Saturday, November 29, 2008

More on Bambi

Early in 2004, we asked the Minister of State for Agriculture what assessment she had made of the influence of wild deer in the spread of TB to cattle.
The answer given on the minister's behalf by baby-Ben Bradshaw was as follows:
In Great Britain there is very limited evidence that deer have been responsible for transmitting tuberculosis to cattle. Wild deer in GB have generally been considered a sentinel or 'spill-over' host of infection in cattle and other wildlife, rather than the cause of it. (26th. Jan 2004: [148655] Column 2W)
The answer goes to say that Defra funded a survey of wildlife in the SW of England, to estimate the prevalence of m.bovis in deer.

This week, more of those results are published, with the overview similar to that expressed in the PQ above. Deer are not a cause of tuberculosis in GB, they are victim of a maintenance host, whose name Defra dare not speak.

Two reports are released from DEFRA "that build on the evidence base on bovine TB in deer". The first is the final report from the South West England and Cotswolds Survey of Tuberculosis in Deer. The second is a related quantitative risk assessment of the risk of tuberculous transmission posed to cattle by wild deer.
"The results of the deer survey show that on Forestry Commission land in the South West Peninsula, bovine TB is present at a very low level (less than 1 per cent, except in one area where it is present at 3.8 per cent in fallow deer). In the Cotswolds, high prevalences were found in two of the three areas sampled (15.9 per cent and 8.1 per cent) particularly in fallow deer. In all areas surveyed, fallow deer were the species most likely to have the highest level of infection with M. bovis.
The key results of the second report, the quantitative risk assessment, indicate that deer are likely to pose a lower TB risk to cattle than badgers throughout most of South West England and Wales."

Quote taken from DEFRA news release.

We note that Defra stated in 2004 that deer were a 'spill-over' host of tuberculosis. Defra reiterated this week that "deer are likely to pose a lower risk to cattle than badgers throughout most of the South West England and Wales".
Deer are subject to a management strategy described by Defra thus:
"In England, the government 'intervenes' in a number of ways, but most importantly through setting legal parameters for deer management. Forest Enterprise, the government agency responsible for managing the nation's forest estate, intervenes more directly [they mean a cull to control numbers and disease within populations - ed] and is actively involved in managing deer within its forests.(PQ [158002] )"

And badgers? That elephant-in-the-room, who Defra say pose more of a threat of tuberculosis transmission to cattle than deer?
22nd March 2004: Col 510W [158715] ....M. bovis is endemic in British badgers."

What about them?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Tip of the Iceberg"

Commenting on the performance which the minister of state for (some) Animal Health, Hilary Benn gave last week when he appeared before the EFRA committee, Martin Bell who lives in North Cornwall, makes a good point regarding the numbers of domestic pets being diagnosed with bovine badger TB. His letter appeared in the Western Morning News and highlights the number of pet owners, who may be on the receiving end of badger largesse.
North Cornwall Lib-Dem MP Dan Rogerson misses the point about the small number of domestic pets that are known to have contracted bovine TB.
The official numbers may be low – but to say, as he did, that they are not enough for people to worry about is incredibly complacent.

(To be fair to Mr. Rogerson, we think it was the answer to his question (53) that Mr. Bell has picked up on, and not the question itself. Both Hilary Benn and Alick Simmonds implied all the TB infected cats had been pinching green top milk, to which Mr. Rogerson replied that other free roaming animals were known to have TB - a point with which Mr. Simmonds, somewhat reluctantly we thought, agreed.) Mr. Bell continues:
If the Health Protection Agency thinks there is minimal risk to the public why is there no reference on the HPA website to the Cornwall veterinary nurse and her dog who are believed to have contracted TB from badgers' urine on her garden lawn?
The dog has been put down and top HPA scientists are investigating the case, so why hush it up?
Reported TB cases in South West pets could be the tip of an iceberg because cats and dogs, particularly older ones, are taken to the vet coughing up bloody sputum and are humanely killed without taking X-rays of their lungs or swab tests.
This was story we covered here where we made similar points to those Mr. Bell fears. 42 cats have contracted bTB in the last 3 years, all have been identified as having the spoligotype circulating within their home area.
Our six-year-old labrador developed a coughing illness and the vets assumed he had kennel cough. His breathing became laboured, finally he was hacking up mucus and, despite being given oxygen and adrenaline, he died in a Sevenoaks surgery. To this day we don't know what illness killed him as there wasn't an autopsy.
If Hilary Benn is placing pets, their owners and children at risk of contracting TB from infected badgers because he and his officials are running scared of the Badger Trust, he needs to get his political priorities sorted out pretty damn fast.

Mr. Benn hasn't that much more time in which to prevaricate - when is the next election due??
I am a Labour Party member, but I won't hesitate to give the minister large amounts of grief if he continues to block a cull of badgers because of a bad press from people in woolly hats crawling into badger setts trying to stop TB-infected animals from being gassed.
There's a rather more influential lobby that Mr Benn needs to start worrying about. Pet owners – 30 million of us.

And this splendid broadside is signed:
Martin Bell
Port Isaac

Friday, November 07, 2008

The night after bonfire night.

The day before yesterday at 4.30p.m, the vegetarian bloke called 'Hilary', allegedly in charge of Animal Health, appeared before the EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) committee to answer their criticism of his stance on badger culling in response to outbreaks of bovine badger TB.

Auspicious though the date November 5th is for Parliament, this grilling was more like a(very) slow roast of the Minister of State. The gist of his 'eradication' policy on bTB is vaccination, vaccination and vaccination. And of course, he is delighted that the deckchairs of the Titanic have been re-arranged -albeit with slightly different bums - to accommodate his wishes in the shape of T-BAG mark 2, the TB Eradication Group. He is most grateful that the 'industry', without whom no policy can proceed at all, have indulged him.... even if their formation group is a trade off for more cattle measures. Defra will chair the group.
"We will go forward together. Share the problem. Develop a partnership using what tools we have..."
The two hour long damp squib, only interrupted by signs of life from Geoffrey Cox MP, was so laid back as to be horizontal. No fire crackers to be seen, let alone Guy Fawkes' dynamite. The Minister was reminded that the incidence of TB in cattle herds had increased phenomenally over the last years, and was forecast (by Defra ) to double every 4.5 years, leading to a predicted £1 billion spend over the next 9 years with 100,000 cattle slaughtered and 16,000 herds snarled up in movement restrictions. So?

His answers to all this was to refer to conversations between himself and John Bourne in 2007, on which he made his decision - "no culling and that such action may make things worse". He was reminded (several times) of further data data from members of the former ISG, in the shape of a 60 per cent reduction in cattle TB, and a 20 something reduction in the immediate 'edges' - the very cause of his objections in 2007 - but would not budge. "John Bourne told me .....".

Now unless the diminutive Professor had access to a time travelling tardis, Rosie Woodroffe's results to 2008, (published under Jenkins et al) a were not available in 2007. But let that pass - the Minister has. He is hell bent on vaccination. Badgers first, but with the permission of our masters the organ grinder in the EU, cattle second.

And the time frame for this? At least a decade, which to be fair has been the position for the last, errr 4 decades to our knowledge. So no urgency there then. But would it work? Benn was asked what would be the effect of vaccinating already infected populations of badgers, a question answered by Gabrielle Edwards, Defra's lady-in-charge of TB policy. She indicated, quite correctly, that vaccinating against high levels of disease would take much longer to show an effect, vaccination being ineffective in an already infected candidate. So a decade to wait for a possible vaccine, and a further decade for the tuberculosis endemic in badgers to burn itself out?

The Minister came back time and again to his real log jam, or what he perceives as a log jam. Public acceptability. And it's OK to shoot 100,000 cattle a year prematurely? Sorry, we forgot, cattle get killed anyway.

There was a blast at bio-security, on the back of Gareth Enticott's little job creation exercise in Wales, but no reminder to the Minister that our very own VLA Weybridge have sunk a reinforced concrete wall, some 15 feet (we don't 'do' metres) into the Surrey subsoil, to keep their badgers in.

So if it's to be vaccination for badgers, (about which the Badger Trust are strangely silent)- are the badgers prepared to wait a decade or more for their dose?

We are most grateful to cartoon artist Ken Wignall for permission to use his delectable cartoon, first published in Farmers Guardian, illustrating Defra's addiction to taxis.

Maybe farmers could put them (taxis) to use as well, sending thousands of badgers to Defra's London headquarters, for their annual flu TB jab. Before 2014.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

T-BAG - the successor?

The NFU has announced an industry successor to the late un-lamented T-Bag, (TB Advisory Group') whose main claim to fame was the delivery of Defra's zoning lines. As we said in that post, Defra's creation of such 'groups' to rubber stamp their proposals is well documented. And it usually works. But we digress.... In a press release issued yesterday, the NFU announces;
Following detailed discussions with Defra and the European Commission the English Cattle Industry (NFU, NBA, CLA, TFA, RABDF, LAA, AIMS) has agreed with Defra that a new Bovine TB Eradication Group should be formed. The group will be a joint Defra/industry group and its remit is set out below.

Although the exact make up of the group has still to be finalised, the group title has strung the words 'TB and eradication' into one sentence, which is one samll step towards complying with EU legislation.

We explored this in a posting here in which the European Union, which creates the majority of agricultural legislation in the UK, set out the responsibities of state governments to control, and eradicate bTB.

During the summer, a group of industry representatives visited Brussels to update the Commission on their concerns about Defra's non-policies, which have resulted in the decimation of the cattle industry and culling of cattle on 'an industrial scale' in some counties. The cost is unsustainable, the outcome totally predictable. The new group for England, has the following remit:
“A new England group on eradication of TB in cattle will be set up to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on bovine TB and its eradication. The membership of the group will include representatives from Defra’s Food and Farming Group, Animal Health, the farming industry and the veterinary profession, and it will be convened and facilitated by Defra. The group may invite other experts to contribute to its work as necessary, including other industry bodies and wider interest groups. It will also draw on the advice of the Commission’s TB Task Force, which will be invited to visit GB in early 2009."

Defra have to formulate a 'plan' of eradication for bovine badger TB and submit this to the European veterinary officials by April 2009. If you remember, Lord Rooker told EFRAcom 'Defra have no policy' in his evidence last year. But Defra must have a policy, and such a strategy must involve wildlife reservoirs, if such exist. The group statement continues:
The group will review the current TB strategy and control measures and develop a plan for reducing the incidence of bovine TB from cattle in England and moving towards eventual eradication. It will also assess options to help farmers in high incidence areas maintain viable businesses when under disease restrictions. A priority output from the work of this group will be a series of measures which can be submitted to the European Commission for approval as part of a formal eradication plan. The group may wish to make recommendations on other issues as they arise, and Defra may also choose to refer specific issues to the group.

This sounds suspiciously like more farm to farm trading, and beef finishing units, all of which cope with the fall out, while doing absolutely nothing about the source of the problem. And welcome though such measures are at the time of restrictions on a herd to trade, make no mistake, any such trade is at a substantial reduction on 'market prices'. The statement concludes:
“The group will look at the options available to address infection in cattle and to reduce the risk of transmission between cattle and between cattle and wildlife, and consider costs and benefits in making recommendations for action. It will consider options for using vaccination in cattle and badgers. It will also consider any exceptional circumstances or new scientific evidence that might arise relating to the established policy on badger culling for control of TB, recognising that the terms of this policy are currently subject to judicial review.
In carrying out this work the group will have full access to information on Defra’s TB budget and be able to make recommendations on its use within Defra’s funding ceilings. It will also be able to make recommendations for additional expenditure where these can be supported by a robust business case.

For further information contact:
Peter Kendall (NFU) – 02476 85 8678
Richard Macdonald (NFU) – 02476 85 8678
Christopher Thomas-Everard (NBA) – 07970 229526
Bill Harper (NBA) – 07831 099182
Ollie Wilson (CLA Communications Director) – 020 7460 7936
Greg Bliss (TFA National Chairman) – 0118 930 6130
Lyndon Edwards (RABDF Chairman) – 0845 4582711
Chris Dodds (LAA) – 07885731502
Alistair Sneddon (LAA) - 07973982441
Norman Bagley (AIMS) - 01609 761 547

UPDATE: There was a comment posted today which alerted us to a simple word realignment between the press release which we posted above, and the notes to editors of the parallel Defra press release. Above, the industry group frames its intentions thus:
“The group will look at the options available to address infection in cattle and to reduce the risk of transmission between cattle and between cattle and wildlife....."

And while the Defra press release has parallel wording in the body of the text, the notes to editors contain a slightly different, and rather delicious difference. We do see a difference in the interpretation, and welcome Defras' clarification. The notes of which editors should take heed state:
The work of the group will include:

* Developing a plan for reducing the incidence of bovine TB from cattle in England and moving towards eventual eradication.
* Assessing options to help farmers in high incidence areas maintain viable businesses when under disease restrictions.

** Looking at the options available to address infection in cattle and to reduce the risk of transmission between cattle and between wildlife and cattle, and consider costs and benefits in making recommendations for action.

* Considering options for using vaccination in cattle and badgers.
* Considering any exceptional circumstances or new scientific evidence that might arise relating to the established policy on badger culling for control of TB.

Our commentator ask "Pedantic, or an important slip of the pen difference?"

Time will tell.