Thursday, December 13, 2007

" Defra have no policy...

... and have spent £1 billion to no good effect in the last decade".

So said Lord Rooker, 1 hour and nine minutes into a slippery session with the EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) committee on December 10th. This was a long and tortuous attempt to drag from a minister, who although fashionably 'recycled', has been in the Defra seat for a decade, just what government policy on bTb would be.

But Lord Rooker was not forthcoming. The chairman remarked that he was not getting any degree of clarity, and that after ten years in the job, Lord Rooker was coming over as "don't have a clue".

But some of what he did say was unequivocal and we will summarise.

* That he wouldn't argue with the projection of a £300,000,000 annual cost of bTb in 2012 / 2013, predicted in the Defra strategy document of 2004.

* At £100,000,000 the cost of bTb annually was consuming 40 per cent of Defra's Animal Health budget - that rose to 70 - 80 percent in some areas.

* Much of the cost was on antiquated trace and paper based systems. "The vets and AHOs never get mentioned, but they operate a cumbersome paper trail". The computer screens are black and white.

* Defra has to formulate a comprehensive strategy. "The issue is bTb. We have a reservoir in the wildlife and disease in a food producing animal. And it is growing".

* "We are in real trouble. AHOs and VLA tell me that the disease is virtually impossible to eradicate in cattle while there is a reservoir in wildlife".

* "In the hot spot areas, AHOs tell me that 70 percent of the cattle breakdowns are badger related. They are on the front line".

* Cattle movements geographically are important, but "both VLA and AHOs tell me that the molecular structure [of the bacteria] is unique to areas. If the issue was cattle moving Tb around, then this molecular spread would be obvious".

* Scientists not arguing about the science of culling [ badgers], but how to do it.

* "The present situation is unsustainable. Whatever policy government come up with, they will not pay for it. This is the end of the line for taxpayer's money".

* "Culling as done by the RBCT does not work. The implication is you don't do it that way".

* The rest of mainland Europe is fine with test and slaughter - they don't have a wildlife reservoir of disease.

* "Government cannot reasonably withold licenses from applicants under section 10 (9) of the Badger Protection Act"; the Act was to protect the badger before it became known that the animal was a reservoir for bTb. Moratorium 'may have been illegal', but was never challenged.

* Zoning and cattle cordon sanitaires would destroy the industry. "The cost to the farming industry [of bTb] is horrendous, both financially and emotionally. It is very frustrating for farmers and the industry".

* The spread of bTb in "Midlands and SW hotspots has grown, but not as a result of trade".

* "bTb is the most serious disease that Defra face in terms of costs and resources. This cannot carry on".

So, an hour into the discussion, Lord Rooker was asked about the formulation of a policy to reduce costs and control bTb. And it soon became evident that his eminent lordship had one, he was not going to share it with the honourable members of the EFRA committee. When asked what the first issue on the menu of any policy would be, Lord Rooker replied:
We aren't paying for it.
And contradicting his earlier mention of farmer licenses, with Defra administrating any cull, he said Defra would :
".. not be paying for operational mapping or surveillance, even if we do sanction a cull
It is also far from clear who would issue any licenses, Defra or Natural England - although the indication was of an abdication of ministerial responsibility. Lord Rooker said repeatedly that there was abundant knowledge that if we do not deal with bTb in wildlife, we can't get rid of it in cattle. But he didn't know the cost of any clearance of wildlife reservoirs, because Defra hadn't done its sums.

Money is the key, he said. It dictates policy. Mmmm. The cynical may remind his lordship of the £1 million donation from the Political Animal Lobby which stopped all badger culling in response to outbreaks of Tb in its tracks. Was that value for money? We think not. But we digress...

Lord Rooker slammed the use of gamma interferon on the grounds of cost.
It would cost £1 million before compensation [for reactors]. We're not going down that route.

Doesn't say much for his faith in its efficacy either, does it?

And although pressing ahead with vaccination research, Lord Rooker was not too enthusiastic about either cattle vaccines (illegal under EU law, and would be catastrophic for international trade) or badger vaccines (who's going to pay for it?)

He said decisions needed clarity at the top. It wasn't there. Zuchermann, Dunnett, Krebs and the ISG and still no clarity. And they didn't understand the transmission routes of the disease. Whaaaaaaaaaaaat!! 'They' may not. We do. Sheesh.

Lord Rooker asked the committee not to "fall for another enquiry" (would that be like the like the RBCT?) and he intimated a decision early in 2008. He said that the disease had to be dealt with in the round, showing respect for a valuable industry and respect for wildlife. Chairman, Michael Jack, MP concluded the proceedings with a comment that they had a unanimity of agreement; that a practical decision and a plan has to be made. And quickly.

It was pointed out that GB may be othe only country in Europe to abdicate responsibility for a statutorily notifiable zoonosis. But Lord Rooker was having none of it.
"We shall issue the license".
he said.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

If you don't like the answer.....

... ask the question again.

One of our northern contributers wrote to national newspapers at the beginning of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, asking just how many 'trials' government wanted. And he answered his own question with the ascerbic comment, 'as many as it takes to get the answer they desire'.

That was ten years ago, and much water has flowed under government bridges since then. Much cash too, with the incidence of bTb being one of the few things to fulfill governmental predictions. Lord Rooker confirmed in oral evidence to the EFRA committee on the 10th December that the Tb budget was on target for £300,000,000 by 2012. It was, he said, consuming 40 per cent of Defra's Animal Health budget.

But the diminutive prof. who chaired the dispersal trial, Professor John Bourne, was keen to point out that his 'trial' had had a political steer from the start. In fact he appeared to relish explaining to stunned MPs the difference between 'science' and his own brand of 'political science'.

He heard his master's voice in 1997, and delivered. But in ten years things have changed. And everything we, and other far more learned people than us mere farmers predicted, has come home to roost.

Lord Rooker listed many of these Tb 'chickens' in his addrees to the EFRA committee, and when we've listened to it - all 2 hours and a few minutes - we'll post a resume. Will we say 'we told you so'? You bet.

So, what are government going to do? They've wasted spent £millions on the prevarication of the Badger Dispersal trial, which at its inception was, according to its pilot, set up to deliver the obfuscation of cattle 2 v badgers 1.
7.24 ... The infection rate concerns all sources of infection for cattle, local infection for example across farm boundaries, infection from animals bought in particular(ly) but not only, from high incidence areas, and infection from wildlife, especially badgers. All these are important, but their relative importance and that of cattle-to-badger tranmission, cannot be estimated directly. In the following calculations we assume all three sources to be roughly equally important."

But times, as we said, change. And the answer government demanded then (and received) is not necessarily the answer demanded now. So, to paraphrase our contributer from Staffordshire, another session of number crunching is up for grabs 'until they get the answer they desire'.

Defra have invited tenders for 'Further Analyses of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial databases This work is abbreviated to AHW-TB RRD 2008 - 2009 and tenders must be submitted by 18th January 2008.

Pity no one told Prof. Bourne that the goal posts had moved during his 'trial'.

One could almost feel sorry for the man. Almost, but not quite.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Defra - Achieving its predictions

In many articles during 2003 and 2004 (and in the PQs archived on this site) Defra (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) predicted a 20% year on year increase in bovine Tb. And if they are failing in the management of skools 'n 'ospitals, getting tangled up in dodgy party donations, sending clapped out kit into war zones and busy bailing out bankrupt banks, at least they got that bit right. Figures released this week show Defra on target for a rise of about 20% (over 2006) in herds under restriction due a 'TB incident'.

That's Defraspeak for cattle shot and the herd at a standstill: under indefinite movement restriction and 60 day tests ad infinitum - or at least until the infected wildlife responsible, expire voluntarily or compulsorily.

England's total of such herds, from Defra figures compiled to September is 6.8 per cent (up from 6.1 last year in the same 9 month period), Wales has recorded 9 per cent, (up from almost 7.0 last year) and even Scotland does not qualify for TB free trading, recording 0.5 per cent of its herds under restriction compared with 0.3 last year. Tb free trading is achieved with up to 0.01 per cent of herds affected, 0.02 per cent of cattle and a credible policy for eradication of the disease. We doubt an annual cull of cattle sentinels complies.

One casualty in the West region, (which has 15 per cent of its herds under restriction ) is breeder of pedigree South Devon cattle, Gordon Tully who has lost a valuable core of his breeding herd. Western Morning News carries the story with the headline "Brown Snub on Badger Cull".

Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday dodged repeated questions about his plans to tackle TB in cattle as it emerged that a leading Westcountry farm has been struck down by the disease. Mr Brown simply said it was an "issue that has got to be addressed from time to time". He added that he was doing his best to help the farming community

South Devon farmer Gordon Tully is only the latest in a long line of Westcountry farmers whose herds have been hit by bTb.He said watching the slaughter of his TB-hit livestock was like "having my own heart ripped out". He said the "cause is clear" and that a badger cull was the only way of stopping other farmers having to live under the "black cloud" of movement restrictions and slaughter. The report continues:
Mr Tully, from Waddeton, near Brixham, has already seen nine of his beef cattle killed, with a further 12 expected to be culled today. And it has cast a huge shadow over the remainder of his once 230-strong herd. In a heartfelt letter to his MP, Anthony Steen, urging him to raise his plight with ministers, he said: "I am in a state of shock and am very, very upset and totally lost. I am unable to see what to do now. I am having the heart ripped out of my herd and feel I am having my own heart ripped out as well."

Gordon Brown fended the questions - as only practised politicians can. He admitted there "have been problems" which have beset rural communities but "we have tried our best working with the farming community to make possible more successful farming in the future".

What the hell did that mean? (Answers on a postcard.)

Brown then referred to recent "difficulties" the farming community had faced, including foot and mouth disease and bluetongue. Difficulties? Trade bans, movement restrictions, lock down, bankruptcy? Yes, you could say we have 'difficulties'. But whose fault was the un-repaired leaky drain at the Pirbright IAH site? Who kept the State Veterinary Service, of which this facility was the flagship, so starved of funds that basic maintenance within a Grade 4 bio security level facility was compromised? And who, having seen the devastation wrought across Europe this year with bluetongue virus, advised the erection of 'sticky midge nets' instead of an all out commitment to vaccination? And who has counted more votes in dead badger than a dead cow, and still thinks he can buy his food supplies from abroad?

Former keeper of HMG's beans, and now Prime Minister, Gordon Brown who told reporters: "We have tried to do our best to give support financially."

How, he did not elaborate. The WMN report continues:
The far South West is one of the hardest-hit parts of the country. Between January and August this year alone, there were 468 confirmed cases of TB in cattle across Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. That compares with 697 in the whole of 2006, sparking fears that another record could be set by the end of the year. Mr Tully said the outbreak on his farm was proof that action needed to be taken soon: "Until they address the rest of the equation they are never going to solve it."

Gordon Tully's herd now faces regular tests until the cattle are given the all-clear on two successive occasions. Until then he cannot move any of his herd except to send for slaughter. But if the collective brain cell known as T-BAG (TB Advisory Group) get their way, after those two consecutive clear 60 day tests, Mr. Tulley faces several more years under effective 'restriction' - unable to trade his cattle in the market place under a daft idea of zoning dressed up as 'Risk Based Trading'

The background and 'pedigree' of Gordon Tully's cattle can be read in Farmers Guardian this week, under a piece which describes the farmer's devastation at losing them - and more importantly not being able to do a damned thing about it.
It [Mr. Tully's pedigree herd] is one of 10 foundation herds for the South Devon breed, with bloodlines dating back to 1891. It has provided the breed champion and reserve breed champion at the last two Royal Shows and, before that, the winner of the prestigious Queen Mother’s Cup at the Smithfield show. The successful herd has been built up through skillful breeding over six decades by two generations of the Tully family. But now the family could potentially lose everything.

After a clear test in the spring, Mr Tully's cattle had a devastating result at the end of October, when a herd test revealed 31 animals to be either reactors or inconclusives.

Twenty-one have been slaughtered over the past two weeks, leaving six calves under three months without mothers. With tests on a further 25 ‘inconclusives’ scheduled for January, the final toll could be much higher. “I fear for what is coming. How many more are they going to take?” an emotional Mr Tully said.

But the greatest frustration, he said, was knowing he was powerless to prevent the outbreak - or to stop it continuing to rip through his herd. “I am just so despondent. If I could say they were going for the benefit of other cattle and something good would come of it, that would be something. But it clearly isn’t as it is painfully obvious the disease is being spread by badgers – we had a clear test in April and no cattle have come on the farm since".
“I just feel I am a sitting duck here now. I backed down from refusing entry to take my cattle after the divisional veterinary manager said: ‘You don’t want diseased cattle on you farm, do you?’ I said: ‘No, and I don’t want diseased badgers, either. The badgers are dying slow and painful deaths. Who is looking out for them?”

Mr. Tully has written to Lord Rooker asking: “I cannot understand why the Government is more concerned about badgers than cattle. Are you going to introduce a badger cull in Devon?” He may also have asked, as a comment on this posting has suggested, enquiring why so-called animal lovers are totally opposed to culling diseased badgers, while content to see them die like THIS.

The usual suspects expressed sympathy and anger in equal measures.

A Defra spokesman said:
"The Government will only consider introducing a policy which would allow the culling of badgers to control and reduce bovine TB if the available evidence suggests that it would it be successful in the long term, and that a cost-effective, practical, sustainable and humane policy could be developed and implemented. The evidence base on this issue is complex and there are no simple answers.".

The Badger Trust claimed: "Killing badgers is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - doing far more harm than good."

A 20 per cent increase in Tb restricted herds predicted - and achieved - annually?
7 per cent of England's herds under Tb restriction in the 9 months to September?
Devon, Glos and Hereford / Worcs recording over 20 per cent of their herds affected.
And herds like Gordon Tully's - condemned by infectious wildlife?

Some sledgehammer. Some nut.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Playing politics

Two stories hit the farming press this week which illustrate the total futility of farmers trying to play politics. Market prices, that is prices achieved in an auction, and on which a vendor can turn his back and take stock home, are the benchmark for most livestock trade - and for Defra's infamous tabular valuations. So what happens if the rug is pulled on the system?

Howard Walsh writing in Farmers Guardian, entitles his piece Movement Restrictions Strangling Trade and pulls no punches when he reports an auctioneer in the SE as saying:
Bluetongue (BTV) and foot-and-mouth rules and regulations will kill the UK livestock industry before the diseases do.

The piece explains the stranglehold such restrictions have on a livestock farm's ability to trade its stock at the 'market price', if that market is no longer there. Downward pressure feeds onto deadweight retailer prices, and as auctioneers all over the country are finding, the consequences are devastating. Current movement restrictions also threaten the markets’ longer term viability.

While attention is concentrated on the markets of the SE, the zoning of the area means that up to 150 km inland, markets are affected, with regular trade stifled.
Vendors are worried not only that they would not be able take stock home in the event of prices falling short of expectations, but that buyers are restricted anyway by the same boundary and movement controls.

York Livestock Centre is in this position and according to principle James Stephenson the fact that the Murton centre is just inside the zone, is decimating trade, particular store stock.
“The cattle finishers are being starved of store stock and this part of the country is, you could say a meat basket but the abattoirs will find next year that the stock are just not there. We are really concerned about the situation and if something is not done soon, then we will lose some auction marts

Livestock Auctioneers Association executive secretary Chris Dodds was not optimistic about the situation, describing a two tier market which has developed either side of the zoning line:
“There is a massive difference in livestock values being achieved either side of the line.”

We have touched on the problem of zoning risk-based trading for TB before in this post and this week, ironically on the same page as the piece above, Farmers Guardian reports that Farmers have requested just such movement restrictions for Tb.

Have they? We haven't. In fact we have pointed out many times the futility of such measures, all of which have been tried before - and all of which have failed. But the TB Advisory Group, our old friend T-Bag, in the shape of chairman Peter Jinman have proposed zoning risk based trading for farms who have had a confirmed breakdown in the previous - well they aren't quite sure, 2, 3 or 4 years? Maybe.

These farms will only be able to sell stock to consenting farms of similar status. No markets. In fact a buyers' market - if you can find a buyer. Zoning per se may find itself on the back burner if rumours of the whole of England adopting a more regular testing regime, rather than the 3/4 year testing areas which operate now, are correct. This would be sensible, as would post movement tests - but we've said this before as well. It is this fixation with extra non-productive cattle controls, offered as a sop to HMG that is worrying.

In a letter to Lord Rooker, Peter Jinman, outlined the groups' proposals and said that he was struck:
".. by the industry’s willingness to consider additional cattle controls’.
Who is this 'industry'? Has anybody told the farmers what you guys are offering on their behalf? Yes? No?

No, we didn't think so.

Mr. Jinman said representatives had made it clear that going down this route without parallel wildlife controls would ‘not be acceptable’. Right. That's OK then. Which tree did these people fall out of? We've been here before in fact almost two years to the day, the 'industry' rolled out a three part plan. Defra got its tabular valuations and preMT - and delivered a new group (T-BAG) and a 'consultation'.

Defra's track record on farmer 'deals' is not good. Duplicitous, mendacious and slippery, it's usually a case of Defra saying jump and a very few egotistical lightweights saying 'how high'? Or in this case 'on who'?

And in this case, the 'who' are livestock farmers who have had the misfortune to have had Tb confirmed on their farms in the last 2, 3 or 4 years. They been under restriction during the outbreak and felt the impact on their businesses, but this bolts on a whole new layer of problems for another 2, 3 or 4 years. (Mr. Jinman's group Defra haven't decided yet)

T- BAG kindly explain the bones of what they have offered to Government on your behalf:
* Restricting farmers with a recent history of the disease to moving their cattle only to other ‘high risk’ farmers.

* Examining the costs and benefits of increasing routine surveillance.

* Looking at the costs and benefits of greater use of the gamma interferon test.

* Exploring the scope for introducing a risk-based trading, and how it could work.

* Targeted use of post-movement testing.

Mr Jinman said there was no support for ‘zoning’, banning the movement of cattle out of high risk areas, as this would have an ‘unacceptable economic impact’ and would not reflect risk accurately for those farmers who had stayed disease-free.

But there was, he said,
A ‘willingness’ to consider other options, such as risk-based trading. While the details still have to be fleshed out, the broad principle is that farmers would be categorised according to risk, with those that have experienced breakdowns in the past two to four years, for example, categorised as ‘high risk’.
They would be allowed to move cattle to other high risk farms but not to farms deemed lower risk.

So, we have a story that livestock farms in the as the SE, NE and Midlands are described as 'Strangled by the movement restrictions", which they say will destroy more businesses than the diease. But on behalf of every farm which has had a confirmed outbreak of TB in the last 2, 3 or 4 years (Defra haven't decided yet), a small 'stakeholder' group, has offered - " willingly" the man said, er, more movement restrictions, and a two tier market - if any market for such stock can be found at all.

One could say that such ideas show a distinct 'lemming' gene to be prevalent amongst the group.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Red Herring?

Researchers at the Institute of Animal Health's Compton laboratory have been awarded a commendation described as "Outstanding Contribution by an Academic or Scientific Institution", at the Animal Health Awards, for their work in developing a diagnostic test for cattle which have been "vaccinated against bovine tb".

But is the vaccination of cattle for Tb a viable solution to a problem which is endemic in wildlife?

The test as Farmers Weekly reports, is said to differentiate between cattle 'vaccinated against bTb' and those infected with the disease.

TB is on the increase in the UK cattle herd, costing more than £90m a year and vaccination is under "active consideration", say the Institute of Animal Health. This would involve using the same vaccination used to immunise humans against the disease, BCG.

However, BCG-vaccinated cattle test positive using the tuberculin skin test. Before a bovine TB vaccination strategy can be implemented, a method of distinguishing between vaccinated and infected animals has to be established.
With all due respect to the researchers at Compton, Tb vaccine has been "under consideration" for as many years as I can remember. On other forums, vaccination of cattle for various disease is under active discussion. Vaccination is used worldwide for some notifiable dieases as an anti- marketing tool, and should countries adopt it, their produce is automatically disqualified from entry into other trading blocs.

The current discussions centre on the midge bourne BTV (bluetongue virus) which had not been reported in the UK before this year. We therefore qualified for "BTV free status zoning". And for years this country excluded exports of breeding stock, embryos, semen etc from parts of the world whose geographic location encouraged BTV midges and whose stock were vaccinated. Vaccination across Europe is now on the cards, but as a compulsory trading bloc, which will probably mean in due course that BTV is "de-listed" from its current notifiable status.

FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease) has similar trading restrictions under OIE and EU trading rules, and the inevitable two tier markets develop between countries with endemic disease and vaccination policies, and those without either.

So why should a cattle Tb vaccine even be considered other than as a reserach project? It's use is strictly limited, and its disadvantages many.

We asked several epidemiologists and also industry leaders who have connections with export markets, and the replies were unequivocal. Unworkable, unnecessary and commercial suicide.

..I doubt very much that this is the prelude to a vaccination programme for cattle. For a start there is currently no effective vaccine for cattle and I rather doubt there will be. Secondly the idea of vaccinating cattle in the face of massive challenge in the field from infected badgers is daft. Yes, vaccination against brucellosis was successful but there was no wildlife reservoir to break down resistance (and the S19 vaccine was a good one) ...
So, if cattle are the only candidate and there is no wildlife reservoir to break down resistance to a vaccine, it would work. But vaccination minimises an immune response to bacterial challenge: it does not stop it altogether. Thus cattle vaccination in the face of exposure from disease endemic elsewhere would be pointless.

And on trade, as we have said an immediate ban would come from the EU - that's if any pharmaceutical company decided with such a limited market, to produce a vaccine at all. Only countries with an uncontrolled wildlife reservoir of Tb would be remotely interested. Manufacturers are demanding a 100 million dose underwrite across the EU for BTV-8 vaccine, before they'll think of applying for market authorisation, so how viable is a Tb vaccine for the West of GB and Wales?

Another quote on this subject:

If we vaccinated cattle there would be an immediate trade embargo with the rest of the EEC. In fact I reckon they are almost waiting for it! Vaccination for badgers is a long term approach which Ireland are currently trialling (or will very soon be ). But no vaccine can cope with the current weight of infection in the badger population at the moment and strategic culling will be an essential pre requisite.
Now that is interesting. We have expressed support for vaccination for badgers, if only to protect them from their infected sett mates, but vaccination + disease = death, was always the mantra. And it would appear that for any vaccination programme to succeed, the candidate must be uninfected at the time of vaccination. So how would the Badger Trust sell the concept of a badger cull as a prerequisite of a badger vaccination programme to its members?

But we digress. The test which IAH Compton have developed, relies on the information that immune cells of cattle previously infected with TB contain more of the protein gamma interferon than those vaccinated for TB. They describe the test as able to provide:

.. same day, on farm diagnosis of TB and identify which are vaccinated and which are infected.
That sounds suspiciously like PCR. And if it is, good. Especially if it is rt-PCR and we're not still lagging 6 years behind the plot on this stunning technology. Next step, use it to identify bTb in the environment and that is progress.

The researchers at Compton comment: "The ultimate benefit of accurate diagnosis of disease, in the light of vaccination, would be a reduction in the incidence of TB with associated improvements in animal health and welfare, and the livelihood of farmers."

Don't think so. Vaccination in the face of an endemically infected wildlife, would be ineffective and vaccination per se would destroy the livlihoods of all cattle producers, by creating a two tier market - or even no market, for their goods. Archaic, that may seem but it is the reality of global trading.

And what about the cats? And llamas? And free range pigs? ...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Spill over - now llamas...

Several be-suited members of the EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) committee donned wellies and perched on straw bales for a trailer ride tour, to see for themselves the interaction between livestock and wildlife on SW farms affected by bTb. Member of the committee, Geoffrey Cox, MP said:

"I believe that my colleagues were deeply impressed with the dignified eloquence of those who spoke to us about their experiences and shocked by the destructiveness of the disease on herds and on farming livelihoods".
Mr. Cox, whose constituency is one of the most badly affected in the country, had urged his committee colleagues to see for themselves, the devastation caused by the disease, Western Morning News reports.

The committee visited a farm in Shebbear which has been under restrictions for several years, learning first hand from farmers and local vets of the impact the disease has had, and is continuing to have, on farming families and businesses.
Mr. Cox was one of the main badgerers questioners of Prof. Bourne when EFRAcom examined the ISG final report into the 10 year antics of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial. The committee will, in due course prepare a report for government, and Mr. Cox continued:

"The message that must come out of our report is that the Government can no longer postpone the urgently needed action to control the disease in wildlife, which Defra - Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - accepts is an important factor in the spread of infection here in Torridge, by a locally targeted, humane cull in heavily infected areas."
We have spoken many times on this blog, of the inevitable spill over casualties of this debacle. Shooting the messenger does not get rid of the problem. And following the Torridge visit, the EFRA committee members moved on to a llama farm in Mid Devon where half of this unique breeding herd of animals has been wiped out by Bovine TB.

This is breeding herd of llamas, selling valuable stock for export which have to be TB tested before they can travel. A 'closed herd', it has over the course of a very few months, lost half its stock to bTb.

Crucially, the committee members heard at each farm visited, that not only had the farmers operated bio secure 'closed herd' policies,

"...they had found sick or dying badgers on their farm before the outbreak of infection."
And this is the bit that our friends in the animal protection charities do not like. Up with pictures of the reality of tuberculosis in their chosen species, they will not put. But as the disease runs riot through the wildlife, more and more spillover becomes inevitable. As the llamas found, to their cost.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Mass cull? - it won't happen.

Farmer Ian Pettyfer from Devon echoes our thoughts in an opinion piece in this week's Western Morning News. Forget pythagorus and huge cull areas aka John Bourne. They may work in a hypothetical, mathematical modeling situation but are a bloody disaster in any other.

Mr. Pettyfer welcomes Sir David King's overview of the Bourne report, pointing out that the ISG only considered one form of culling. (And accomplished that with total arrogance and aplomb, ignoring both the advice from their WLU managers and the recommendations of Professor Krebs)

[Sir David King] correctly, in the opinion of farmers, disputes the conclusion of the Bourne Report that any cull will merely exacerbate the problem, since Professor Bourne was only looking at one form of culling - cage trapping. However, King, in proposing a cull, goes on to agree with Bourne that, for this to be effective, it needs to be over a very wide area, a minimum of 100 square kilometres at least, but fails to consider any evidence to show that a different form of culling could succeed in much smaller areas, involving the deaths of far fewer badgers, and only in the diseased setts.
It is unfortunate that Sir David did not go further back than AB (After Bourne). In fact it is quite remarkable that (scientific) life began with Bourne and the ISG. No research, trials, cattle controls - nothing to do with controlling bTb happened BB (Before Bourne) it would seem. At least nothing that isn't ridiculed and pilloried into submission by a new 'modeling' exercise. Forget if you will, that 20 years ago GB achieved Tb free trading status. The last time we able to say that. And certainly ignore the advice of the people who fought so hard to gain that status. They were BB. But we digress. Mr. Pettyfer doesn't like the idea of huge area culls any more than we do - or the Bern Convention would.

Forget a massive cull - it is simply never going to happen. For a start, many landowners and farmers, let alone the general public, will never tolerate it. Where are the natural barriers, which are necessary for it to succeed in Devon and Cornwall - the M5, the English and Bristol Channels? Attempting to slaughter 80 per cent of the badgers in such a huge area is a preposterous idea.
Quite right. It is a red herring designed to prevaricate even more on the contentious subject of culling selective wildlife reservoirs of tuberculosis. Mr. Pettyfer concludes that he is "inclined to believe that Sir David intended to stir up controversy by suggesting it, knowing that the adverse public reaction would allow the Government to stall for the remainder of this parliament."

The sooner we start doing what we did successfully 40 years ago, and should have been doing for the past 20 years, the sooner we shall beat this heartbreaking and costly disease. Farms where TB keeps recurring and where cattle are not being introduced from other herds, should be licensed to take out the badgers, using carbon monoxide gas under veterinary supervision, and kept free of badgers until the herd goes clear. That is what farmers and vets have been advocating for years. It will eventually happen, and the public will tolerate it.
They'll tolerate it even more when their pet cats, dogs and free range companion animals start coughing. Spill over has already decimated a llama farm in East Devon which operated a 'closed herd' policy. We will post more on that in due course.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Manx mischief

We are used to the politics of 'spin' from government. But we are becoming increasingly weary of the same misinformation spin, churned out via press releases from various prominent animal charities and unquestioningly regurgitated by lazy media hacks.

In our posting Spot-the-difference we showed a master in action. Our Trevor, Mr. Lawson, media advisor to the Badger Trust, carefully snipped a vital piece of English grammar - the subject no less - from a sentence and turned scientific fact into Badger Trust fiction.

That was after both he and the ISG spent more than a few years chasing postcards, in the mistaken belief that the 14 million animal movements logged by the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) were individual bovine hoofprints. They were not. They were data, often quadrupled, generated by just 2.2 million cattle movements and 400,000 calf hops.

And now they have turned their attention to the Isle of Man. An island enjoying similar climate and geographic features to both Ireland and West Wales, it has cattle herds (large, small, organic and conventional, beef and dairy) - but no badgers. And the clarion call has gone up that TB is 'rife' on the island and as badgers are in no way implicated - well it's gotta be cattle.

First of all Tb is not 'rife'. The Isle of Man logged just five cases from 2001 - 2003 as described in the Department of Agriculture's newsletter of 2003:
Bovine tuberculosis was discovered on the Island in October 2001, the first outbreak since 1971. The affected milking herd on the initial farm had to be destroyed because of clear evidence of rapid spread of the disease within the adult cattle. Four other locations had only one affected animal each. No evidence of spread from any of the five locations has been found. Laboratory tests conclusively demonstrated that at least four, if not all five, of these outbreaks were unrelated to each other.

The last confirmed case was in April 2002. All herds that had confirmed cases have been subjected to further testing with negative results.

Government and private practice vets, have worked together to deliver the increased level of testing required. The 2003/4 programme has been completed with no herd under restriction for failing a tuberculosis test.
The Manx government take bovine Tb very seriously. Cattle imported on to the island are subject to strict veterinary controls, which the Department describes thus:

All imported cattle are subject to -
* testing prior to importation;
* movement restriction following importation; and
* post-import testing.
We are grateful for information direct from the Manx veterinary authorities for the following up-to-date quote:

...Other advances in genetic testing have permitted the Animal Health Division to specifically identify the bacteria isolated from each of the Island’s outbreaks (12 since 2000) and determine whether they may be related. These investigations, together with movement analyses, have shown that many of the outbreaks are unrelated and are likely to have been the result of importation. ...
There is two year testing on most herds on the island, but much more important, as described above, they post movement test imported cattle at 60 days plus.

If a cow is carrying Tb when she jumps into a lorry, it his highly unlikely that the journey to the Isle of Man will produce a miracle cure. And it is this vital post movement skin test, we are told, that is finding the occasional reactor,(12 in 7 years) described as "unrelated" and "likely to be the result of importation".

And this is the crucial 'snip' that escaped the press releases.

The Isle of Man is also looking at its own particular 'wildlife' in case a reservoir is building. They are mindful of problems not a million miles away from their shores. They may not have badgers - they do have feral ferrets, wallabies and polecats. If an outbreak cannot be traced to imports the IOM authorities comment:
We can clear up our outbreaks without further breakdown because we don’t have a large reservoir of infected badgers.
We think it may be circulating to a minor extent outside cattle and are looking for a wildlife reservoir – suspects at the moment are feral wallabies, feral cats, polecats and rats.
If and when we find proof of an infected wildlife reservoir, we will take action to control/eradicate.
If any badgers were to be imported and released illegally, we would take immediate steps to eradicate on the grounds that they are non-indigenous species and a threat to our national herd.
All of which sounds extremely sensible. The Department of Agriculture is aware that the threat of Tb is always present. Particularly as TB incidence in the nearest exporting country (that's us) has risen from under 100 herds affected in the mid 1980s to 5,787 (in 2006)and thus the odds that the IOM will import problems have increased considerably. The authorities, by using a post movement test are determined that Tb will not be imported and they add that although TB is present on the island, it is definitely not 'rife'.

GammaIFN has been used in one herd, as was described here and the Isle of Man's Animal Health Division co-ordinates the periodic testing for Tuberculosis of all the Island's cattle. All herds are currently tested within a two-year cycle. The period of testing will be reduced to an annual basis if the herd is deemed a high-risk herd, if the herd has imported any cattle or if the herd sells retail milk. Link to that information.

So is TB 'rife' on the Isle of Man? Official Manx documents from the Department of Agriculture (at least they still have a Department which even mentions 'Agriculture') describe 5 cases 2001 - 2003 and a total 12 cases from 2000 - 2007 - all of which proved to be 'unrelated' after culture spoligotypes were received, and most were 'likely to be the result of importation'. Result: less than two cases annually over the last seven years and all found by post-movement skin tests?

The Isles of Scilly off SW Cornwall enjoys similar status - or its cattle do.

We should be so lucky.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Political pressure v. science

The editorial of the scientific magazine 'Nature' has a hard hitting attack on Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the H.M Government, commenting on his recently released critique of the ISG final report. They accuse him of bowing to 'political pressure'.
The question of whether British farmers should be allowed to cull badgers, on the basis that the animals may help spread tuberculosis (TB) among cattle, is perhaps not the most momentous matter on which a government has sought scientific advice. But the mishandling of the issue by David King, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, is an example to governments of how not deal with such advice, once it has been solicited and received.

Mishandling? That 'government' had had its sticky paws in this most unholy of messes from day one of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, appears to have escaped the editors of Nature. But not of course, the diminutive professor who orchestrated the trial. If you remember (and Nature obviously does not) he was most forthcoming, in fact inordinately proud of this political skew - as we reported here In fact Profesor Bourne was quite open with the EFRAcom, as to who steered his 'trial' and how:
"We repeatedly say "culling, as conducted in the trial." It is important [that] we do say that. Those limitations were not imposed by ourselves. They were imposed by politicians."

"At the end of the day I think you have to accept that it is the price society puts on a badger. [ ] In this country there is a price on a badger and on badger welfare".

"Whatever has driven that I do not know but the fact is that a price has been put on the badger in this country which related to the way we were able to carry out our scientific work. That is exactly what we report".

That the man even mentioned the word 'science' in the same sentence as the political steer to this 'trial', is breathtakingly arrogant. That Nature have not picked up on his assertions, is worse.

We re-run a comment from CLA representative Mr. Rooney, himself a scientist, who expressed his displeasure at Bourne's discription of 'political science' most forcefully:
Perhaps I might preface my remarks by saying that I was brought up as a scientist; it was not in this discipline, but scientific principles hold, whatever the discipline. One of the things that I was taught was that, in designing an experiment to try to address an issue or a problem, you may not like the results, but you accept them. I find it deeply shocking that responsible scientists should have been prepared to undertake a research study having been told at the outset that there is a conclusion that they are not allowed to reach. I find that utterly disgraceful".

It is noteworthy that Sir David King vehemently denied any such political skew, when he appeared before the EFRAcom last week. Speaking before his appearance, Professor Bourne claimed Sir David’s report was politically motivated.
Sir David refuted the claim. “I would never give advice based on pressure from politicians,” he said.

Which is more than can be said for the author of the ISG's final report, and its chairman.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Reactions to the King.

Some reactions - predictably polarised - to Sir. David King's peer review of the ISG final report, in which he used quite un-scientific, but eloquently cutting phrases to describe the report's unequivocal findings.

"the data do not support such an unqualified conclusion..."
"the ISG's unsound..."
"the confidence intervals are very large..."
"it was unclear whether it had been considered..."
"we are concerned about the time frame..."
"this time lag does not seem to have been taken into account..."
"the results...should be viewed with extreme caution..."
"we were not fully persuaded by it..."
"we have concerns about the biological plausibility of the ISG's interpretation of the results..."
A comment on a posting below quoted Animal Aid's predictable hype, which cited "overcrowded factory farms, dirty conditions" - conveniently forgetting 'Shambo' - and The Guardian has John Bourne as defending 'hero' and Sir. David as 'villain', in a short overview of the theatre that is EFRAcom.

The government chief scientist's recommendations to ministers on badger culling were "hastily written", "superficial" and "selective" according to the scientist who led the government's study into the problem of cattle TB.
However, it is quite apparent from ploughing through the dough of this Final Report, that much is based on 'assumption', 'rough' estimates and 'hypothoses'. And those can be skewed. And according the the person who framed its methodology, Professor Bourne, it was politically skewed from its outset.

As we have said before, the main tranche of its conclusions on the relative importance of cattle or badgers in the 'net reproduction rate of the epidemic' are summed up in para 7.24 where the ISG describe how they come to the conclusion that badgers account for 40 per cent of incidents. It is a 'tentative' prediction, they say:

...all sources of infection for cattle, local infection for example across farm boundaries, infection from animals bought in particular(ly) but not only, from high incidence areas, and infection from wildlife, especially badgers. All these are important but their relative importance, and that of cattle-to-badger transmission, cannot be estimated directly. In the following calculations, we assume all three sources to be roughly equally important"
And that lazy, contradictory (see more in our comment below) 'tentative' prediction, based on 2 parts cattle to 1 part badger, extruded through a 'simple mathematical model' in three 'roughly equal' sound bites are what the final report boils down to. That and John Bourne's infamous 'edges', which Sir David at least was at pains to reinterpret.

Sir David defended his corner well, reminding his audience that his remit was not to offer solutions but to examine the evidence for the ISG's conclusions. He also reminded them that it was his group who brought up sharp the government scientists exploring for three long and expensive years, the possibility of BSE in sheep - by examining cattle brains.

And from the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM) comes the following:
The recent statement by the chief scientist Sir David King that badgers will have to be culled in order to control bovine tuberculosis is a welcome breath of scientific fresh air and common sense to be contrasted with the politically compromised recommendations of the so called Independent Scientific Group earlier this year.
They also point out that as control of bTb in wildlife reservoirs has been abandoned for the last ten years, after its progressive sanitation in the previous decade, its spread has effectively been allowed to "run out of control".

VAWM's response to the ISG final report and their statement on Sir. David King's response can be read here, and the farming press comments here and here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Cutting to the chase

The media has led a hysterical chorus, aided and abetted by the Badger Trust and fuelled by John Bourne's final report - now neatly chewed up by Sir David King - that cattle-to-cattle transmission of bTb is the primary author of its spread.

Keep focussed readers.. The existing model used worldwide for eradication of Tb from cattle herds is the well proven intradermal skin test. In countries with an environment uncontaminated by other mycobacteria, it is used alone. In the UK and some other countries it has evolved as a comparison test between m. avium and M. bovis. Nevertheless, this primary OIE / EU approved test has managed in the majority of countries worldwide, to clear bTb from the cattle herds with a programme of test and slaughter.

If the chattering voices citing cattle-to-cattle transmission are correct, this would have been unachievable. The only countries having problems are those where bTb has been allowed to establish in a wildlfe reservoir, which has proved a secondary but a maintenance source of disease. And in areas where regular testing and cattle culling have exceeded predictions and failed to stem the increase in disease, by default such reservoirs have become the primary source of spread.

We explored this on several occasions with Parliamentary questions to 'Baby' Ben Bradshaw, in his days manning the Animal Health desk for his boss. And most grateful we were for his patient replies:

Parliamentary Questions. 30th January 2004 Column 540W [150492]

Mr. Bradshaw: All countries have either eradicated or have a programme to control bovine tuberculosis use one or more forms of the skin test. The government have close links with a number of countries in various stages of eradication and exchanges information and experience on the use of the tests in the context of these programmes.

The government is not aware of any country that has replaced the skin test as the primary test for bovine tuberculosis.
And on vaccination v. wildlife interface and the skin test:

Parliamentary Questions 25. March 2004 col 989W. [159061]

Mr. Bradshaw. Evidence from other countries shows that, in the absence of a significant wildlife reservoir, (of Tb ) cattle controls based on regular testing, and slaughter (of reactors), inspection at slaughterhouses, and movement restrictions (including tracing and contiguous testing), can be effective at controlling bovine Tb without vaccination."
A case of tripping over the obvious?

Monday, October 22, 2007

A long time coming

In a report released today, October 22nd, the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King paves the way for a badger cull in areas of endemic cattle Tb. The report was originally submitted to the Secretary of State, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on 30th July. The report unpicks much of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial data and many of its conclusions. It emphasises that this is not a badger 'elimination' exercise. It begins;
...I have had regard that the overiding aim is to control Tb in cattle. As badgers are a continuing source of infection in certain areas of high cattle Tb prevalence, a secondary aim is to control Tb in these badger populations. It is not to eliminate badgers; any removal of badgers must be done humanely and within conservation considerations (including the Bern Convention). Thus references to removal in this report are to reducing the number of badgers in an area rather than completely removing them from that area.
Sir David comments on the surge of new herd breakdowns, and recommends "strong action to reverse the upward trend". He sees badger removal coming parallel to current and 'future' cattle controls. Any description of 'future' ones are not expanded upon. But the ISG described them in a fair amount of detail. After stressing that removal of badgers should only take place "in those areas of the country where there is a high and persistent incidence of TB in cattle", the report concludes:
Removal of badgers is the best option available at the moment to reduce the reservoir of infection in wildlife. But in the longer term, alternative or additional means of controlling Tb in badgers such as vaccination, may become available. Research into these should continue.
The report seems to have taken on board the complete shambles achieved by the ISG in their 8 night hit-and-run visits, repeated annually if at all.
Badger removal programmes should be sustained (unless replaced or supplemented by alternative means of control)
Removal which is improperly carried out, or which is fragmented in space and time, could cause detrimental effects on the incidence of cattle TB.
With that, we would not disagree. Badger dispersal the RBCT most certainly was, and yup, it caused havoc in many a closed herd - including those of our contributors.
On badger behaviour and population density the report is rather less clear, but attributes the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial published results as 'indirect field signs' and 'an informed guess' at badger density.
Over the whole duration of the RBCT, badger density was reduced by about 70 per cent in each of the proactive trial areas (though the data are indirect field signs and this is, therefore, an informed guess) As the ISG note, removal of badgers disrupts their social structure. When a social group is disrupted, the population density is reduced, other badgers move in rapidly (possibly within days). There will be mixing within groups neighbouring the removal areas. Overall there will be net immigration into the removal areas. If removal is not sustained the badger population is likely to recover over time, although this may happen slowly.
So, ten years and over £50 million, and the ISG works on 'indirect field signs' on which they and Sir David's team thus make an 'informed guess' at data flow? Clever stuff this 'science' then? The report continues:
Dispersed infectious badgers are more likely to come into contact with uninfected susceptible badgers through fighting over mates and territory and via close general contact. Therefore they are more likely to spread TB to new areas.
And on the 'dispersal' of badgers by the ISG;
Because of the dispersal effect brought on by removal, [TB] clustering was disrupted over the course of the trial and there is evidence that the prevalence of infection in badgers in those areas increased.If removal is not sustained, there is a risk that the population of badgers could return to pre-removal levels, but with an increased prevalence of infection. It is therefore extremely important that removal is carried out effectively and be sustained.
Don't 'disperse' the problem in other words. Just what we said. But Sir David's team describe badger disruption as transient or 'temporary'. That is, it is not a continuing factor if the whole social group is removed. This gives a more stable population and reduces badger-to-badger transmission. They note that even using Bourne's hit-and-run occasional visitsthe ISG report's data, any detrimental effect on cattle outside the removal area reduced with successive removals.

And on the conclusions drawn by the ISG: they find that the "ISG statement 'That badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of cattle TB in Britain' is not supported by the RBCT data and as such it was an 'Unqualified conclusion'. They find some data is 'unsound', confidence levels for the detrimental effect on Bourne's 'edges' are 'very large'. (the levels not the diminutive Prof's edges) They criticise the time frame for resulting cattle tests after the conclusion of the trial and urge caution over interpretation of the first year results. (We would urge extreme caution over most of the results - but let that pass) And the report has concerns that the rug was prematurely pulled from the Reactive culls, and say they are unable to comment on the published results 'with confidence.'
We have concerns about the biological plausibility of the ISG's interpretation of the results and do not consider that the evidence in the ISG report should be used either to support or to rule out reactive removal strategy.
It would have helped if they'd 'reacted' at all, Sir David. Arrival would have been good, or at least more than once in three years, as would a stay longer than 8 nights.

Finally, the report concludes:
In our view, a programme for the removal of badgers could make a significant contribution to the control of cattle TB in those areas of England where there is a high and persistent incidence of TB in cattle, provided removal takes place alongside an effective programme of cattle controls.
Good as far as it goes, but if those bolt on cattle measures upon which Bourne was so insistent, are more of a problem than the disease itself ....

So finally, may we caution those VIP stakeholders on T-BAG: any challenge to these measures must bring up short introduction of any new cattle measures - which are totally unecessary anyway. Otherwise Bourne's Trojan Horse will cut a swath through the cattle herds of the west, with absolutely no reduction in cattle TB, just a reduction in cattle and bankruptcy for cattle farmers.

Farmers Weekly has the story and a link to the full report (pdf)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.....

Undisturbed since the Bronze Age, the Brownslade burial barrow in South Pembrokeshire is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Until exhumations by badgers threatened its sanctity - and its contents.
In 2001 range staff noticed human bones on the ground close to the designated area and that Badgers living in the area were disturbing the bones. Action was required to prevent further disturbance and stop the badgers reaching the protected area. The project involved arranging for licences to resettle the badgers, constructing a new sett, working with specialist ecologists to ensure that all the badgers had moved and then arranging for archaeologists to carry out excavation.

The project to protect the site, which happens to be on MOD land, from further damage by badgers, has won the MOD's annual Sanctuary Awards. The Awards are held to recognise both groups and individual efforts towards conservation of MOD land in the UK or overseas. They are run by MOD's Defence Estates. The story is covered by Defence News who comment:
At the Awards ceremony held today 17 October 2007, at London's Imperial War Museum, the Sanctuary Award and Silver Otter trophy was presented to the South Pembrokeshire Ranges Recording Advisory Group (SPRRAG) for their work in preserving the Brownslade Barrow archaeological monument at Castlemartin Range and resettling a large badger population in the area.
This is not the first time we have reported considerable damage to life and limb - both current, or, as in the case of this Bronze Age burial site and the Salisbury Plain excavations which saw ancient bones turfed out, past. Badgers dig. And they are not too fussy where, particularly if their traditional setts get a tad overcrowded. We wonder how long the burial mound at Brownslade will remain out of (badger) bounds? If the road into Dargate is any guide, the badger conservationists and the MOD will have a job next year, and the next year, and ......

Friday, October 19, 2007

Deal or no Deal?

Livestock farmers in the rapidly expanding Bluetongue areas are finding that the proscriptively draconian zones are more of a killer to their businesses than the virus itself. But that hasn't stopped farmer's leaders and lightweight, opportunist vets trying to do a package deal with government on zoning "risk based cattle trading", for bTB.

Over the last months, as we reported in our recent posting , groups of farmers have been combining their acreages, to produce an area large enough to mimimise Professor Bourne's 'edges'. We have said many times that the diminutive Prof's 'edges'- or any other part of him for that matter - are entirely his own affair. An 8 night hit-and-run attempt to cull badgers using cage traps, having first advertised to their 'protectors' exactly the map reference where they hoped to site the darn things, was never going to be easy. And this 'edge' effect was a unique result of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial.

However, farmers in the SW were determined to prove to politicians that they could work together and produce an area large enough to negate John Bourne's 'edges'.

Now, while the ISG (Independent Scientific Group) spent much time explaining how not to catch badgers in their final report, they also expanded their remit to include 'foolproof' (their words - but quite apt really - ed) cattle controls. These they told us, would reduce cattle Tb by about 15 per cent per year. Further, in evidence to the EFRA committee in June, Professor Bourne went so far as to explain that he would let farmers "kill a few badgers", if it would bring in these extra cattle measures.

So why have farmers signed up in droves to this mission, without taking on board what else the ISG had recommended - as in cattle measures? Farmers Guardian political editor Alsitair Driver has spoken to the key 'stakeholders' in the joint NFU / NBA initiative and the answer is, they haven't - or at least their representatives haven't.

This group is proposing a package 'deal' to government which supports Bourne's proposals for zoning of high risk Tb areas. Or, as they have spun the reality of that word - zoning becomes "risk based farm trading". Logically, this means that no farm within a parish on annual testing could sell live animals to a farm other than of the same status. A farm on two year testing could sell to another on a two year regime, or annual , but not to farms on 3 or 4 year testing. In the case of individual farm status the following is a possible option:

.. a "more flexible and possibly more effective" system, where individual farms would be classified according to TB risk. A high risk farm, for example, could be one that has had a breakdown within the previous two to four years . Movement of animals from high risk farms to low risk farms would be banned
.Chairman of the TB Advisory Group (T-BAG), the small group of farmers and vets advising Defra on the practical development and implementation of bTB control policies in England is Peter Jinman, a past president of the British Veterinary Association, who added:

.... there was an understanding among all parties of the need for "other measures" to be implemented beyond a badger cull "in order to move forward" in tackling bTB. There are areas to explore on what I would term risk-based trading. There may need to be some strong implementation for those who still haven't got the message and pose a risk in their activity.
"Other measures"? We thought pre-movement testing was going to solve all those problems? Yes? No? Veterinary opportunity then, but with little benefit - and at no cost - as the farmer pays. That'd be right. Shared responsibility Defra calls it. Or passing the buck?

Also consistant in playing the political game of veterinary opportunism, is British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA) senior vice-president Andy Biggs who said:
"zoning was a ‘non-starter’ as it was "too draconian". But the BCVA was pushing for a "risk-based trading system".
Can you spot any difference? We can't.

NFU TB spokesman Jan Rowe said the industry would accept new cattle controls in exchange for a badger cull - but only if they were shown to be cost-effective. As in pre MT then? At least Mr. Rowe was more realistic as to effects of any such zoning risk based trading on cattle farmers. He said:
... zoning would cause "huge cost and disruption" for the entire industry for relatively little benefit in terms of disease control. Risk-based trading, [ ] would be "akin to zoning" in counties like Gloucestershire, where he farms and where a huge proportion of farmers have had outbreaks over the past few years. "Both measures would be hugely restrictive but would not deal with the primary reservoir of bTB in the hotspot areas,"
With this in place, livestock marketing, as we know it is unworkable. Thus prices - if a buyer can be found at all - are in free fall. But is Professor Bourne right? Will such measures on cattle alone, stem the increase in bTb, or even as he promises, reverse it?
No, they will not, as we explained in our posting here.
And just to remind you, the cattle controls (which documented results showed comprehensively failed in the past) but in which Professor Bourne places so much faith include:
ZONING and risk-based cattle movements are the most eye-catching of the ISG’s cattle-based recommendations.
But there are more, including:
- More rigorous pre-movement testing (PrMT) and, in some cases, post-movement testing, following a three-four week period of isolation on the incoming farm.
- Greater use of the IFN (gamma interferon) blood test in both routine and pre- and post-movement testing. This would be controversial as some farmers feel too many uninfected animals are being removed due to already enhanced use of the sensitive IFN test.
- Shorter testing intervals – possibly down from 60 days to three-four weeks, to help alleviate the economic impact of movement restrictions. This would require changes at EU level to the licensing of the skin test, and there are fears it could increase risk of disease spread if shorter intervals meant infection was missed.
- Whole herd slaughter for chronically affected herds. Farmers say this would be unacceptable while the current table valuation system is in place.
- Surveillance should be heightened in low risk areas by more frequent testing, while annual tests should be applied to all herds in high-risk areas.

Industry leaders, on a mission, are trying to "do a deal". Been there before haven't we? In December 2005, we reported on the last industry strategy which was supposed to deliver a three pronged way forward. And what did we get? Premovement testing and tabular valuation - a consultation and a new committee. T-Bag. Once shafted, twice shy.

This time around, farmers leaders have offered on farmers' behalf, draconian zoning "risk based cattle trading" - amongst other options. And for what? One mention of huge "area licenses" and our Trevor will leap into action, citing the ISG final report, the Bern Convention and even Defra's own bio security proposals. Result? Judicial review, no badger cull, but hey, Defra will keep those cattle measures. Which is what they wanted all along. All they have to is sit tight.

Deal or no deal?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Vaccinate badgers - kill cattle.

Vaccination for bTb in badgers may be less than three years away reports Radio 4's Farming Today programme.

But before we all get excited, that is not to say they will be available for use anytime soon. We're heading for 30,000 cattle slaughtered this year as Tb reactors, so three years hence could see almost 100,000 bite the dust before Dithering Deathra get their backside into gear. Their archaic and brutal performance on the drip feed of FMD infection from clapped-out government labs, is still leading to the ritual slaughter of antigen positive animals which have recovered, but show blood antibodies - and this from a site which manufactures vaccine - but for use elsewhere.

And don't mention Bluetongue virus. Now endemic on mainland Europe with in excess of 30,000 farms affected and huge losses in sheep. A vaccine for some serotypes is available and used world wide. Not yet for BTV-8 - at least not from Merial in the UK, or Intervet on the continent. But this is like a multi-strain flu virus, with a base made and tested, just needing the appropriate strain type introduced. But what did we see from our lords and masters ? Initially complete denial that midges (this virus is midge bourne, not contagious animal to animal) could cross the channel at all. And when they did, for almost a week, Deathra adopted the ostrich position, informing the world that the resultant casualties were the result of a single 'foreign' midge, hopping several miles between meals. The only advice available to their 'clients' - as farmers as now quaintly referred to - was to 'curfew animals' inside during times of high midge intensity, and to erect 'sticky midge nets' to catch the beasties.

Defra are still hoping, as did their continental counterparts in 2006, that the winter of 2007 will be cold enough to kill off the disease-carrying midges. As livestock farmers, we live in interesting times, but we digress. Vaccination. Not for BTV but for badgers with endemic Tuberculosis.

Now, as cattle farmers we assume that Deathra (the Department of Environment, Food [from everywhere except Britain] and Rural Affairs) will insist on a similar recording and tracebility pact, to that which is obligatory for cattle.

We expect no less than:

  • A badger medicine book, giving date of treatment, batch numbers and withdrawal times.
  • The administering veterinary surgeon's / lay preacher's tester's signature.
  • A tag to show the beast has been vaccinated, is thus protected from Tb and doesn't need another dose - or does it? Is this to be a one off, or an annual affair?
  • Another tag to identify the marker vaccine of the jab.
  • A passport to track movements of these vaccinated beasts.

    And the beneficial job opportunities for this could be quite lucrative. We could see the introduction of;

  • Badger vaccination crushes.
  • A badger vaccination database- BadVac - with regular updates on the Deathra website.
  • Badger eartags. (Red for vaccination status, yellow for parish / sett of origin?)

    ... and a levy on the Badger Trust to pay for it all? Of course?

    Only kidding Trevor, only kidding.

    Vaccination for cattle won't happen, EU and trading status etc. etc., but vaccination to protect badgers that are still free of bTb, is a good idea. Bring it on.
  • Monday, October 15, 2007

    'Farmers can't work together'.

    That is the throw-away remark often lobbed in our direction, but a group of farmers in the West country are determined to prove this wrong, by offering the use of their land for licensing badger culls.

    Before any of our Badger Trust readers get too excited, this we are told, is not an 'extermination' exercise. Neither would it follow the way the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial showed us how not to go about a badger cull. As we have said many times, any cull must be targeted, and must comply with the Bern Convention - not the antics of political scientists.

    Farmers have offered their co-operation over a wide area for a licensed, targeted cull, overseen by AHO (Animal Health Offices) who would have the overall view of where hotspots were. And of course where persistant infection in herds was not being removed by slaughtering cattle, or where bought in cattle had been excluded from potential sources of the disease.

    Farmers Guardian has the story, which received extra impetus this week after Defra's Tb figures for January - August 2007, showed a leap in incidence. (Available on that link until the Sept ones are posted)

    Meurig Raymond of NFU Wales, said the latest bTB figures for this year up to August 31 highlighted the need for action. They show a "huge increase" in incidence on last year – there were 425 more new "TB incidents", an 18 percent rise, and 3,500 more cattle have been culled, 25 per cent up.

    "We could well see 30,000 cattle slaughtered in this calendar year, which would be back to the levels of 2005".

    This was predicted in 2006, after an alledged 'drop' for which the CVO blamed her vets. Have they all been retrained? The report itself, rather than the executive summary, or press release, gave a different scenario which predicted that many early NVL cases, which would have been picked up by Weybridge tuberculin antigen "would be detected at a later stage of disease" due to the use of Dutch Lelystadt.

    The (Dutch) chooks are coming home to roost.

    Sunday, October 14, 2007

    Road Brocks

    A group of badgers have built a sett under the road through a village in Dargate, Kent which has led to the local council closing it for 'elf 'n safety reasons, effectively cutting off the village.

    The Sunday Express reports that the village is under siege and that the local pub is 'out of bounds'. Local residents say that this is the fourth time that badger diggings have closed the road. "There's a lot of cost involved, but the badgers just move further along the lane".

    A spokesman for Natural England described the one-way flaps which let badgers out, but prevent them entering a sett again. "Once they realise they can't get back in they go elsewhere" he said.

    Quite. Like 10 yards further down the same road?

    Thursday, October 11, 2007

    It's 'Crunch time' - Rooker

    Speaking at a Countryside Alliance fringe meeting during the Labour Party seaside jolly Conference last week, Food and Farming Minister Jeff Rooker sent out a message to his Government that it cannot delay the decision on badgers and bovine TB any longer.

    Farmers Guardian reports Lord Rooker's typically no-nonsense comments.
    He said that virtually every farmer he had spoken to on Defra’s plans to introduce 'cost and responsibility sharing' for animal disease, had raised the issue of bTB. “What they say is: ‘You want to share the costs and responsibility but what are you prepared to share about bTb?"
    Lord Rooker was also quite clear on the dynamics of the disease:
    “I am very clear in my own mind - we have got a disease in wildlife and we have got a disease in food animals and we have got to deal with it. It is as simple as that,” he said.

    He is also keen to take action on wildlife reservoirs of the disease, mindful that the breathing down his neck over the Tb incidence in GB was our lord and master, the European Union. Lord Rooker was aware that some member states could latch on the high incidence of bTB in cattle as an excuse for banning UK exports. “We don’t want that to occur. There is a trade issue behind this,” he said. With all due respect, it's a bit late in day for the prospect of yet another trade ban to worry his Lordship. A veterinary certificate was drawn up in 2004 by the EU for just such a contingency. It is lurking in a European drawer, all ready for the Commission to instigate, as we reported here

    On the logistics of any badger cull, Lord Rooker stressed that there would be ‘no policy of eradicating badgers’, but he pointed out that now the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial had finished, government now "have the ability to issue licences". 'Government' always did have the ability to issue licenses. But in the wake of £1 million bung, it issued a moratorium on badger culling at the start of the trial, in effect tweaking of an Act of Parliament with no discussion, Statutory Instrument or any other democratic debate - but let that pass. What government took away, government can put back was his message.

    Lord Rooker agreed that if the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial showed anything at all, it was how not to cull badgers. (And how to waste £50 million of taxpayer's money??)
    "The one phrase that sticks out from the ISG report we received on badgers and bTB was that culling as done during the [Randomised Badger Culling] trials doesn’t work. OK. So we wouldn’t do culling as done during the trials. It’s obvious,” he said.

    Lord Rooker openly admitted what many farmers have long suspected – that politics has sometimes got in the way of decision-making on this issue. 'Sometimes'? Sheesh, that's rich. After what ISG chairman, John Bourne told the EFRA committee? That millions had been spent on a 'trial' which had had a political skew from its outset, and its conclusions were thus censured from day one? Lord Rooker now admits that the level of bTb as shown in sentinel tested cattle, - is out of control. But culling cattle is an expensive hiding to nowhere, if they are not the source of the disease. And with those of us who had taken the biosecure decision not to purchase animals, and still suffered prolonged breakdowns, it is especially galling. He concluded;
    "All the other issues – including foot-and-mouth and bluetongue - will be easier than bTB. It has every ingredient you could think of in terms of policy-making – politics, animal welfare disease control, food supply. It has got the lot and that is why, of course, decisions have been a bit few and far between. But the crunch time is coming we can’t avoid it much longer.”

    So far, so good. The trick is, Lord Rooker, to make sure that any policy you authorise, complies with the Bern Convention. It is no use letting 'farmers' rip into the arena of huge area licenses only to be challenged with a Judicial Review. Comply with the Bern Convention and any such challenge is unlikely to succeed.

    So 'crunch time' is coming, as Lord Rooker says.

    And to paraphrase Napoleon, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the process of making an error". But on any joint package of unworkable, ineffective cattle measures offered to government as a sop to farmer licensed badger clearance, we would say no. Once shafted , twice shy.

    Wednesday, October 10, 2007

    Gamma IFN - "Extreme Caution" is needed.

    In the final piece of John Daykin and Dr. Lewis Thomas's Opinion in Veterinary Times they offer views on the use of Gamma IFN, a blood test which allegedly finds bTb 'earlier' and more accurately that the intradermal skin test. We say ' allegedly' because in practise, this most blunt of blunt instruments, succeeds only in piling up dead cattle higher and quicker, while doing absolutely nothing about the source of their infection. Mr. Daykin and Dr. Thomas have this to say on its use:
    Despite the ISG’s protestation that gamma IFN testing will significantly improve the detection rate of reactors, we would urge extreme caution in this respect. Potentially a huge number of non-lesioned (NVL) cattle will be killed as reactors with no certainty that they would ever have presented an infectious threat to other cattle. Irish work informs that there is a seven to nine-fold increase in the likelihood of the skin test detecting gamma IFN positive animals at the next tuberculin test. However, the ISG, when asked whether they had any data to show whether or not gamma IFN positive animals would become skin test positive at a subsequent test, suggested that a large number would not. Once again, no proof for this opinion was offered, and the Irish work was not referred to. Before the gamma IFN test is rolled out into the field, it is surely imperative to know what magnitude of skin test negative/gamma IFN positive animals are likely to test positive at a subsequent skin test. If, as we believe, the problem lies in the wildlife reservoir, the removal of large numbers of NVL cattle that will inevitably result from the widespread use of the gamma IFN test will have absolutely no impact on the epidemic. But what it will do is swell the ever-increasing compensation bill enormously. Has the ISG conducted a cost-benefit analysis for their proposed package of increased cattle control measures?
    We doubt it. But more worryingly, various farmer organisations are enthusiastic - as long as Defra pay. However, that was before the zoning of much of SE England, combined with regular blood testing for Bluetongue virus, brought the livestock industry to its knees - as we described in our posting below.

    Many trials have been done with gamma IFN. Some are referred to in current research projects, but running through most is an assumption of 'early detection'. Earlier than what? Skin tests every 60 days? And?

    A herd under Tb restriction has to pass such a skin test, the internationally recognised diagnostic tool before trading restrictions are lifted anyway - despite what gamma IFN may or may not show. Work using experimentally infected calves, found that gamma showed positive results but also that the skin test found all the candidate animals as well. But more worrying is continued reference to Irish work which kept postive gamma IFN animals for several months before slaughter. When they were found to be infected, the assumption was made that the blood test had picked up evidence of infection at a 'very early stage'. What was not made clear was that these cattle were on 'an endemically infected farm', and during that wait-and-see period, were not removed from any possible further exposure from any other source. This is not 'science' it is extremely sloppy assumptions. John Daykin and Dr. Thomas conclude in rather less descriptive terms:
    Professor Bourne and his colleagues proffered a worryingly large diet of opinion and assumption in answering vital questions on epidemiology and testing which belied a failure to understand the basic field epidemiology of bTB. They also had to admit that their opinions on the poor sensitivity of the skin test, which they put at 66%, could not be backed up with any data, and appear to be seduced by a false optimism for the prospects of the gamma IFN test. We strongly caution against the widespread use of this test until far more data on its sensitivity and specificity are available. Further, we suggest that the inherent expense of this test, the logistical difficulties involved in its application and the potentially massive costs of compensation for gamma IFN positive animals should be considered before we accept the ISG’s advice on its widespread use.

    This excellent piece concludes with the gloomy prediction that "the reduction of testing intervals, the refining of skin test protocols, pre-movement testing and the use of the Gamma Interferon test will do little or nothing to stem the increasing tide of bTB".

    With that conclusion, we would agree. Cattle measures alone do not work. Others have tried, and comprehensively failed. And VLA's spoligotype maps do not support a spread of bTb across the country from cattle movements. But the addiction of 'boys' for 'new toys', and the absolute mind set against culling infectious wildlife, seems to indicate that even with highly questionable gamma IFN blood assays, which Parliamentary Questions confirmed were giving many 'false postives', even more cattle will die totally unecessarily.

    Monday, October 08, 2007

    That Elusive Reservoir ...

    ...of cattle Tb, is the subject of John Daykin and Dr. Thomas's excellent overview of the ISG final report. In the third part of extracts from their Opinion piece in the Veterinary Times, they explore the evidence for that, as presented by chairman of the ISG (Independent Scientific Group) Professor John Bourne:

    Professor Morrison and Professor Bourne presented data and opinions concerning testing procedures and a perceived persistence of infection in cattle that they could not substantiate. Professor Bourne is clearly of the opinion that in the West Country herds remain persistently infected, with undetected infection in cattle. He could not offer any proof for this opinion, and had to tacitly accept that this phenomenon could equally result from constant herd re-infection from a common wildlife source (badgers), a totally different proposition.
    This is the firmly held opinion of the bTb vets within the SVS,(now re-branded 'Animal Health') and we repeat that there is no evidence for infection being persistently maintained within cattle due to the poor sensitivity of the skin test. Every other country has successfully eradicated bTb using it. Only the presence of a wildlife reservoir, providing constant, pernicious reinfection makes it appear inadequate. But that of course, provides employment opportunities for many, as we have pointed out before. Who would turn down a predicted growth of 20 per cent annually, and a bottomless cash pit of opportunity?

    Mr. Daykin and Dr. Thomas point out in their Opinion essay, that both Professors Bourne and Morrison have stated unequivocally, "that the skin test leaves a “substantial” number of undetected infected animals, but that they could not offer any proof for this assumption". In fact the opposite scenario has been proved time after time in past 'trials' and clearances. With no action on cattle whatsoever except 60 day skin tests and removal of reactors, but combined with a cull of infected badgers as indicated by experienced Wildlife operatives - using coloured beads to track the target culprits - bTb just melted away. Often for several years.
    How is it that this same test which nearly eradicated bTB by 1985 is suddenly now being blamed for its poor sensitivity to explain the failure to control the current epidemic? The cynical would suggest that such an opinion accords with the ISG’s view that constantly refining cattle controls will bring this epidemic under control, and would also explain their enthusiasm for the gamma IFN test. This view would thus be self-serving.

    They point out that such measures as gamma IFN "will not reduce the impact of bovine TB" and stress that the "single common source of the majority of breakdowns, the wildlife reservoir in badgers (and to a much lesser extent, deer), must be tackled if we are to stand any chance of controlling this disease". And conclude "If we delay now, the battle will be lost."

    Both authors point out that although numbers of cattle proving reactors to the intradermal skin test is hugely increasing, that does not mean that the source is within the cattle herd[s], or that the test is in any way flawed:
    Whilst it is indisputable that many more cattle are now infected with bovine TB than 20 years ago, testing at 60 day intervals in infected herds removes reactors so fast that there is little likelihood that these individuals are significantly infectious and a danger to other cattle. This has been demonstrated in experimental transmission studies (8). Very few ‘open’ cases of TB are found at post-mortem, and there is a virtual absence of safe scientific evidence to demonstrate infectivity in the field from ‘closed’ cases of disease. Certainly cattle translocate the disease out of endemic areas, but rigid application of the skin test has resolved these situations in the absence of a wildlife reservoir. There is absolutely no evidence to prove that cattle to cattle transmission maintains infection within herds in endemic areas, as indicated above.

    The authors then point out the reason for bTb testing of cattle - as if those of us on the receiving end were in any doubt. This serious, debilitating, highly infectious disease is not confined to cattle or badgers. It is zoonotic. And they point out that it is "indisputable that infection is now spilling over into other wildlife (9), farmed and domestic species, and that eventually man may again be at risk from this grade 3 pathogen if a holistic approach to control is not rapidly adopted. The recent report by the Health Protection Agency of six linked cases of M.bovis in immuno-compromised men in Birmingham is a reminder that this risk is real and not imagined."

    Spillover was always going to be the lever which finally tips Defra's intransigence over this disease into some type of action. Forget cattle. They are expendable - as Trevor Lawson, media person to the Badger Trust so quaintly pointed out on a Radio 4 programme. But try explaining to Mrs. Rural-Edge-of-Suburbia why her cat has succombed to bTb, or to the mothers of children rolling in infected badger excrement on school playing fields, why they are at risk. Already spillover - not from cattle - is noted in alpacas, free range pigs, companion-type cattle and domestic pets. It will only get worse.

    Shooting the messengers - the sentinel tested cattle - is a short term fix for what is a far more serious problem lurking in GB's countryside, but one which is increasingly entering its gardens and leisure areas.