Thursday, February 28, 2008

Defra must 'Spend to Save'

The main message from the EFRAcom final report was that government must not shirk its responsibility with regard to the control of bTb. They must, said chairman Michael Jack MP, 'spend to save'.
"Defra currently faces budgetary pressures. However, simply saying that more money cannot be found for spending on measures to control cattle Tb is not a solution. The measures we have recommended will require an increase in financial support from Defra. However, this is necessary if governemnt wants to avoid ever increasing expenditure forecast in future years, which could total £1 billion between now and 2013."
A VLA (Veterinary Laboratories Agency) forecast quoted in the report, suggests 9 million cattle tests may be carried out by 2010 (just two years hence) with the number of reactor animals rising to 66,000.

The ISG's final report into its ten year RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, after pumping data comprising 2 parts cattle to 1 part badger through a mathematical model, announced with great confidence that the problem could be attributed to - errr 40 per cent badgers and 60 per cent cattle. Furthermore, with more draconian cattle measures, the incidence of bTb could be reduced by 15 percent.

For those who may have missed the ISG proposals, we list them again - as does the EFRA report.

* High and low risk zones could be created and the movement of cattle from high risk to low risk areas should be prohibited. The ISG acknowledged that this would protect low risk areas, but could exacebate the incidence of disease in high risk areas.

* As a variation on the above, individual farms could be categorised as high or low risk (eg. disease free for three or four years and at low risk of a cattle breakdown) and movement controlled between the two categories. Thus, disease free farms in high risk areas (i.e Tb hotspots) would not be prevented from trading with farms in low risk areas.

* Pre-movement testing in high risk areas, or areas with a recent history of cattle TB, should involve the combined use of tuberculin skin testing and the gamma interferon test.

* Post movement testing should be introduced in some situations using both the tuberculin test and gamma interferon test.

* Additional measures such as the introduction of whole herd slaughter should be considered for multiple reactor herds in low risk areas.

* Surveillance testing in low risk areas should be more frequent than it is is now, with testing intervals at a maximum of three years, or even annually should no additional movement controls be introduced.

* Annual testing applied to all herds in high risk areas.

* In high risk areas, gamma interferon testing should be used in herds with one or two reactors and no previous history of breakdowns, in order to identify all infected cattle.

Efra's report concludes from that shopping list that "current cattle-based measures are strengthened if we are to stop the spread of cattle TB into low risk areas." They go on to recommend post movement testing to alleviate this - a point with which we agree. However it may be timely to point out (again) that cattle measures such as suggested by the ISG, although a seductively and persuasively easy solution, have been tried before and simply do not work.

Neither is the concept of cattle doing handstands around the country and spreading bTb, borne out by the painstaking data analysis carried out at VLA, of 30 years of spoligotyping m.bovis type strains from badgers and cattle.

So where exactly is Defra being advised to 'spend' taxpayer's cash? More gamma interferon. Why? Until infected badgers are culled there is no place for the blood test. When they have been culled there will be no need for the blood test. Efra's report quite rightly reminds Government of its responsibilities, while arguing for the greater use of a test with low specificity, of marginally less latency than the intradermal skin test and a disputed cut off point. "The wider use of gamma interferon testing is likely to increase the number of cattle slaughtered as previously undetected infected cattle are identified. We acknowledge that this will be challenging for the farming industry and for Defra."

Bourne promised a 15 percent reduction in cattle Tb with these measures - which included gamma interferon. With increased cattle slaughterings referred to by the Efra report, he may achieve his prediction - with a 15 percent reduction in cattle.

"Defra have no policy", said "Lord Rooker to the Efra committee in his last session of giving evidence, "and have spent £1 billion to no good effect in the last decade".

It would be most careless of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to repeat that most expensive mistake again.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Further procrastination is unsustainable..."

The influential EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) select committee has produced a report into the ISG's ten year Badger Culling Dispersal trial, and concluded that an annual cull of sentinel cattle is not working to reduce and eradicate bTb. In a report published today, they recommend "A multi-faceted approach to tackling cattle Tb", which includes culling badgers.
"The Government's current method of controlling cattle TB, that of surveillance, testing and slaughter, is not working effectively Government must now make a decision on what its strategic objectives are. The impact of this disease has reached a stage where further procrastination is unsustainable".

Their report points out that bTB is one of the most serious animal health problems in Great Britain today, with the number of infected cattle doubling every four and a half years. Projected to 2013, this figure could reach £1 billion, and involve 66,000cattle slaughtered. The consequential growing cost of the disease to the taxpayer and to the farming industry, they say, is unsustainable. And it is a Governmental responsibility.
"A reduction in funding at the risk of the disease spiralling out of control and eventually affecting England's export market is not justified. The rapid increase in this zoonotic disease continues to warrant Government involvement and financial support with the aim of reducing incidence."
The Committee called this approach "budgeting to save" and called on Government to "show commitment to finding a way to ease the grip" which bTb had on the cattle industry. They are very much aware of the stress and misery caused to farmers by a herd breakdown, and subsequent movement restrictions and inability to trade.
In "hot spot" areas where the prevalence of the disease is highest, the farming industry has reached a breaking point as the disruption to business in both human and economic terms has become unacceptable. The final straw for many farmers has proved to be the introduction of a new system of valuations for their slaughtered cattle which has proved inequitable in many cases.

The committee recommend that Governemnt overhaul the tabular valuation system for slaughtered cattle and other animals. They conclude that the system
"... is unfair to farmers of pedigree animals. Compulsory slaughter is a measure to protect the wider industry and society as a whole and it is iniquitable for those unfortunate enough to be hit by the disease effectively to subsidise others by receiving artificially low values for their animals."

The Committee's conclusion is that there is no simple solution that will control cattle TB. The Government must adopt a multi-faceted approach to tackling the disease, using all methods available. The Government's strategy for cattle TB should include:

• more frequent cattle testing, with more frequent and targeted combined use of the tuberculin skin test and the gamma interferon test;
• the evaluation of post-movement cattle testing;
• greater communication with farmers on the benefits of biosecurity measures;
• the deployment of badger and cattle vaccines when they become available in the future; and
• continued work on the epidemiology of the disease.

(We are delighted to see that post movement testing has made a belated entry to the toolbox, but urge caution on the gamma interferon, as its specificity - or lack of it - is well documented, not least by this committee.)
On controlling the disease within the wildlife reservoir, the committee has this to say:
The Committee recognises that under certain well-defined circumstances it is possible that [badger] culling could make a contribution towards the reduction in incidence of cattle TB in hot spot areas. However, as there is a significant risk that any patchy, disorganised or short-term culling could make matters worse, the Committee could only recommend the licensed culling of badgers under section 10 of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 if the applicants can demonstrate that culling would be carried out in accordance with the conditions agreed between the ISG and Sir David King, which indicated that there might be an overall beneficial effect. These were that culling should:

• be done competently and efficiently;
• be coordinated;
• cover as large an area as possible (265km² or more is the minimum needed to be 95% confident of an overall beneficial effect);
• be sustained for at least four years; and
• be in areas which have "hard" or "soft" boundaries where possible.

We recommend that no application for a licence should be approved by Natural England, which already has statutory responsibility for the granting of culling licences, without scrutiny to ensure that it complies with the conditions set by the ISG and Sir David King. It is important that were such a cull approved, other control measures should also be applied. Any cull must also be properly monitored by Defra. It is unlikely that such culling would be sanctionable in more than a limited number of areas. We recognise that culling alone will never provide a universal solution to the problem.

So any badger cull should be along the lines of recommendations of the ISG and Sir. David King? Both agree that badgers give Tb to cattle - and the ISG showed us how not to deal with it. But agreement? We live in interesting times.

EFRAcom refer to the 7 point Industry plan, which we covered in the posting below, which calls for an organised licensed cull by farmers, or their contractors. The NFU believe it would fulfil the conditions agreed by the ISG and Sir David King.
If the NFU is able to meet the licensing requirements laid down by Defra, can satisfy Natural England both that it would conduct any cull in accordance with its animal welfare requirements and would satisfy the conditions agreed by the ISG and Sir David King, we accept that a licence for such a cull could be granted.

Commenting on the report, the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee the Rt Hon Michael Jack MP, said:

"This is a complex issue and there is no simple solution. But I am pleased that the Report represents the unanimous view of the Committee."

The report of this inquiry can be found at the EFRA committee page of

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Industry 7 point plan

In the absence of any sign of such an elusive animal from Defra, the NFU has spearheaded an industry 'plan' to 'contain and eradicate' bovine tuberculosis from the wildlife and cattle herds and thus prevent its spillover into other mammalian species. It's framework covers a short but effective culling regime, followed by vaccination to protect incoming badgers, working in tandem with cattle testing and surveillance.

The Plan.

1. We are committed to doing everything possible to contain and eradicate bovine TB.

2. Industry participation in a badger culling programme can only be in the context of a genuine partnership with Government, involving their providing overt facilitation, mapping, monitoring, carcase disposal and other support.

3. In order to apply that principle in practice, we would recommend that TB Control Strategy Groups should be set up, aligned with DVM areas, involving farmers, vets, Animal Health and other stakeholders to determine overall strategy for their area, to advise on the delineation of control areas and facilitate the creation of local TB management groups.

4. Culling to be carried out by farmers and trained personnel engaged by TB management groups using all legally approved methods.

5. Culling to be authorised by licence issued by Natural England in accordance with guidelines set out by Defra on the basis of the findings of the ISG and related scientific advice. Timescale for the issue of licences should not be unreasonably protracted.

6. The industry and Government to work together to develop a “clear and protect” two stage strategy, that will move from area-based badger culling to reduce disease levels, followed, when available, by vaccination to protect re-populating badgers. This must work in parallel with appropriate cattle-based measures, based on sound economic principles and scientific evidence and advances, including consideration of the use of cattle vaccination accompanied by a reliable DIVA test on condition that export markets are not prejudiced.

7. We are committed to encouraging our respective members to co-operate in a culling strategy as outlined above, and in a programme of public information focused on the vital importance of controlling the disease.

The Statement was agreed by the NFU England and Wales, CLA, Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, Holstein UK, RICS, NFU Cymru, Tenant Farmers Association, Livestock Auctioneeers Association, National Young Farmers Clubs, National Beef Association, Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and veterinary scientist, Dr. John Gallagher. Members of the British Veterinary Association and British Cattle Veterinary Association were present and approved the statement, but formal agreement by their organisations would have to be ratified by their Councils.

The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM) also support the proposal in principle, and have offered the following statement:

" The recent seven point plan put forward to the Secretary of State, Mr. Hilary Benn by the NFU and other interested parties is to be welcomed as a realistic framework for tackling the epidemic of bovine tuberculosis that is now affecting cattle and wildlife in large areas of south west England, the west Midlands and Wales.

The detail of how the plan is implemented will of course determine its success but we believe the concept of TB Control Strategy Groups that would devolve responsibility on the ground to local TB management groups represents a workable management plan. And we entirely agree with point 2 of the plan that “Industry participation in a badger culling programme can only be in the context of a genuine partnership with Government, involving their providing overt facilitation, mapping, monitoring, carcase disposal and other support.” We assume that this would include paying for the cost of the programme.

The methods of culling are not specified under point 4 but we would urge that daytime gassing underground is potentially the most effective method since it takes advantage of the ecological behaviour of the badger. It also obviates the problem of carcass disposal. Shooting at dusk with a silenced rifle also represents an effective and humane method of culling. We caution against live trapping and snaring both on humane and practical grounds.

The “clear and protect” two stage strategy (point 6), that will involve area-based badger culling followed by vaccination to protect re-populating badgers is an ambitious and potentially complex strategy. It will clearly depend on availability of both an effective vaccine and the means of delivery. But at the very least it should serve to reassure the public that farmers and vets seek not to eradicate the badger population but rather to achieve a healthy population and to bring numbers down to sustainable levels compatible with wildlife biodiversity.

Finally we do not believe that cattle vaccination should be seriously contemplated in the seven point plan. Even supposing an effective cattle vaccine became available, vaccination in the face of the huge weight of infection in the badger population would be against all the best principles of disease control. Furthermore if cattle vaccination was undertaken at some future date the industry would then become hooked into routine vaccination of the national herd with all the difficulties that this would bring for future testing and trade."

The only word of caution we would add, is that on past experience Government are rather good at fudging decisions, especially unpalatable ones they would rather not make. And the word 'contain' is what worries us. Contain TB? How?

But just this week we have seen snuck into Defra's February 'Farming Link' pamphlet, a gem of a problem in the making. And probably the first of many.
"Farmers are reminded that cattle subject to one or two yearly TB testing must be pre-movement tested when moving to and from both grass keep and linked holdings".

PreMT for linked holdings which happen to be several counties apart we can support, but grass lets? Testing cattle in the middle of a field? And what happens if they give an adverse reaction? Stuck there? Moved under license? Short tenancy land still under restriction for - how long? A can of worms.

And with the shopping list of cattle measures proposed by Professor Bourne, there's plenty more to go at.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Veggie-Benn at the NFU conference

Addressing the NFU conference yesterday, the BBC report that Defra Minister Hillary Wedgwood-Benn announced he would make no decision on Britain's appalling Tb situation "until the EFRA Committee delivered its report".

As GB's bTB figures last year rocketed towards 8 percent of herds under movement restriction and with some areas having a quarter of their herds affected, the Minister said that he had to make his decision on "science, impact of proposed measures, practicality and public acceptibility".

On the first point, he ignored the Chief Scientist's side swipe overview-which-came-to-a-different-conclusion, and plumped for the ISG's work. You remember, the ten year 'trial', whose chairman openly boasted had been steered from the beginning knowing that there was one conclusion it was not allowed to reach?

Benn also seemed unaware of the work from Stirling University, released last week, paid for, one assumes, by his Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs? which laid the root cause of 75 per cent of outbreaks of bTb in GB at the striped paws of - badgers. Not any badger of course, but grossly and endemically infected with tuberculosis badgers - as described in Parliamentary Questions by his predecessor in the hot seat, Ben Bradshaw.

A BBC report of the speech, is headed "Farmers heckle Benn over Tb plans"

What plans? He doesn't appear to have one - apart from an annual cull of sentinel tested cattle that is. The same old chestnut of 'public acceptability" was waved, to avoid making a decision on the control of a disease that is 100 per cent a governmental responsibility. And a disease whose spillover will increasingly and inevitably impact on 'the public' who, like his predecessors he is content to use as his ministerial shield.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has been heckled by farmers after he suggested culling badgers may not be the answer to preventing TB in cattle. Mr Benn was told to "stop waffling" as he pledged to take a decision based on science, its impact and practicality".
National Farmers' Union President Peter Kendall urged Mr Benn to make the "right decision" on culling badgers and to show political leadership in explaining to the public the "absolutely devastating" effect of the disease. (Forget cattle Peter - explain about the cats, dogs, free range pigs, llamas and children - all susceptible to tuberculosis, and more 'valuable' as vote fodder) He urged Mr Benn not to adopt a "nimtoo" approach - "not in my term of office".

Mr Benn said the call would be made "on my watch", based on the science, impact of proposed measures, the practicalities and its "public acceptability". and it was the latter comment which roused his audience....

To boos from the audience he said: "Many of you don't think that's a factor governments should take into account but I have to take it into account alongside the other three tests."
The BBC comments "While cattle farmers (and the Treasury??) may support a cull, a government consultation of more than 47,000 people suggested that more than 95% of people opposed it". Aah yes. That would be the consultation in which the RSPCA was later found found by Advertising Standards Authority to have offered misleading and incorrect' information? Yup, that'd be the one. The BBC nailed its colours to the mast this week with a David Attenborough TV special on the Secret Lives of Badgers. Repeated to allow for the sunday afternoon consumption. They didn't show one dying of Tb though.
One angry farmer shouted that the government had done nothing to tackle bovine TB in 10 years, adding: "Stop waffling." Answering his heckler, Mr Benn said: "I'm not waffling. I'm going to take a decision and we're going to have to find a way forward."
And that won't involve culling the wildlife reservoir of bovine tuberculosis. The Minister then announced that he was awaiting instructions. He was:

...awaiting a report by the Environment Food and Rural Affairs select committee, due within weeks, before making a decision.
NFU Chairman, Peter Kendall said it was "disappointing" Mr Benn referred only to the ISG report rather than one by former chief scientist Sir David King, which drew different conclusions.

No doubt Mr. Benn will also be awaiting the result of his department's 'Inquiry into the Inquiry', which went to tender last month

Anytime in the next ten years will do Minister.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Another Llama farmer 'devastated'.

Bovine tuberculosis has hit a llama herd in West Wales, killing half the animals. Western Telegraph reports that Wales' second largest herd of llamas has been decimated by an outbreak of bTb.

Although cattle are routinely tested for the disease, llamas and other camelids are not. Neither are their breeders compensated for their full market value. The absence of a test meant that bovine TB was not picked up in Liz Ford's herd of 25 llama at Bower Farm before the onset of clinical symptoms. Half are now dead.

"They succumbed very quickly. They became weak and ill and developed a severe cough. If a compulsory test had been in place, the disease would have been picked up sooner and some could have been saved. It is very difficult when animals are sick, and there are no rules on how to deal with it," said Mrs. Ford.

Livestock farmers in Wales who lose animals to bovine Tb are compensated for their replacement value, and for cattle in England the infamous 'tabular system' operates - or not, depending on ones' point of view - but no such payment structure exists for llamas. And, as is the case for cattle farmers in areas of endemic Tb, insurance is not obtainable, companies only offering such umbrellas when there is minimal disease risk.

The Western Telegraph reports that Mrs. Ford has received what was termed an 'ex gratia' payment, which was equivalent to just one third of what each animal was worth. She says that the Welsh Assembly only agreed to test the herd, after she had signed a document accepting this level of payment.

Many llama farms are run as breeding enterprises, with animals sold all over the country where they become fashion - statement lawnmowers. Only when breeding stock are exported or during the sale of surplus culls into the food chain, is any form of Tb disease check carried out. In the case of exports, that involves a skin test and for meat a post mortem carcass inspection.

From comments on a previous post, we understand that llamas are notoriously difficult to skin test.

Veterinary officials from the Welsh Assembly are now testing the herd but, unlike the 60-day gap between tests in cattle, these tests will only be done every 90 days. Mrs Ford says this is too long and has caused huge management problems. The Welsh Assembly admits there is currently no legislation for testing llama for bovine TB.

We covered a similar story in November . Members of the EFRA committee left their corridors of power and visited a llama farm in Devon, whose owners were equally 'devastated' when bTb hit their farm near Crediton.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

BTEC in Australia - pest destruction Oz style

Some countries around the world have wildlife reservoirs of bTb - but how they deal with them, is very much dependent on their government's attitude to agriculture, food production and / or exports and of course public health.

Much is made of the fact that GammaIFN was developed in Australia in the mid 1980's. The implication being that the blood test was used to eradicate Tb. Not so. Australia's Tb free trading status was attained using the just the intradermal skin test - and clearing out its wildlife reservoir of disease - ahead of the licensing of GammaIFN.

Known as the "BTEC" , or Brucelosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign, the feral cattle and water buffalo thought to be maintaining disease amonst the country's herds were rounded up and destroyed. Radio transmitters were attached to the necks of what were known as 'Judas' cows, who were then set free to join up with a herd of wild cattle, marking their position.

We are assured that Richard (Lord) Attenborough was not tracking their movements - but we digress. The herds were rounded up with helicopters, then coralled and the marked cow, sent off again. And again. And again, until all the feral cattle in the area were rounded up. About 13,000 went to the meat factories in 1986. And in the absense of a wildlife resrvoir, and using just the skin test, Australia became officially bTb free. A message from Oz tells us

" After we caught all we could the paddocks were shot out from the air without fear or favour. Some stud Brahman cattle got into the wrong paddock & were shot as well .... there were no exceptions.
It worked"

With 13,000 wild buffalo and feral scrub cattle rounded up with helicopters for slaughter, this was pest destruction on a big scale.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Re-examining the situation..

In a new report, scientists from the University of Stirling have re-examined data on cattle movements - which have been the subject of some wild accusations regarding the spread of bovine Tb.

Although not backed up by spoligotype data, much was made of a couple of lightweight studies which examined cattle movement data from 2002 and 2003, immediately after Foot and Mouth restocks - data which carried a health warning for the rest of us 'Do Not Use' - and concluded cattle were responsible for spreading Tb.

If a cow has Tb when she steps onto a cattle lorry, she is unlikely to have a miraculous recovery during the journey. The question of course should be, has she been the cause of onwards transmission of bTb? And if cattle are not the cause of an outbreak of this infectious disease, what is? New work by the team at Stirling, based on 2004 data, concludes that in around 75 % - yup that's right, SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT of cases - the cause of bTb outbreaks is not cattle movements, neither local nor national.

In an abstract now published, a piece entitled:
"Estimates for local and movement-based transmission of bovine tuberculosis in British cattle" concludes that 75% of bTb outbreaks were caused by what is quaintly described as 'local effects'. A new word for badgers perhaps?

The authors point out that "Both badgers and livestock movements have been implicated in contributing to the ongoing epidemic of bovine tuberculosis (BTB) in British cattle. However, the relative contributions of these and other causes are not well quantified".

We used cattle movement data to construct an individual (premises)-based model of BTB spread within Great Britain, accounting for spread due to recorded cattle movements and other causes. Outbreak data for 2004 were best explained by a model attributing 16% of herd infections directly to cattle movements, and a further 9% unexplained, potentially including spread from unrecorded movements.

So, using 2004 data on actual bTb outbreaks and matching that to cattle movements on to the farm, both local and national (should there have been any) the team found that just 16% could be attributed to such 'On' movements, with a further 9% unexplained. They explain that the model which best matched the actual circumstances on farm assumed low levels of cattle-to-cattle transmission and continue:
The remaining 75% of infection was attributed to local effects within specific high-risk areas.

Pointing out that "Annual and biennial testing is mandatory for herds deemed at high risk of infection, as is pre-movement testing from such herds", the Stirling team confirm that
"herds identified as high risk in 2004 by our model are in broad agreement with those officially designated as such at that time".

In other words, what was actually happening on the ground, was predicted by the modeling exercise which they used.

And of these outbreaks, three quarters were attributed neither to local cattle movements nor national. But to 'local effects'. And a name they dare not speak.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Lose the paperwork

Defra's infamous table valuations alledgedly constructed to "deliver value to the taxpayer" - if not to the livestock farmer on the receiving end - have had a bizarre effect on the pedigree dairy sector during the last few weeks for cattle slaughtered as bTb reactors. If you remember these were part of a package, agreed by the industry and offered to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as a package in late 2005. The ministers very cleverly grabbed the goody bag of cattle measures - as expected - but offered merely a 'consultation' instead of the targeted measures against a wildlife reservoir, whose name they dare not speak.

Their 'valuation' figures are a mish mash of auction ring sales of various categories of stock over previous weeks, but therein lies the problem.

Prices for livestock dipped sharply in the latter part of the summer, due to restrictions of the bluetongue zones. But in the late summer, a shortage of decent quality dairy cattle, pushed up prices. Considerably. And Defra's tables are not constructed on a like for like basis - nothing so simple. Non-pedigree animals have a one month bracket of calculation, while pedigree values are tabulated from prices over the previous six months.
5 . The values in the table of categories above have been derived from sales information obtained from store markets, prime markets, rearing calf sales, breeding sales and dispersal sales in Great Britain between 18 December 2007 and 20 January 2008 for non-pedigree animals, and between 21 July 2007 and 20 January 2008 for pedigree animals.

The system is clanking through with only calved dairy animals showing this disparity of £70 / head for February 'valuations'- but prices in January were more pronounced at over £200 differential.

Defra insist that to be classed as 'pedigree', an animal has to have all its paperwork which show its parentage and ownership details. But this tilt in values has meant much of this may should have been 'lost' over the past weeks.