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.


Anonymous said...

No responses for well over a month on this blog, so I thought I had better post something to try and stimulate some interest.

Lewis Thomas and friends seem to think the badger trials carried out in the 70s and 80s provided the government with all the evidence they needed to introduce a badger culling policy. If that is the case why have Tory and Labour governments failed to introduce a cull, and furthermore why have respected scientists such as John Krebs advised that a Trial was necessary before decisions could be taken?

Matthew said...

Comments do not necessarily come into the latest posting. The last one which came in a couple of days ago is here :

We cannot tell you why successive governments have sanitised policy on bTB eradication. More votes in dead badger than a dead cow I suppose.
We can only reiterate that from 1986, SVS control of bTb was made very difficult, with the inevitable result of a rise in cases as shown by the cattle tests.

The biggest change was gassing, which was abandoned in favour of cage trapping, and the reduction of land available reduced from 7km down to just 1km, and then only from 'land the reactor had grazed'. Thus if the badgers thought to be responsible were occupying land outside that cordon, or on neighbouring farms they could not be touched. The 'badger panel' which decided if a removal should take place at all, only met quarterly, and bTb had to have been confirmed by cultures - all of which would take many months to organise.

All the trials to which Dr. Thomas refers, and indeed recent ones in Ireland have, if implemented to a high degree of efficiency, had a huge impact on cattle tb. Thornbury being the best, with no cattle tb at all for 12 years after the trial finished, and badgers recovered to their pre-cull numbers.

The RBCT was set up by a Tory government, and continued by the present administration. There was absolutely no need for it. Its outcome was predicted, (by Prof. Stephen Harris among others) and its implementation worse than even we thought possible. But its tortured data will keep its magic circle of beneficiaries happy for another couple of years at least.

George said...

It is sad that we are now tied down by this discredited trial. All who are involved in TB on the ground knew it was going to fail one way or another, I am told. 7 different removal areas in two different countries, all reducing the TB in the cattle with no apparent 'edge effect' cannot be coincidental.