Thursday, May 28, 2009

Back to the Drawing Board?

As our readers will have guessed by now, we are less than enthusiastic about the concept of vaccinating badgers, endemically infected with tuberculosis with - a vaccine for er, tuberculosis. Leaving aside the small niggles of designing of a badger 'crush' in which to confine them long enough to safely jab, using a vaccine which is less than efficient and then marking the candidates so they don't get needled twice, the very idea of doing this in areas where badgers are riddled with TB seems crackers. But hey, we're just farmers. Wadda we know?

We talked about the concept of badger vaccination well over a year ago, and when Defra announced its planned vaccination programme would only be in hotspot areas, we updated our comments.

Today, we were not alone. Farmers Guardian report that a Swiss-trained vet, now based in South West England, has said Defra’s plan to inject badgers was ‘guaranteed to backfire’, as there were only two ‘golden rules’ regarding vaccination – and this would break both of them.
The first rule was to ‘never, never vaccinate a stressed or weakened animal’, but trapping and manually injecting badgers would do just that, he said.

Stress compromised the immune system and the effectiveness of the vaccine, but more seriously, a weak badger would fall down the social pecking order and be forced out of the sett, increasing perturbation.

A displaced badger trying to join a sett would lead to fighting, with a high risk of TB transmission. A weakened badger with no sett would be more likely to forage in a farmyard, depositing infected excretions (saliva, urine and faeces), putting cattle at risk.

The second rule was to never vaccinate against a disease when you have ‘even the slightest suspicion’ the animal already had it.
But this is Defra we're talking about. And vaccinating endemically infected badgers against a disease which they already have, is a decision made by a career bureaucrat - our minister for (some) Animal Health, Hilary Benn, MP. Is he walking on water? We think so.

This is a very serious situation. We could only hope that this stark, staring mad daft idea did not make a bad situation even worse.

But in the opinion of Mr. Zellweger, as it was with our scientifically minded colleagues, it is likely to do precisely that.

We are grateful to Mr. Zellweger (an experienced veterinary practitioner) for further explanation of why this idea of Hilary Benn (a career politician) that vaccinating badgers already infected with tuberculosis, will add anything other than carnage to an already bad situation.

On the second 'golden rule' of any vaccination programme, that of jabbing a candidate "who you even the slightest suspician may have the diseae already", Ueli Zellweger makes the following points, specifically about tuberculosis:
If such a diseased animal is vaccinated there is a very high risk to booster or trigger the infection, making things much worse. With bTB, a generalized infection could result: for a minor focus - or tubercle as those are called - even in a so far closed form, could break up, producing a wide spread of bacteries via blood - or lymphstream to all other organs, leading to abscesses and pus and shedding of high amounts of infectious material for the whole miserable rest of its [ the badger's] life. TB is almost always a chronic disease with an “extremly slow death” ~ sometimes after years only suffering from low fever every now and then and getting weaker and weaker.

Mr. Zellweger points out that Defra plan to start their vaccination of badgers with injectible BCG in pilot areas in 2010, in six some 40 square miles big test areas where bTB is known to be already most endemic. And in spite of
technology being avaialable, he notes;
It is not planned to test badger setts before vaccination.

And by 2014, when in theory at least, this sop to perceived opinion
bright idea will be rolled out, the numbers of tested, slaughtered cattle sentinels will be approaching 75,000 annually in GB.

Spillover into other mammalian species is an unknown, but it is gathering pace.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Will they? Won't they?

As the Westminster bubble bursts in a frenzy of accusations and counter accusations concerning whether our elected representatives have raided the communal cookie jar, the question surely should be, have they given us value for our money? Actually made a difference? Have they taken part in the democratic process and debate that we assume, often quite wrongly, is the purpose of having a parliament at all?

So much of what passes for UK law, is snuck in behind closed doors, bereft of parliamentary scrutiny or debate and much relating to animal health is delivered from Europe, with our own ministers merely adding gift wrap.

The basis of this site is 500 parliamentary questions tabled by a past Shadow minister Owen Paterson MP during his tenure. His reward was a shift to the parliamentary equivalent of outer Siberia and total under-utilisation of his intelligence and energy. So what of the current shadow Minister?

Today, Nick Herbert gave the following statement which if taken at face value, appears to be 'on behalf of the Conservative party' rather than Mr. Herbert, who may or may not be in a position of honouring it after the election:
We cannot go on slaughtering tens of thousands of cattle while ignoring the reservoir of infection in wildlife.

Sick badgers are responsible for a significant number of herd breakdowns and unless there is a policy to remove them we stand little chance of eradicating this terrible disease.

Mr. Herbert restated his Party’s intention to ‘pursue a targeted cull of infected badgers as part of a broad strategy’ to tackle the problem.

Farmers Guardian has the story and comments:
The Conservatives have given their unequivocal commitment to implementing a badger cull, if they win the next General Election.

We'll see.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Farmers' TB Blog

Herefordshire beef farmer Julia Evans, is the first contributer to a new farmers' blog organised by Farmers Guardian, as part of their ongoing 'Target TB' initiative.

After an FMD restock from a single closed herd in 2001, Julia writes:
"In the spring of 2002 we had our first routine TB test. There were eight reactors. We had never had a problem with TB on the farm and the herd certainly had no history of it. I was very disappointed and have continued to be so on and off for the last seven years.

The herd has been tested every 60 days for four out of the last seven years. Reactor cattle are killed, heavily pregnant cows, newly calved or heifers destined for show or sale, but I can't get rid of the disease because some of the numerous badgers who share the pastures with the cattle are also infected with TB. Nothing has been or is being done to address this part of the problem.

I should have sold between 30 or 40 pedigree females by now. I've managed to sell three. TB has ruined, and continues to ruin, my business."

More farmers will contribute to this site over the coming weeks, telling it 'like it is' on their farms, dealing with TB, testing and movement restriction problems at grass roots level. Read Julia's introductory posting.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Badgers v. Farmers

Describing the overspill of badgerTB into other species including domestic pets, infection passed between people and their pets, the balance of payments deficit and the piling of ever more cattle into the "maw of the government's bTB killing machine", Charlie Brooks in today's Telegraph comments:
The whole situation is utterly depressing for farmers who want to produce food when they get out of bed in the morning, not fill in compensation forms for destroying their livestock. I came across one passionate farmer recently whose family had been in the business for five generations. He is thinking of giving up, because he can't bear the thought of breeding quality pedigree dairy cows simply to feed them into the maw of the Government's bTB killing machine. The future for him and many others is bleak. Official figures show that 4,443 cattle had to be slaughtered in January this year, a rise of almost a third from the same time in 2008. Who knows where we will be next year

The piece is a good thumbnail of the situation across the board, also describing the fate of the poor old badgers in this unholy mess - a consequence definitely not wanted in public view, by 'in denial' Badger Trust supporters..
Though it appears to panic the public far less than swine flu, bTB is not a disease to be taken lightly. Badgers that succumb to it suffer horrific symptoms, including internal lesions, before dying in an emaciated state.

Farmers who are desperately trying to cope with the situation could be forgiven for hoping that badgers will migrate into urban areas and infect a few more cuddly dogs and cats. Only then will any politician really attack this problem with gusto.

They are (migrating)and are being actively encouraged into urban gardens, childrens' sandpits and play areas. But politicians have their single collective brain cell on other trivia things at the moment. Joining the dots on the spread of infectious disease, is quite beyond most.

"Only a cull will save cattle producers" argues Charlie Brooks. "The badgers must go before the farmers do."

Friday, May 08, 2009

Spillover - update

Today's front page headline in the Western Morning News, reads 'Massive rise in Animal TB cases'. That is 'animal' as in species other than badgers (in which the disease is 'endemic'), and sentinel tested cattle, (which if they react to the test for exposure to the bacteria which causes TB, are shot). The paper's report is referring to other mammalian species. Spillover.
Last year, 119 non-bovine creatures contracted the disease, including 33 goats, 31 wild deer, 18 pet cats, 13 alpacas and 10 pigs. Sheep, llamas, dogs and farmed and park deer also fell victim to the strain, which has been responsible for the death of 200,000 cattle over the past 10 years.

Defra squirm out this four fold increase, saying that as badgerTB is notifiable now, they are looking for it and will find more. But doesn't that put Meat Hygiene Officers firmly in their place? Haven't they always been 'looking for it' at abattoirs? Is it not what they are paid to do with all food animals? With domestic cats and dogs - Defra possibly have a point. And as we are nothing if not fair on this site, we 'll give them the benefit of the doubt on the spillover figures 2007 over 2006. But not the increase 2008 over 2007, to which the WMN report draws attention. Prior to 2006, veterinary surgeons would probably have hesitated to suggest another £100+ on top of hefty fees, to post mortem a casualty. And the single (only?) thing former minister Baby Ben Bradshaw achieved during his tenure astride Defra's fence, was to make badgerTB notifiable in all mammalian species, with postmortems paid for by his department.

The results of this increasing environmental contamination, we have covered over the years, seeing bTB cases expand from reservoir maintenance host and its messenger, into alpacas ,cats, goats and more cats. With many more casualties along the way, including this story from Farmers Guardian on badgerTB in free range pigs.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Will the last cow standing

.. turn out the lights. Further to our posting on the recently published work from York, and the flying teddies response from the Badger Trust, we read in the Western Morning News, Anthony Gibson's take on the paper.

Mr. Gibson is a former SW director of the NFU, and now a freelance agricultural journalist. The article has many good points - until he follows the line of the scientists who did this research which showed that 'boss' cows had more contact with badgers than those further down the pecking order. In order to use this seismic (to scientists, if not to cattle farmers) snip, the scientists, and to a certain degree, Anthony, have both tried to shoehorn this to a practical herd situation.

Their thoughts were along the lines of 'identify, separate and test the boss cows more frequently', and even segregate them in a (hermetically sealed?)building.

And what then?

As we have said, in any group of animals (or people for that matter), there is a leader. And if that leader is removed, then jockeying up the scale will be another one to take its place.. And another.

The boss calls it 'cognitive dissonance'. Which means that even if a policy of shooting the messenger doesn't work, by dispassionately carrying on regardless, sooner or later the problem is solved because all the messengers are dead.

We see a certain parallel here.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Because we need a laugh ...

... we will post the Badger Trust's hissy fit press release relating to the work which we linked to below where it was shown that contact between badgers and cattle was 'much closer' than originally thought (at least by scientists).

Study finds "no evidence" that badgers give TB to cattle, says Badger Trust

The Badger Trust strongly challenges claims by the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) that "TB could be passed from badgers to cattle" through contact between cattle and badgers in the field[1].

Would we expect anything less?
In a paper in an online journal [2], researchers explain how they used data logging equipment to record what they call "contact initiation" between cattle and badgers. On publication, lead researcher Mike Hutchings claimed in a resulting SAC press release that this contact is "a potentially significant area of disease transmission between the species".

It is.
But David Williams, chairman of Badger Trust, dismissed the claims: "The idea that badgers 'initiate contact' with cattle is just ludicrous. These claims are absurd and are not even supported by the researchers' own data. Their data loggers recorded a so-called 'contact' when badgers were around two metres away from cattle.

Nope, it was less than 'around 2m'. The transponders were set at 2m to initiate a contact log. But average contact distance was much less, and as far as I know these gadgets were around the necks of the candidates, not attached to the end of their noses. Thus the distance from the transponder to the 'aerosol opportunity' changes contact distance a lot. Estimate 2 feet for a holstein cow from the transponder around her neck to the end of her nose, and about a foot for a big boar badger ? That's almost a metre less than the average 1.46 recorded. And that's more than enough to splatter particularly if the there is a badger cough or spit aerosol propellant involved.
That's hardly 'contact': the badgers could have been on the other side of a hedge. And the researchers have conspicuously failed to explain how a badger, whose nose is just a few centimetres off the ground, could transmit bovine TB to a cow that is almost two metres tall and two metres away.

Small hedges then. Ours are 3 m wide at least, including protective back fences. And cattle have their heads 2m off the ground? Always? They never graze? Lie down? Drink? Are they stuffed? By Williams, Lawson and their fellow travellers. Yes.
"Around half of all so-called 'contacts' were for barely a second and the researchers even admit that this so-called 'contact' was 'relatively infrequent'. Indeed, over six months less than half the cattle were anywhere near a badger.

There aren't that many badgers in this area of Yorks.. Imagine the difference if the work had been done in the SW where we're falling over the bloody things.. It ain't quantity (except of bacteria) It's quality - as in how infectious are these creatures. If even one 'contact' had been from a super excreter and the cow had sniffed just 70 units of bacteria, then she's stuffed. A reactor.
"Of course, the study found that cattle are constantly close to one another, even though the equipment was turned down to intentionally minimise the number of cow to cow contacts that were recorded. Cow to cow - both within herds and between herds - is the obvious way in which bovine TB is spread and maintained and this study provides ample evidence for that transmission route.

Of course it is. And the earth is flat. This chestnut that cattle contact is a significant transmission opportunity totally contradicts VLA's spoligotype maps. (If a cow has developed lung lesions and is housed, that is the only exception.)
"The only interesting finding of this study, which confirms the well documented territorial behaviour of badgers, is that neighbouring social groups of badgers almost never came anywhere near one another.

Er, read it again. There was a lot of contact between the two groups in September, which is what we see at ground level. A huge amount of activity in autumn and spring.

It's the 'dispersers' that cause much of the trouble. Sick badgers excluded from their own clan, will travel further and encounter other groups. Bite wounding as territorial scrapping takes place is a documented route of disease transmission.
The idea that a badger group remains the same size even when sows have cubs every year and the group expands, and gets older (weaker) and young males fight for supremacy within the heirarchy, is 'Wind in the Willows' stuff.
This scotches the view promulgated by farming unions that bovine TB is spread between badger social groups rather than from herd to herd.
"This study simply confirms that cow to cow is the most likely route of bovine TB transmission and it provides no firm evidence that a single badger was ever close enough to a cow to infect it with bovine TB.".

And the fact that this hissy fit has exploded from the Badger Trust, gives Professor Hutchings work more credence.