is likely to be caused by a complex combination of factors. There is no evidence at the moment that the switch in tuberculin supply has caused this reduction although further analysis is required before this can be confirmed."

(Sorry readers, the links go to the 'latest' figures and not the ones we are discussing. The Defra comment is scanned in so stands.)

As you can see, Defra's 'reduction' figure is 27 per cent over the same period last year.

But in our post :
when March's figures were published, the drop was over 29 per cent.
(February figures, we were unable to locate, but January's were still onwards and upwards)
So Defra's 'decrease' of 2.5 percent, (that reduction of 27%, which they expect to fall further) we calculate as an increase in tb incidents on March's (3 month average) vertigo inducing fall.

Without being churlish and without wantinf to look gifthorses in the mouth, we report what we see, and hear. And vets are telling us that during late January / February, some practises went through several weeks of cattle testing "without seeing a single lump". SVS officers confirm this. But not in all counties. In Staffs/Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall cases were in free fall, with some counties recording drops of over 50 percent, while others (Cheshire and Hereford/ Worcs) reported business as usual.

In the good old days, a few avian reactions could usually be expected, just "to show the vet has actually done the test", as our previous vet used to say. But no lumps at all? Not one? Nothing to record? In herds smack in the middle of large area tb breakdowns? But this has not been sustained, (the vets say) and measurable reactions are again being seen, and measured, and cattle slaughtered.

We also note from Defra's April round up, that slaughterhouse cases are rising at an alarming rate, showing 242 suspected and sent for culture, compared with 109 in the same period last year. Most of these cattle have been regularly tested, yet the skin test has failed to record a 'reaction'. While this is a known rare exception to the reliable intradermal skin test, in that if the animal's immune system is so overwhelmed by disease, there is no 'immune response' to flag up, the numbers coming forward now should ring some warning bells as to why no response has been seen. An extra 288 herds are currently under Tb restriction in April than in March 2006.

Further notes on the imported Lelystad tuberculin, to which Defra refer in their explanation:
*It was first imported a year ago, in June 2005.
*It would have been distributed in batches as required by vets, as the UK product ran out. The batches would not have been used in all counties /areas at the same time.
*The bovine part contains 30,000 units compared with 25,000 in the formally used UK serum, (or should do) and initially vets were saying that it was 'more senstive' and flagging up more inconclusive reactors.
*It's original base is the same as the UK product, m.bovis strain AN5 - or was - but whether it has been refined to seek indigenous strains of tb, we have yet to find out.
*It does not have a 'cross border' pan-EU license, and is used under a different section EU license by VMD (Veterinary Medicines Directorate) for the UK's 'short term problems'.
*We understand that VMD have accepted the product on 'manufacturers' data' only.

Vets are telling us that Tb tests are now back to their depressing 'normal'. And from that we assume heaps of dead cattle and the intradermal skin test - behaving as it should.