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?

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