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.

    Culling Efficiency - or not?

    Following on from our overview of the opinion piece in Veterinary Times, John Daykin, BVSc, MRCVS and Dr. Lewis Thomas, MA, VetMB, PhD, FRCPath, MRCVS continue to unpick the final report of the ISG. In this posting, they examine the efficiency of the cage trapping in the RBCT,Badger Dispersal Trial which was undertaken for 8 nights only, annually - if you were lucky.

    Trapping efficiency was a point laboured by Professor, Sir John Krebs in his original methodology but tweaked by the ISG to deliver the appropriate answer from their ministerial skew. Mr. Daykin and Dr. Thomas describe the data produced by the ISG on culling efficiency as "grossly inconsistent and therefore open to question".
    The negative effects of inefficient culling are central to this whole debate. In his introduction, Professor Bourne maintained that culling efficiency in proactive triplets was 70%. Professor John McInerney later inflated this to 80% in his presentation. How can these “opinions” from ISG members be substantiated in the face of previously published culling efficiency data? DEFRA statistics reported a culling efficiency of between 20% and 60% across the triplets (2). This has been recently revised to between 71% and 85% in 7 triplets, and between 35% and 46% in the three other triplets, removing between 32 and 77% of badgers overall (3). It is unclear exactly what practical significance the 30% non-consent land had on the actual badger population reduction in the proactive triplets and the influence that this had on disease dynamics. Hansard recorded in 2003 that 57% of traps had been interfered with, and 12% stolen (4). Paul Caruana of the DEFRA Wildlife Unit, which carried out the trapping in the RBCTs, expanded on these flaws in the culling methodology in his evidence to the EFRA Select Committee in 2006 (5). Mr Caruana’s criticisms, which Professor Bourne has dismissed in a most unscientific manner, focussed on trapping in winter when badger activity is minimal, and poor siting of traps which were subject to constant sabotage in the first four years of the Trials. The ISG’s own data show that 15 out of the first 30 triplet culls took place from November to January (6). This only reinforces our opinion that culling rates in the RBCTs were too low and too inconsistent to produce meaningful data.

    These eight night, hit-and-run, very infrequent visits were such a disaster for the farmers concerned, that it is amazing that any reduction in bTb was seen in the cattle at all. But even this total shambles delivered a 50 percent reduction in cattle Tb in the centre of the proactive zones. The authors continue their critical analysis:
    Rosie Woodroffe contended that there was a 70% reduction in badger activity in the proactive triplets by the end of the RBCTs and that this correlated directly with a similar reduction in the population density. Repeated trap-culling makes badgers trap shy and disperses them. A reduction in activity cannot be construed as proof of a high culling rate. She also reported that the number of badgers trapped reduced at successive culls, a fact not confirmed by the data published in Nature (6) which shows that in only one triplet did badger capture reduce consistently over all successive culls. This suggests that either trapping failed to take out a sufficient percentage of badgers to reduce the population effectively, or that the immigration of badgers into triplets following a cull was significant (or of course, both). Either way, the data are inconsistent, and this supports our view that culling was grossly inefficient. We suggest that Professor Woodroffe’s conclusions are unsafe...

    And on the Reactive areas, the data from which the authors describe as "even less safe":
    These data show that in 7 of the 10 reactive culling triplets, culling took place over an average of only 10 months before this part of the trial was halted. In only three triplets (A, B and C) did culling take place over a number of years, 13 cull years in total. In these three Reactive triplets, a total of 800 badgers were removed over 300 sq. kms. in this time frame, equivalent to only 2.67 badgers per sq. km. over 13 cull years. The poverty of these data needs no further comment..

    What the data does not show of course is how quickly any 'reactive' response was, and for how long it continued.

    From bitter experience, the answer which eluded the ISG, who slickly refer to all data from the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial in 'triplet years', is 'too slowly', 'too short' and then 'not at all'.

    60 per cent bTb 'reservoir' in cattle?

    The 290 pages produced by the ISG as its Final Report of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial concluded, after a torurous passage through a 'simple mathematical model', with 'assumed' data weighted 2:1 towards cattle influence, that 40 per cent of the spread of bTb was down to badgers. And thus, 60 per cent must be due to cattle?

    In a long piece from which we quote the first section below, John Daykin and Dr. Lewis Thomas, explained in the Veterinary Times last week, why they believe that this 'simple mathematical conclusion' voiced by the ISG chairman, is quite wrong.

    "In his conclusions, the Chairman, Professor Bourne, ventured the opinion that a maximum of 40% of cattle breakdowns could be ascribed to badger transmission. Therefore, by his own admission, he thinks that 60% of breakdowns are due to cattle to cattle transmission . This is not predicated on any scientific data in the public realm, and can only be based on assumption and opinion. We challenge this view in the strongest possible terms and point out that SVS and LVI opinion is quite to the contrary. Indeed, as long ago as 1995, the then CVO reported that his staff attributed about 90% of breakdowns to an ultimate badger source (1). We suggest that this opinion 12 years ago was based on rather sounder data than Professor Bourne’s current view. Veterinary Officers of the SVS and cattle practitioners believe that the vast majority of cattle breakdowns in endemic areas originate from badger contact, and these form the bulk of all new breakdowns."
    It may be timely to point out here that the diminutive Prof. went into this ten year prevarication exercise clutching the express instruction that a badger, he may not target. Thus any conclusion it arrived at was bound to be somewhat slanted. The RBCT conclusion does what it says on the tin - or in this case, on Professor Bourne's Ministerial recipe sheet.

    Neverless, ten long years (and £50 million later) Mr. Daykin and Dr. Thomas point out paragraph 56 of the 1985 Dunnet Report:

    “The evidence is unchallengeable that badgers can be infected
    by M.bovis and can become infectious…………We believe
    that it is not necessary, and indeed would be a waste of
    resources, to seek further confirmation for the transmission
    of tuberculosis from badgers to cattle”

    Why, then , more than two decades later, have we just spent nearly £50m on a flawed project that a government report clearly advised against all those years ago? [ .. ] Clearly other factors are involved in our failure to control the current epidemic.

    This is most certainly true. But the authors may not, we venture to suggest, have realised the extent of the ministerial input into the dynamics of this expensive jolly - input which Professor Bourne was proud to trumpet to the EFRAcom, as seen in our post (link above).
    Mr. Daykin, and Dr.Thomas continue:
    No evidence was presented to convince us that the RBCTs have provided a sound scientific basis for the control of bTB. Indeed, quite the opposite, in that we are now even more convinced of the basic flaws evident throughout the protocols that have guided these Trials.
    They point out the increase in bTb through the cattle herds (some of which would have been like the authors of this site, - closed to cattle contact and on regular testing for many years) during the course of the ISG’s stewardship of the bTB epidemic. But cattle slaughtered as reactors, inconclusive reactors and dangerous contacts have increased from 6191 in 1998 to 30672 in 2005, and new herd breakdowns have increased from 1518 to 3512 over this period (3.93% of all herds), despite the ever more rigorous application of cattle controls. 6.54% of all herds were under TB2 restrictions at some time during 2006.

    Which is 6.53 percent more than OIE Tb free trading status permits.

    (Ed- As this Opinion piece is so packed with information, and thus a tad long, to do it justice, we will split it up into separate postings. More on the 'trial' culling efficiency and gamma IFN to follow.....)

    Thursday, October 04, 2007

    West meets East. Zones.

    In his final report of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, Professor Bourne gave a list of 'must haves' to Government. Although these included absolutely no badger culling "in the way in which the trial was conducted" (a point with which we would not argue) the cattle measures which were predicted to solve the bTb problem were given a wide airing.

    We have of course pointed out that others before John Bourne had, with equal certainty, attempted this avenue of control, but as their target was not the primary host of the disease,they failed to make a dent in the cattle casualty figures.

    This has not prevented the ISG from proposing ever more stringent cattle controls for all areas on annual and two year testing. We explored Bourne's proposals in our posting here And alongside more testing and whole herd slaughter (applied with rigour, the man said), Professor Bourne proposed 'zoning' areas with high incidence of bTb, an exercise on which the CVO is said to be 'very keen'.

    * Strict animal movement control (zoning) of animals from high risk areas into low risk, and even between farms of the same status within a zone.(10.64)

    * Severe animal movement controls and only licensed to farms of the same status(10.71)
    Crouching down behind disinfectant barriers, it occurred to us, that Defra are having a slight problem with their zones. At the time of scribbling these thoughts, we have 4 outbreaks of BTV (bluetongue virus) - a nasty little number which kills about 40 per cent of sheep that it infects. Not that sheep need much excuse to roll over and turn up their toes, but let that pass.

    It is 'quieter' in cattle, but is also notifiable and its presence invokes OIE trading restrictions and 'zoning'. That no one has informed the midge carrying his lethal load of this, is beside the point. He bites (and infects)the animal, has his breakfast and continues on his way to his next meal. Defra are doing a 'King Canute' at present, arguing that BTV affecting 3 farms, some 50 miles apart is 'not an outbreak'.

    Their hope is that this is the work of a single, long distance 'foreign' midge, which will be exterminated by a sudden frost. More likely is that the insect will bury itself in the warm fleece of its after dinner armchair, not commit insect hari kari by exposing itself to low temperatures and appear alive and kicking in the spring.

    The appearance of BTV has ensured that GB now has an exclusion zone out of which which no cattle, sheep or other ruminants may move, stretching 150km inland from Suffolk to the borders of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire in the East Midlands.

    Before this latest bombshell, farmers were already experiencing considerable problems with the fallout from, err- Pirbright's fallout. Defra's flagship Institute of Animal Health, shared a site (and a communal drain) with Merial, a laboratory facility producing FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease) vaccine. They managed to have a squabble over the maintenance of the drain and the biosecurity of builders working on the site. That, coupled with a slow drip feed of available funding plus a 20 per cent reduction in cash during cuts to Pirbright IAH in 2005, has conspired to make the liklihood of the current FMD problems in Surrey a direct result of this very un-biosecure spat.

    So zoning is alive and well in Defra's armoury against disease. From West Wales to the West Midlands, Bourne recommends that to control bTB, we operate farm to farm trade only and only to farms of the same disease status. A bit like being under bTb restriction then? That means, as in the present disease outbreaks, no markets. And of course, no possibility of taking animals home if the price is bad. So how is life without livestock markets and trading of all types of cattle and sheep in GB disease 'zones' right now?

    In a word - awful. Buyers have a stranglehold and are using it with devastating results. The meat trade is making the most of their opportunities, and some cattle (and sheep) are realising about half their value before the restrictions were applied. Breeding stock are on the wrong farm, at the wrong time and that will impact on trade next year. Trading farm to farm is unsatisfactory, in that it is a 'buyer's market' for any class of breeding or store stock, and realistic values are unlikely to be achieved.

    Farmers do not enjoy having their livlihoods screwed to the floor, while midges (and badgers) and half attenuated escapees from goverments labs move around them But that is exactly what zoning means. It will finish off livestock farming as we know it, if it continues. But government want it for bTb, and have to do it for BTV and FMD, ahead of any vaccination programme.

    Any line on a map is transient. It cannot relate to a nomadic host spreading disease. Midges can't read, and neither can badgers. And Pirbright's attenuated, half-dead virus appears so quiet, that its spread is now only tracked by antibodies to its previously infectious life. This is death by 1000 cuts.

    Defra's zoning maps are a triumph. From the West are Bourne's proposed bTB standstill zones, meeting the East's BTV 'Temporary Control Areas', and in the middle the culling grounds of leafy Surrey. Anybody got a plough?