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.


Anonymous said...

Some farmers should certainly be "Running for cover"


The difficulty of changing farming biosecurity cultures was connected to ITA vets assessments of farm
biosecurity as being already “low” and in some cases “appalling”. Vets suggested that biosecurity was
a “new concept” for most farmers and whilst some farmers were extremely knowledgeable, for most
of them the concept was “totally alien”. ITA vets suggested that there was a gap between farmers’
accounts of their biosecurity and their actual practices. This was most common in farmers’ assertions
that they have a ‘closed herd’ yet may have hired a bull. Other farmers may simply not have made the
connection between cattle movements and bovine TB. For example, one vet recalled this example:
“I did an assessment for [a farmer in the ITA] yesterday…and we discussed “closed herd,
open herd” and he said “I suppose I’m a closed herd in one respect that I only buy in animals
from my sister” I said alright are you happy with the standard of the animals you buy in? He
said “Yeah, Yeah” and I said but you’re down with TB at the moment so what’s the situation
as far as your sister’s herd is concerned? “oh, she lost 14 animals to TB a fortnight ago”…
and I’m thinking, he’s not making the connection so I said “ so obviously the animals that
you brought in could have brought TB here” and he was dumbfounded. “Do you think so?””

full report at:

Anonymous said...

Not this one.
'No bought in cattle' on BCMS's database.
No shared boundaries with cattle in neighbouring herds. (Roads, rivers or woods and all boundaries back fenced for disease security anyway)
No shared equipment.
48 cattle dead.
Spoli on the only 3 capable of culture, eactly the same as badgers caught in RBCT rare visits.

We have suggested that if farmers genuinely do have a 'closed herd', in that they do not hire bulls, or purchase cattle, that they get that info in writing from the BCMS team. It may help.

The contributors who started this site were mostly in that position, but it gave no protection at all. We hoped that that message would have got through.

Any cattle moved 'On' to any farm from a 1/2 year testing area since 2006 would have been preMT.

Matt 3
(New blogger format - still getting used to it!

Anonymous said...

I suppose the problem is one of breeding - in two senses.

Firstly, it would seem that the farmers who run this blog are a very rare breed indeed and do everything that they can to prevent disease spread - if only you could educate other farmers!

Secondly, perhaps others have concerns that it might not be 'genetically healthy' to maintain a closed (in-bred) herd.

Anonymous said...

I think anon @ 9.09 is showing his ignorance, has he never heard of that great bio security measure called artificial insemination, its been on the go for 40 to 50 years now. Makes you wonder how the farmers and vets of that era were able to get a handle on that pernicious disease called TB, few double fences round farms, very few hot wires, cattle walking on the public roads past their neighbors fields, beef calves leaving the dairy herd to be fostered to a cow and cows being taken to the local prize (but non AI) bull. All these things happened with movements only being recorded in a farm movement book which was looked at but hardly analyzed by visiting officials. Yet they were almost able to rid the country of TB.

Anonymous said...

Anon said
'Makes you wonder how the farmers and vets of that era were able to get a handle on that pernicious disease called TB'....Maybe something to do with the much lower incidence of TB at that time? And obviously they DIDN'T in fact get a handle on TB where it did exist because that lower incidence grew to a higher incidence..(in spite of killing badgers)

Also, while I'm here, perhaps one of you would answer the question as to why badgers suddenly started getting TB after being around for so many thousands of years? Maybe badgers decided to have a complete lifestyle change - unlike modern cattle and farmers of course. Because obviously it's badgers who've changed, not farming methods...Intensive farming? What's that? Must be showing my ignorance...
Also, strange how TB doesn't seem to be killing off the UK's badger population, isn't it? Funny how the incidence goes UP when they're culled, but DOWN when they're left alone, isn't it?
But of course we know from the Matthews that the badger population is in fact suffering and dying in increasing numbers while at the same time their population is exploding out of control..Now to most of us that does seem like something of a contradiction, but I'm sure the Mattews can explain it to their satisfaction.

Matthew said...

We'll try and do an amalgam of the last three comments.
We agree that Artificial Insemination (AI), revolutionised cattle breeding in this country from the mid 1950s onwards, and all the contributers to this site used it exclusively. So no 'in breeding'. Three of us use DIY so no AI technician either. We have trained to do the job ourselves. The fewer people entering farm premises, the better for bio- security..

So for the last twenty years at least, many dairy farmers have no bulls at all. Beef farmers use highly selcted AI sires on their best cows, and breed bulls for use both on their own herd and then to sell on to other breeders. (We have 5 at the moment. None can be sold)

'Bovine' TB is a very ancient bacterium, which molecular genticists think pre dated m. tuberculosis. It is likely that is and always has been, endemic in badgers,(epidemiologists' view) and when stress (population, weather, changes to ecology etc.) spikes it, it will present in tested cattle. We are seeing 'new' spoligotypes this year. But our source doubts very much the novel title 'new'. Just to date undiscovered by a scientist with a DMNA chart.

As to why badger numbers are increasing - as are TB levels - that is because the TB bacterium is established in arguably THE most successful maintenance host.

While TB generally kills its host, (though not always quickly, and often in conjunction with a secondary infection) badgers can survive for up to 8/9 years, maintain body weight and produce cubs all the while shedding TB bacterium. But while it doesn't kill them very quickly, but they are no less dangerous to cattle and other mammals while shedding.

We've learnt that they also excrete in 'waves' with different badgers within the group excreting at different times. But when the disease does overcome them, they become what is described as 'super excreters' and then their behaviour changes, as does their range of movement. They are often excluded from social groups (dispersers) and cause absolute carnage when their body fluids (urine, sputum pus) encounter tested cattle.

(We've read Gareth Enticott's report for Cardiff. Thanks for the link. Will blog it as time allows. Can only say, we were all there 12 years ago, when the mantra was 'keep a closed herd' and your cattle won't get TB. It doesn't work and Chris Cheeseman has publicly said it doesn't work.)

Anonymous said...

You are showing your ignorance. A fifties byre of milk cows all sharing the same air, no controlled air movement an ideal environment for spreading an airborne disease. Compare that with a modern well designed building, air flowing through the shed using the chimney effect, it doesn't matter whether its for 100 or 500 cows the science remains the same and the cows are healthier for it.

With regard to when did badgers get TB, it is perhaps an accident of history that this TB was first found in cattle, if the scientists of the time had looked at badgers first we might have had meles TB not bovine!

Matthew said...

Molecular geneticists Brosch et al, described ancestral evolutiuon lines within the 'tuberculosis' complex in 2002.
They also described the multi host species of the 'm.bovis lineage', thus "Human beings in Africa, seals in Argentina, voles in the Orkney Isles, goats in Spain and badgers in the UK.

No mention of cattle.

For this reasion (they postulate) "it is difficult to imagine the spread of the RD9 deleted bacterium [m.bovis complex] could have appeared within the 15 - 20,000 of the speciation of the m.tuberculosis complex".

In other words, the tuberculosis complex know as 'bovis' is more closely related to the ancestral tuberculosis bacterium which predates the more modern 'human TB'. It has successfully lodged in many species, and in the UK - badgers. But no mention of cattle whatsoever. Which is as misleading as it is unfortunate - for both cattle and badgers. And its eradication, which appears to involve the overspill, but not the source.