Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A scientist says it - so it's official.

We have spoken many times including posts here and here on this site, from our own experiences of animal behaviour how routes of transmission can be overlooked by ignoring the obvious. If you scroll down, that posting has a photo of a young, pregnant dairy heifer sniffing a collie. Sniff: as in 'investigate', 'identify' and label friend or foe. That's what animals do. They use scent to identify each other and more importantly in the case of badgers, cattle and tuberculosis, they sniff other species too. And lick. And the most common scent vehicle is urine which is used to attract, repel, warn and mark territories.

It was thought that contact with the infected detritus of TB infected badgers was the main route of transmission opportunity for bTB, but research just published has shown that badgers had more and closer contact with cattle at grass, than with other badgers.
Western Morning News has a more readable version. This story also labels Defra's 'bio garbage' as 'futile'.

But having spent all this cash, and produced the seismic observation that badgers had closer and more frequent contact with cattle, and particularly high ranking 'boss' cattle, than each other, what do you suppose is the conclusion of the boffins at York University and Edinburgh SAC?

Yup, you got it - more cattle testing. So what do you do, test and shoot the dominant boss cow? And then what? Another takes its place. Yup, you shoot that too. Sheesh. Could that be applied to the hierarchy of 'scientists' we wonder? That was a rhetorical question by the way. The paper's conclusion is:
When considered alongside the heterogeneous pattern of cattle contact between farms, our results emphasise the potential benefits of more targeted cattle-bTB control regimes at both between- and within-farm levels. The current testing regimes recommended by Defra have failed to control bTB in cattle [26]. A higher frequency of bTB testing of highly connected markets and farms [17], combined with more frequent, targeted testing of dominant individuals within herds and a similarly targeted and therefore cost-effective application of any prospective cattle bTB vaccination programmes [52], [53], are likely to contribute to more effective and efficient strategies for controlling disease.

We are not sure just how more frequent than 60 day interval testing, the scientists envisage, but surely, that is missing the point?

Now we've had time to peruse this paper a little more closely, there are few gems worthy of 'quote' status - apart from the conclusion above. During the exercise, collars were attached to 13 cattle and 12 badgers (from two social groups) and data was logged if they had contact of more than 1 second;
" at an average contact initiation distance of 1.69±0.11 m and a contact termination distance of 2.74±0.12 m "
which is considerably less than the 3 - 4 m presumed by previous observations.

The results showed that a single badger (V59) had recordable contacts with 5 of the 13 cattle. Intergroup contact between the two badger social groups was recorded, mainly in September.
Six proximity data loggers (two badger loggers and four cattle loggers) recorded 103 and 32 inter-species interactions respectively (Tables 3 & 4). Overall, two Valley badgers and five cattle were implicated in inter-specific contacts, with the two badgers contacting all of the five cattle. All five cattle were in the top eight for CI rankings in cattle, with four out of the five amongst the top five.

So just two badgers recorded 103 inter species interactions? (Inter species = contact with cattle) and the authors reckon Defra should test the cattle more regularly? Mmmmm. Even though as they point out in the quote below, the badger /cattle contact was higher than between badgers or between cattle.

In multi-host disease systems, where a pathogen can infect more than one of the species present, host species may combine to form a joint host community in which a pathogen can persist, depending on the extent of inter-specific interaction [50]. In terms of direct contacts, the two hosts in our wildlife-livestock system were mainly decoupled from each other, although episodic inter-species contact rates recorded by badger loggers exceeded interaction rates between neighbouring social groups in badgers (Table 3). In populations with strong spacing patterns, such as those caused by territoriality, disease establishment and persistence may be highly dependent on comparatively more frequent inter-species transmission instead of intra-species transmission [2]. This appears to be the case for the Valley badger group in our badger-cattle system."

and finally,
Here, the daily contact frequency and duration were higher in badger-cattle interactions than Valley badger group interactions; the true difference may be even greater due to the lower power settings and hence lower sensitivity employed by the cattle loggers.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More sympathy. No change.

This week, recently appointed Minister for Waste and Recycling within Defra, Jane Kennedy MP, visited farms in North Somerset to meet farmers and vets who were directly affected by and involved with badgerTB.

She sought to reassure sceptical farmers that Defra is ‘absolutely committed’ to tackling bovine TB ...... but made it clear that Defra has no intention of following the Welsh approach of combining tighter cattle controls with a cull of badgers in the most infected areas.

Speaking to Farmers Guardian during the trip, Ms Kennedy said she wanted to hear about the impact of the disease on farm businesses and communities and ‘get a better understanding of what people on the ground believe would make a difference’.

But she acknowledged that her first task was to rebuild farmers’ confidence in Defra, which she admitted had ‘waned’ as a result of its bTB policy.
“Part of my role here is to seek to reassure farmers that we are absolutely committed to tackling this disease. It is not something we think farmers have to live with,” she said.

and added that
" when farmers see the plan we are working on with the TB Eradication Group it will rebuild their confidence in our commitment to tackling this disease.”

And that plan would be? Farmers undertaking wild animal veterinary practise, by vaccinating badgers endemically infected with tuberculosis, with errr, a vaccine for tuberculosis.
She said Defra was ‘working hard’ to bring forward alternative ways of controlling disease in badgers, primarily through an injectable vaccine that is due to be deployed next year. However, she admitted it would ‘take a number of years before we see any impact of that’.

Now far be it from us to rain on Ms. Kennedy's parade, but veterinary opinion on this idea is from two points of the spectrum. One view is that BCG is an unpredictable product and that combined with the inefficiency of cage traps would indicate that even if used as a firebreak, in areas of relatively healthy bagers, any benefit would take a long time to filter through. As in decades. And in 'firebreaks' the minister is not interested.

But in areas where the badgers are already heavily infected with tuberculosis (and these are precisely the zones in which Ms. Kennedy proposes farmers attempt to collect, cage trap, mark and jab them ) then the stress of this operation may quite quickly blow an 'infected' candidate into full blown 'infectious' status, thus making a bad situation a whole lot worse. And it can get worse than 2008's tally of 40,000 dead cattle and almost 10 percent of farms having restrictions during the year, as we showed here.

But the point is that no one really knows what will happen. Least of all the people at VLA who are steering the whole thing. Pragmatically, they collect their salaries and follow their master's voice. It is not for Defra employees to pass judgement - even on such schemes as superficially daft as this one.

The final word on the minister for Waste and Recycling's visit goes to the NFU's South West spokesman Ian Johnson, who commented that:
"Farmers were grateful the Minister was visiting the region for a second time to discuss bTB. But the reality is we are no closer to a solution and no amount of listening and sympathy can make up for that.”

Another prolonged wringing of ministerial hands then. And no change in non-policy. And inevitably, more 'waste' for which this junior minister, and her boss are entirely responsible, and for which the industry will ultimately pay.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

TB Free

Before you all get excited, this is not GB we are talking about but New Zealand.
They have a website where their graph of eradication progress is in striking contrast to ours.

Their aim they say, is by 2013, to reach the international (OIE)standard for TB free trading status.
The international standard for TB freedom is reached when 99.8% of domestic cattle and deer herds have been free of bovine TB for three years. This figure has been set by the Office Internationale Epizooties (World Organisation for Animal Health).
And to achieve this, the problem is tackled in the round.
The TB control programme in New Zealand is guided by the National Pest Management Strategy for Bovine TB (NPMS). It is managed by the Animal Health Board under the programme name "TBfree New Zealand".
The programme works on two fronts:

* Disease control - aiming to control and contain the spread of the disease within cattle and deer herds
* Vector control - aiming to control and contain the wild animal species mostly responsible for spreading the disease to cattle and deer.

Please read the last bit of that again. "Aiming to control and contain the wild animal species resposible for spreading disease to cattle and deer."

So what do we do here in the UK?

The boss was in snarl mode this morning and most eloquently described Defra's non existent 'vector control', and its counter productive result thus:
" By killing cattle who have had a slight reaction to the skin test,(IRs) Defra are destroying the natural immunity of the national herd to infection from an untouched wildlife host. And by keeping that wildlife host intact, they are providing a constant supply of fresh victims, with absolutely no natural immunity, thus perpetuating the problem."
Defra may seek to turn New Zealand's map upside down, and persuade themselves that in fact their TB incidence is heading the same way as ours. But it is not. They are within touching distance of becoming officially TB Free. And by the time they are, the numbers of cattle slaughtered in GB will have almost doubled from the 2008 pyre.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Vaccination - a farmer's reaction

An excellent overview of Benn's latest idea prevarication can be found in the Farmers Weekly this week.

Stephen Carr from East Sussex has suckler cows. A lot of suckler cows. And comments that after almost five years of continuous testing his herd, he has:
.....become the most efficient operator of a cattle crush in the UK, to the point that it feels like an extension of my arms. I can also read a cow ear-tag from 30 yards standing on my head and spot a bump, that might suggest a "positive" reactor, on a cow's neck from half a mile away. But another skill is apparently to be added to the list of my highly-developed TB farming skills. As the full extent of the bovine TB crisis that is sweeping across the UK becomes apparent DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn has announced that farmers may be trained as trappers "to handle and inject" badgers as part of a project to test a TB vaccine.

We gave our reaction to this little gem time waster, splendidly illustrated with Ken Wignall's cartoon, in our posting here. By the way, nobody has explained how trapped, vaccinated badgers are to be marked - yet.

But we digress. This is serious stuff. And Mr. Carr is very serious about his impending leap into the realms of wild animal veterinary practice. After reminding readers of the huge rise in tested, sentinel and slaughtered cattle in 2008, which shows no sign of abating in 2009 and may hit the mid 70,000 annually by 2014, he describes his new found employment camouflage gear thus:
I have already sourced my raccoon hat, suede shirt, trousers and moccasins. Not an evening goes by where I am not to be found crawling through the undergrowth and putting an expert ear to the ground.

And concludes:
Mr Benn, who, despite the science, has turned his face against a badger cull for reasons of adverse public reaction, now describes the injectable vaccine project as "a vital step in the development of an oral vaccine which will be suited for large-scale treatment". This smacks of desperate policy-making on the hoof and of a need to be be seen to be doing something to quieten farmers down..

Describing his new job description, and the veterinary clothing requirement Stephen Carr concludes
"No futile gesture is too much trouble provided it helps get a politician out of a difficulty of his own making."

We couldn't have put it better ourselves.

"Bovine TB - A Way forward."

We have spoken many times of our distress, seeing the effect of endemic tuberculosis on the badger population. A professional photographer, has also seen on his own doorstep that effect and is making a film of it.

Devon photographer, Chris Chapman whose work in 2001 so successfully highlighted the tragedy of foot and mouth, is working on a film about the present bovine TB crisis. £3000 has been already raised towards a target of £12000 - and he has begun filming. He writes,
"We are in a TB hotspot here on the edge of Dartmoor and not far from my house is a huge old badger sett which we know has very sick animals...It seems utter madness to me that this can be allowed to continue - no decent farmer would let his animals suffer in this way and yet we have legislation in place that prolongs suffering in wildlife. ...
We have good vets on board willing to speak, and a retired bacteriologist who will speak about vaccination (without being gagged!).."

From the press release:
"Bovine TB - A Way Forward will highlight the current anomaly whereby vets and farmers, under present legislation, are unable to take control of the crisis. The film will cover as many viewpoints, suggestions and arguments as is possible and will offer a positive way forward for both farmers and the public to understand the interaction between cattle and badgers and the need to identify and accommodate healthy 'green' badgers..
.... I've never been a political animal with my camera, but I do believe in highlighting the issues from the grass roots, especially when the people on the ground offer sensible solutions to a problem.
Bovine TB - A Way Forward is a not for profit film and is being made with the help of sponsorship from business, the farming industry and private individuals. Its target for the complete production will exceed £12000 and to date over £3000 has been raised..."

If you would like to contribute, and are interested in further details, please contact Chris Chapman direct on 01647 231508 or by email: for an information pack.
Chris would be grateful to receive contributions - however small - from anyone with an interest in what he is doing.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

All Fools Day ruling

Today, April 1st, the Court of Appeal ruled against the NFU's challenge to Defra's tabular valuation system, brought last year on behalf of several farmers, but headed by David Partridge.

Handing down the appeal judgment, Lord Justice Lawrence Collins admitted his colleague in the initial case had ‘delivered a comprehensive and careful judgment’ but ruled that there was no discrimination in Defra’s approach to the valuation of high value animals.
He said: “I accept the Secretary of State’s submission that the true value of any animal once it has tested positive for TB is the salvage value of its carcass.

'The salvage value of its carcass' ? Hmmm. If that is the case, tabular valuation could go lower. Much lower. One wonders whether the learned judge would have formed the same opinion had the sentinel victim of Defra's non-policy on bTB, been his own animal? Carcass value, and him powerless to prevent a repeat performance? Farmers Guardian has the story.

The NFU, which backed the case, said it was deeply disappointed at the outcome and would now be considering the next stage in the legal process.

This could involve an appeal at the House of Lords which could yet overturn the Court of Appeal’s decision. More here

Meanwhile, during March another anomaly raised its head on those infamous tables. Once again, as we reported a year ago the 'value' of a non-pedigree dairy cow, over 36 months, outstripped her pedigree herd mate by £110. April tables can be seen here and still show a £62 advantage for leaving your pride pedigree certificate in the filing cabinet.