Saturday, October 25, 2008

Great Expectations

In December 2006, the Welsh Assembly established the biosecurity 'Intensive Treatment Area' across an area of approx 100 sq km. with a high incidence of bTB on the Carmarthanshire / Pembrokeshire border in West Wales.

The overall aim, it stated, was to "raise awareness, understanding and ultimately, uptake of biosecurity on farms". The ITA assessments were carried out by local vets and the exercise's scoring tool had input from the Royal Veterinary College. The collator of results and author of the paper is Dr. Gareth Enticott and the beneficiary of his research funding, Cardiff University.

Much has been made of a trite, lightweight, petty and insulting quote picked up by the press, and about which the Badger Trust's have got extremely excited. This was placed in comments on our posting below and the gist of it is that a farmer in the ITA thought he had a 'closed herd', but had purchased cattle from his sister. The examining vet thought this was hilarious; the Badger Trust use the example as an example of - not really sure, but it's certainly got them excited. And Dr. Enticott? Well it appears in his paper, while an example of a genuinely closed herd, of which we are sure he is aware, where all his tick boxes on the biosecurity scores are zilch, does not. What does that tell us about the depth of this paper? The farmer in question, must be horrified. Lampooned as a fool by his vet, the vet's employer and the agricultural press. A very smart way to encourage participation in any exercise - if we may be so bold as to suggest.

But we digress. Leaving aside the implication that if all the listed biosecurity markers are followed, somehow infectious badgers will not infect cattle on participating farms. And conversely, if markers are ignored then it is the farmers' own fault if bTB strikes his herd - especially if he has purchased cattle from his sister - the opening remarks of this statistical jumble are a classic.

"The expectation was that any improvement of on-farm biosecurity would in turn help to reduce outbreaks of bovine TB."
followed closely by the caveat:
"Testing the effectiveness of particular forms of biosecurity was not the explicit aim of the project"
Well that's the triumph of hope over experience then. Especially as the government's chief badger advisor, Dr. Chris Cheeseman of Badger Heaven Woodchester Park, has opined on at least two occasions that contributors to this site have witnessed, that keeping badgers and cattle apart is impossible. "You can't" he said. "You get rid of your cattle".

So, back to Dr. Enticott's (as yet untested) expectations. This paper (pdf) we think has its roots in the Welsh Assembly's hints that it intends linking a version of 'biosecurity' to either farm payments, or to TB compulsory purchase monies - eventually. But as was pointed out by some participants in the ITA survey, most of the points apply to factors outside their control. For example a farm will be scored highly (bad) if maize is grown by neighbours. This is contained in the section 'Local herds and Land use' - which accounts for 41 per cent of the total score. Now, how may one ask, can that affect the biosecurity of the participating farm? His cattle are not going to eat a neighbour's maize are they?

A farm accrues a bad score for biosecurity because his neighbour grows maize - because that fuels up little baby badgers into butterballs during late autumn, thus ensuring more survive their first winter. And impregnated females are at a weight to ensure their pregnancies survive. And such young females achieve better condition scores, produce more cubs, and earlier. But overall, a pretty smart way to draft a scoring system which may have financial impact on a neighbour.

And another little gem; all participating vets carried out their assessments in different ways. While some walked the farms and scored using their own eyes, others sat at the kitchen table. (Table 10) So there was no overall 'standard' trial protocol used.

We particularly like the Visitors and Protective clothing section too: in two parts, contact with cattle and provision of protective clothing. A 'No Entry' sign in badgerese and provision of footbaths and protective suits for refuseniks? "What good is wellington boot dipping", suggested one farmer, "when infected wildlife free range over my grassland"? Quite. And we note (with horror) the comment of one vet in the trial ITA, that his car and boots were often " a mess " but that he hadn't had the opportunity "to wash before he arrived." Whaaaaaaaaaaat???
I have been known to kick a vet off the farm for arriving with 'someone else's' s**t on his boots, but that is common sense. Memo to vet in question; wash down before you leave the last farm.

At the moment, these proposals are voluntary, but at the risk of repeating ourselves, we would refer readers - and of course the good Dr. Enticott - to the results of when such measures - particularly those relating to double fencing, cattle contact, purchased cattle and cattle movements, were compulsory.

We have contact with two DVMs, one of whom implemented the fierce cattle measures imposed in SW Cornwall during the early 1970s by the late William Tait. And we were grateful to receive from the Republic of Ireland, figures and detail to support their efforts to control bTB by cattle measures alone during what became known as the Downie Era. It is encouraging like pushing water uphill, to see another generation of vets and 'scientists', following lemming-like in their predecessor's footsteps.

Especially illuminating gratifying is the payment structure detailed; "Vets from seven practices took part; each practice receiving a fixed payment (based on eight hours work) to cover the time costs of participating in the trial", a point not lost on one participating vet, who commented [5.2]:
"I don't think we would be chasing the work [ biosecurity advice] if we weren't getting paid"
Did we say bTB was a beneficial crisis? You bet we did. Please note, no farmer 'giving' eight hours of his time to enable Cardiff University to garner research grants received any remuneration whatsoever. And no charge was made for the tea and biscuits.

The conclusion of many participating farmers was that while biosecurity had a place in some cattle diseases, in the context of bTB it "was a non starter". They expressed frustration with the number of cattle reactors which proved on slaughter to be NVL (no visible lesions) and culture negative. Helpfully, Dr Enticott quotes :
"The majority of the farmers interviewed did not appear to accept that if no evidence of TB was found at the point of slaughter, the animals may still have the disease"
No, no , no and no. For goodness sake. One would have thought that before poking his toe into matters epidemiological, the good Dr. would have ascertained the facts of the intradermal skin test. But one would have been wrong. If the skin test shows a response, the animal in question has had exposure to m.bovis bacteria. That is all. Exposure to something that has no place plastered across England's (or Wales's) green and pleasant land at all. This exposure in any mammal, may go on the develop into full blown disease, but it may be clobbered by the subject's own immune system and cause no problems whatsoever. Occasionally, it may 'wall up' and allow the recipiant to live a totally normal life with 'closed' lesions - until they break down when the body is under stress for another reason. But cattle 'reacting' to the skin test does not indicate clinical disease - at any stage.

While the paper started by expecting the ITA to deliver an improvement in bTB, despite the admission that its point scored recommendations had not been tested, it certainly finishes with the opinion of the author that
"Potentially, the biosecurity benefits arising from the ITA may help to reduce incidents of bTB. Repeating the ITA in other areas of Wales is likely to have similar effects, depending on current levels of bTB"

As farmers we are not unaware of 'biosecurity' measures. Indeed, over a decade ago, a couple of us took specific measures to avoid purchasing disease. And that is any cattle disease, not just bTB. For us, a closed herd was just that. Our farms were in a ring fence, isolated, with any common boundaries not shared with other cattle farmers. And unlike the Welsh ITA, the contributors to this site run their own manure spreaders and as we have said, the tick boxes of this area survey would not have gone very high with us. Public footpaths and neighbours growing corn however, being two high scoring points.

So biosecurity benefits of an ITA there may be for the Welsh farmers, but for cattle diseases such as BVD, Johnnes and IBR and possibly for the security of their SFP or TB compulsory purchase monies. Unfortunately bitter experience tells us that despite Dr. Enticott's 'great expectations' (unsupported by evidence of efficacy, he says) their effect on bTB while an infected maintenance reservoir remains in badgers, is likely to be very little.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Running for cover

As government flounder under a mountain of paper debt and bankrupt banks, discussed at length on our sister site, what of the political angles on bovine badger TB? Is there cross party consensus on control / eradication of tuberculosis, or a difference of opinion?

Her Majesty’s opposition lost a valiant and under utilised shadow, when Owen Paterson MP was moved shafted, first to shadow transport and then to the political equivalent of the gulag, Northern Ireland. It was Mr. Paterson’s searching questions on the epidemiology and disease progression / transmission of the disease through both badgers and cattle which form the basis of this site.

The present shadow for the Conservatives is Jim Paice, MP who has given an over view of his party’s policies to subscription magazine, Farm Business this week. (no link ) Agricultural policy for the Conservatives (note the ‘A’ word has returned - one Brownie point for that at least) has 5 core aims, including:

* A review of the current (non) policy on control of bovine TB, and
* A review of cost-sharing agenda. (Currently causing an impasse within industry / government negotiations due to the previous line)

In an effort to put ‘clear blue water’ between his party and government, Mr. Paice accuses Hilary Benn of “abdicating responsibility” over his government’s statutory duty of tackling bTB, a claim echoed by Lord Rooker last year when he accused his own department (Defra) of ‘having no policy, and spending £1 billion to no good effect in the last decade”. Farm Business reports:
“Defra Secretary of State, Hilary Benn recently rejected the use of a selective cull of badgers in infected areas as a means of control, telling the House of Commons that while badgers are part of the problem, a cull “might work, but then again it might not work”.
To Mr. Paice this was nothing short of an “abdication of responsibility”. Tackling bovine TB will be top of the agenda, he stated unreservedly. “We will review the government’s decision along the lines of the EFRAcom report, and find a way of working with farmers, to deliver a selective cull in heavily infected areas”.

Meanwhile in Lib-Dem circles, their spokesman Norman Baker, MP is equally committed – while in opposition – and he too proposes targetted culling to ‘square the circle’ of infection.

“It is clear that the incidence of Bovine TB is increasing rapidly in certain parts of the country, most notably the South West and South Wales, but also in Sussex. It is also clear that there is a triangular infection route, namely cattle-cattle, cattle-badger, and badger-cattle. It follows therefore that any sensible policy to deal with Bovine TB has to take account of all three transmission routes.”
VLA's painstakingly assimilated Spoligotype maps do not support the two former ‘points’ of Mr. Baker’s triangle but let that pass. The man is at least interested - he supports pre and post movement testing and continues:
“In respect of badger-cattle transmissions, I am afraid that I have concluded on the evidence I have seen that this is a route for infection and action does need to be taken to tackle this arm of the triangle as well. It is unhelpful that no test exists to determine the presence of TB in live badgers and this has undoubtedly made matters worse. The absence of any vaccine for cattle is also a serious drawback and I regularly push Ministers for more work to be done on this front. In the meantime however I am afraid I have reluctantly concluded that there is a case for the removal of badgers from infected areas, providing this is done comprehensively and of course humanely.”
In fact there is a test which may help, in the shape of PCR. It is government reluctance to use the damn thing which is the problem, both in identifying environmental sources of TB and many other animal diseases - but we digress. Mr. Baker continues:
“The Krebs trials were not carried out properly and because of that, they have indeed, in my view, made matters worse. I do think there is an argument therefore for identifying particular hotspots and removing the badger population from those hotspots. Part of the reason I have concluded that this is appropriate is that without such action TB will spread more widely, and can easily cross over into other species and ultimately into humans. “

And this is a scenario which we are seeing right now with domestic pets in the front line. They, as vets warn this week in Veterinary Times, have the potential to be up close and personal with their owners in a confined space and thus provide a short hop for the bacteria to spread.

Mr Baker also points out that tuberculosis in badgers “ is not a very pleasant experience ” and “there is now a welfare issue in allowing a disease like this to grow in the wild population.” Nah, it’s ‘natural’ say the RSPCA and Badger Trust. Badgers don’t suffer from tuberculosis.
“It is not sensible to allow farmers to shoot badgers on their land. That will not eradicate the population [whole social group ? - ed] and merely allow other badgers to fill the gap. If badgers do have to be killed, then I think it is probably more humane to gas a sett than to allow random shooting. Nor would I support the use of snares.
This is a very difficult subject, therefore I find it quite distressing to reach the conclusion that some elimination of the badger population maybe necessary, but I have done so because I feel that the animal welfare implications of not doing so are probably worse.”

Well that seems pretty solid. We can’t keep culling thousands of cattle, while leaving their source of infection coughing and spluttering its way to a ‘natural’ death, especially as the level of environmental contamination is feeding upwards beyond tested cattle sentinels and into other species.

So government response to industry talks and a damning EFRAcom report this week is illuminating to say the least. Farmers Guardian reports Benn as side lining a selective and targetted cull of infected badgers because of 'fear of extremists:
.."the likelihood that public order problems” which could ‘ jeopardise the cull and contribute to making disease worse’ he also had concerns that ‘landowners would not permit culling on their land’.

Leaving aside the fact that Defra have statutory right of entry to control zoonotic disease, is it not a an incredible statement that this administration will not take action against the acknowledged reservoir, now the maintenance reservoir of tuberculosis in this country because of the liklihood of ‘public order problems’? That is taking ‘animal rights’ to the level of eco-terrorism, as described by Bill Harper, chairman of the NBA TB committee:
“If the Government gives up on a policy because of the threat of extremists it is setting a very dangerous precedent for society at large,” said Mr Harper, who discussed the VLA 9 project in Devon with Defra Secretary Hilary Benn weeks ago.

“It is weak and it is an abdication of responsibility.”

We agree. Government capitulation to any vociferous, single focus activist group with deep lobby cash pockets and nothing whatsoever to lose from their shrill shrieks, is indeed a dangerous precedent. But if government think farmers culling 40,000 cattle a year, a ban on EU exports and £ billions wasted is a push over, just wait until they have to explain this non-policy to the devastated and angry owners of pets infected with tuberculosis from a ‘non-bovine’ source. That really will see ministers running for cover - if only from litigation lawyers.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Wales starts the countdown

October 1st. saw the start of the Principality's plan to eradicate bovine badger TB from its 13,835 registered cattle herds. The three point strategy kicked off this week with a sweep of cattle testing through the entire country.
A one-off test for bovine TB of all cattle herds in Wales began on October 1. An additional 3,500 herds will be tested over the next 15 months, concluding on December 31 2009.
Wales has seen a surge of outbreaks, particularly in the South and West of the region, where 14 per cent of herds were under restriction due to 'a TB incident' during the first six months of the year.
Defra stats show 1307 herds were tied up with movement restrictions, 60 day testing and slaughter in the 6 month period up until June 30th 2008, compared with 1500 during the whole of 2007.

The timetable for Wales begins with annual cattle testing and includes
compulsory purchase adjustments. A 'tightening up' - as in reduction? - is intended to:
"bring them more into line with market prices"

and an assessed 'risk management' package has been bolted on:
the aim being to link them to good biosecurity and animal husbandry on farms in order to encourage farmers to fulfil their responsibilities.
We calculated at the outset of this plan, that little 'new' money was available for this project, so tabular valuations were on the cards to pay for the extra testing, the setting up of stakeholder groups and finally - maybe, just maybe - a pilot badger cull. As to the latter, Farmers Guardian reports:
As far as the “intensive action pilot area” was concerned, various technical experts had been commissioned with a view to authorising a badger cull in one area of Wales on the basis that certain conditions were met.This information is being collated and reviewed, and includes ecological reviews, epidemiological assessments, and ethical and practical considerations as well as the relevant legal requirements,” said the Minister “It is anticipated we will be in a position to make a decision on this in the New Year.”
England's farmers, through their respective organisations, offered pre movement testing and tabular valuations in 2006, as part of a three part 'package'. For their part, Defra delivered a 'consultation' on badger culling, and Hilary Benn still refuses to operate the law of the land, hiding behind his as yet unchallenged moratorium and quoting Bourne's final report on the RBCT badger dispersal trial. He seems completely oblivious to more recent work, by members if the ISG team ( but not including its chairman) using the same ten cull areas (not referred to by the chairman) and the same data stream collector(but not written up by the chairman).
This work, if we may remind you, allowed for cattle testing to catch up with the effects of the RBCT's 8 night hit-and-run visits with cage traps. And from the summary of their results we saw:
The estimated effects on cattle TB of culling badgers within the cull areas during the trial increased over the time frame from a modest 3.6 percent in its first year, to 31.8 percent from the 4th to final year. But two years later that effect had increased to 60.8 per cent.

Conversley the 'edge' effect, (unique to the ISG 8 night cage trap fiasco), caused 43.9 percent increase in breakdowns up to 2 km outside the triplet zone in the first year of culling, falling to 17.3 percent in the 4th - final year's scrape up.
But within two years, that negative effect had somersualted to a (minus) -30.1 percent incidence outside the proactive zones.

A 60 per cent reduction in cattle TB would be good (100 per cent would be better). And it would reduce pro rata the TB budget by a similar amount, one may assume? thus saving taxpayers some £600,000 annually.

We note that the Welsh Assembly has moved on two parts of their TB eradication 'package', but are still discussing the third.