Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Welsh announce a badger cull

As English farmers are being invited to diversify into wild animal veterinary practice, and vaccinate badgers endemically infected with tuberculosis, with a vaccine for, errr, tuberculosis, the Wesh Assembly has announced a cull of infected badgers.

Last year the Minister announced her intention to implement a comprehensive, practical and proportionate programme of action in order to tackle the disease. Since that statement, the number of cattle slaughtered due to TB has continued to increase. In 2008 over 12,000 cattle were slaughtered in Wales: 52 per cent more than in 2007, with associated rises in costs. The Welsh Assembly Government believes that this acceleration in incidence is unacceptable and unsustainable.

Speaking at the National Assembly for Wales the Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones said,
“There have been attempts over many years to control this disease and they have failed. Each member state is however obliged under an EU Directive to develop an eradication programme in order to “accelerate, intensify or carry through” the eradication of the disease.
After describing a programme to test every herd in Wales and its progress, she continued:
“There is no point, however, tackling one source of infection only to ignore another. This only allows the infection to return. I want to see a Welsh livestock and Welsh wildlife co-existing in a disease free environment.”
Don't we all?

The cull area described by the Welsh Assembly, is likely to be in the Pembroke area, which has already seen cattle carnage on a vast scale, after years of a steady, pernicious and expenisive drip feed of recycled 'environmental' infection.

As the minister says,
" There is no point in tackling one source of infection, only to ignore the other."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Waiting in line...

We are grateful to cartoonist Ken Wignall for permission to reproduce his work, first published in Farmers Guardian 21st March. Succinct and hugely entertaining, the cartoon of badgers waiting in line at a Defra TB Vaccination Centre had us in stitches. The whole idea of vaccinating wild badgers, endemically infected with tuberculosis with a tuberculosis vaccine, has us in stitches, but let that pass.

The guy with the needle wouldn't be our Trevor, would it? Or are the Badger Trust not involved in this charade? And the redhead with the clip file? Our former Minister of (some) Animal Health, Margaret Beckett, no less. Obviously totting up potential votes that this little time waster may glean for the next election.

We are not against vaccination per se. But in this case, with this vaccine (BCG), to be used in half a dozen 'trial areas' set in areas of endemic infection and administered by farmers 'trained' to capture and jab badgers? Sheeesh.
A scientific colleague with vast epidemiological experience commented on the announcement:
"The best that can be hoped for from the latest announcement by DEFRA of their plan [for farmers] to vaccinate badgers with BCG is that will do no harm and not make matters worse. Since the likelihood of a less than reliable vaccine such as BCG being effective in the face of the massive challenge from naturally infected badgers in the field seems highly improbable.

However the cynical will observe that, like the Randomised Badger Culling Trials, it buys the Government 5 more years of prevarication (or at least until they are thrown out of office) when they can pretend they are doing something to stem this wretched disease that is out of control in large parts of the country.

The graphs on our posting below, illustrates how this Government has allowed the problem to escalate since they took office in 1997.

Defra scientists have been fiddling with BCG jabs for decades. It is a very uncertain vaccine, with, we understand, efficacy of around 75 per cent (range 10 - 85) and that when used on an uninfected candidate. Wild badgers are to be cage trapped, and remembering - how could we forget? - the chaos in achieving a meaningful scoop during the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, what is the level of capture and vaccination expected for this little lot? And what is the result of vaccinating a badger already infected with tuberculosis, but not necessarily shedding bacteria? Stress alone is likely to blow that status to infectious, and the result of that on surrounding cattle herds would be disastrous.

Trapping is usually done over a period of weeks to mop up trap-shy individuals; or just 8 nights if you were part of the hit-and-run visits by the RBCT. So how are badgers caught on day one to be identified and marked to avoid be jabbed twice? Or three times? Double eartags, a holding number and database? Luminous paint? Microchips? A clipped ear? Chopped tail? Rather you than me.

Polite message to the Right Honourable Hilary Benn, who thinks this is a brilliant idea. When you do one, we'll be right behind you..

Who dreamed up all this? Hilary Benn is advised not by veterinary professionals, with field experience of infectious diseases and their control but by this chap. Now forgive any lapse of memory here, but his CV mentions NASA? Wasn't it this organisation that muddled imperial measurements and metric and buggered up a space probe, costing $billions? And when the NASA modellers were ousted found other gainful employment, did not many move to the financial sector?

Our new Chief Scientific Advisor lists on his not inconsiderable CV 'The World Bank'. And is it not such financial institutions, hell bent on bonus-driven pyramid selling of unsustainable debt, repackaged to disguise its contents and modelled to appear AAA sound, that has brought the world to the brink of recession? And then that noveau religion, climate change, and its ability to hoover up cash that might otherwise appear as 'taxes' in a government balance sheet. All appear on the Professor's past achievements as does 'Global Bio Deversity Assessment'. But not one word about the control of infectious diseases, which some may think is a little odd.

So, will the badgers come to call and stand in line for their jabs? Our Chief Scientific Adviser obviously thinks that they will. Job done then.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

2008 - Another stunning achievement.

Defra figures for TB incidence in GB during 2008 were posted this week. A stunning achievement we're sure you'll agree; to take all the hard work and cost of the 1950s and 1960s eradication policies (and some follow up strategies) to clear out the disease and then turn 'science' upside down, must rank as one of the most expensive and recklessly stupid things achieved by any government. (Leaving aside their current preoccupation with the inevitable result of the pyramid selling of unserviceable debt of course)

Our graph shows cattle slaughtered from 1978 - 2008 and the various policies under which TB eradication was attempted. The final figure for 2008 by the way, is 39,973 - an increase of 42% on 2007.

A thumbnail recap on past policies, and their success / failure is also shown in VAWM's Tb Events page. Briefly, working inland from the coasts during the 1950s and 60s during what was known as the 'TB Eradication' strategy, every cattle herd was tested, and reactors slaughtered. It was assumed that cattle with walled up lesions would continue to present at slaughter, or as occasional reactors for a decade or so, by which time the country would be declared TB free.

But in a few areas, reactor numbers remained stubbornly high. Both in the SW of Cornwall, and Ireland brutal and intense cattle measures - much like the ISG has proposed - failed utterly to reduce TB incidence.

A wildlife reservoir in badgers was confirmed in the early 1970s, and only when these infected setts were removed, did TB incidence in surrounding cattle herds drop. The low point was just prior to the 'Clean ring' strategy of the early 1980s when Lord Zuckerman observed in his report of 1980:
"The basic and incontrovertible fact is that TB in badgers is now (1980) a significant second reservoir of the disease in parts of the South West, dangerous for badgers and cattle alike. Given the policy of government to suppress bovine TB the disease cannot be allowed to spread in the badger population. I cannot therefore see any reason for continuing the moratorium on the campaign to eliminate tuberculous badgers".
Despite this, gassing was stopped on welfare grounds, although it is still authorised for other varieties of animal 'miners' and cage traps were introduced. An excellent idea. All trussed up in a neat carrier, the occupant can't bite and can be shifted with ease - anywhere. A little TB takeaway.

During the 1980s, from a low of 638 cattle slaughtered and about seven years of numbers under 1000, but in the face of increasing activity by 'animal rights' protesters and the National Federation of Badger Groups, a further report was produced. This one by Professor Dunnett. Like his predecessor Lord Zuckerman, Dunnett accepted the role of badgers in the transmission of tuberculosis, however during his 'Interim Strategy', the Ministry responsible (MAFF)had its respective arms tied even more tightly. Land available to cage trappers was severely reduced from 7km down to just 1km and they were only allowed on land which reactor cattle had grazed. Setts on arable land, forestry or a neighbouring farm were out of bounds to the trappers - if not to the badgers.

The inevitable result was a steady increase in diseased badgers, and their consequent effect on TB incidence in cattle. From 782 cattle slaughtered in 1988 the number had increased to 6,083 a decade later.

And so to the Bourne conspiracy and the ISG's 'simple mathematical model' driven ten year Badger Dispersal exercise. So that 'his' cull areas could be properly evaluated, Bourne insisted on a 'no culling' policy outside them. And to placate the diminutive professor, in 1997, government bent the law of the land in the form of a moratorium on a section of the Protection of Badgers Act which deals with culling to 'prevent the spread of disease'.
"It is current policy not to issue any licenses under sub-section 10(2)a [of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992] to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis, except for animals held in captivity" Hansard 18th March 2004 [ 158605]

So replied Baby-Ben Bradshaw in answer to PQs on the subject.

So what is the result? In a word, carnage. Appalling, expensive, avoidable carnage.
From that low point (1986) just two decades ago, when 638 cattle were slaughtered and less than 100 herds under restriction, successive lobby pandering by governments has walked this country into a situation where taxpayers are forking out for an 'growth industry' worth £billions. A gravy train of misery for farmers snarled up in it, but which its beneficiaries are loathe to give up on. And the badgers? Sick,diseased and dying, having spilled the detritus of disease into several other mammals with the risk of onwards and upwards transmission into humans. But hey, the NFBG has now morphed into the Badger Trust and expanded its operations four fold. Did we say beneficial crisis? You bet.

Last year was the worst on record - and far worse than during the eradication clearances of 1950s. Defra have presided over a one sided policy which has hoovered up just short of 40,000 cattle during 2008, has snarled up 7,928 herds - and shows no sign of slowing down. Why would it? With lousy, grey, wet summers and major floods last year throughout the South West and particularly Gloucestershire, should we be at all surprised that herd breakdowns are running at 24 percent over 2007, and cattle slaughterings at up 50 percent in some areas. Herds remain snarled up in cattle restrictions but open to constant badger reinfection from an overpopulated, endemically infected and weather stressed population.

Ironically the only patches in the south west to have shown a drop in TB incidence during 2008 are the RBCT Dispersal Trial cull areas, where after a few years of struggle, the WLU actually managed to catch a few badgers. ISG data has been topped up with a report, which detailed a 60 per cent reduction in TB incidence.

* (Strangely, Defra seem loathe to show us the county figures for the West region for 2008. Perhaps they cannot believe their eyes. They should. However, the GB total and a calculator shows an extra 237 herds affected in December, and almost 2000 cattle slaughtered in the nine counties which comprise Defra's 'West' area. When they finally get around to posting December's stats instead of those for November, we'll work out the increase in each county.)

So what for the future? Our minister for (some) Animal Health, the Right Honourable Hilary Benn MP, has put all his eggs in the vaccination basket, along with £20million, with more to come. Will it work? Who knows. The earliest date that Defra reasonably expect a vaccine to be available and cleared through its regulatory hoops is 2014, which we shall call 'VE' day. (Vaccination Expected) Prior to that, a few 'pilot' areas are expected to be volunteered, where badgers endemically infected with tuberculosis, will be - err, vaccinated against tuberculosis.

But a 'trend line' on our graph of cattle casualties up to 2014 when we are told a vaccine may be available, is not a pretty sight. We won't say 'we told you so'. We would much rather have said "We are glad not to have to say 'we told you so'". The Parliamentary Questions which form the bedrock of this site predicted this insanity, the epidemiological data on the disease in badgers, so painstakingly extracted from Defra and VLA, told us and the contributers who so confidently kept to Ministry bio-garbage guidelines and found to their considerable cost that it had not the slightest effect on disease incidence, also told us.

So we are not in the least surprised.