Monday, June 15, 2009

To cull, or how to cull?

The Guardian's George Monbiot has entered the 'to cull, or not to cull' fray, with a highly emotional piece on the proposed badger cull in Pembrokeshire. Describing it as 'brutal, futile and incomprehensible', his diatribe begins:
It would be stupid to deny that badgers are both a reservoir and a vector of bovine TB. They are not the only ones of course: cattle are also responsible for spreading the disease among themselves. But you don't have to deny it to believe that the eradication programme being planned in Wales is mad.

So, having accepted that badgers are both a reservoir and a vector of m.bovis, a selective cull over a smallish area of N. Pembroke is mad? Mmmm.

Readers may remember the heartrending story of the whole herd slaughter of some 800 organic dairy cattle belonging to Trioni farms in that area, earlier this year. Mad? Yup, you could say that.
So what is the answer? Leave this disease to fester in the environment, spilling over into more and more species? Perhaps to cull more cattle? Certainly some of Mr. Monbiot's supporters reckon it would be better to cull the Welsh farmers, which is as insulting as it is unhelpful. But they miss the point. We have reported so many times the utter futility of testing and culling sentinel cattle, while leaving the cause of their immune response to continue reinfecting. That is what is mad. Mad, and expensive and recklessly dangerous.

But there is another way. A total clearance of badgers works (Thornbury), but after more than a decade of prevarication, following the previous decade of sanitisation of policy, the problem is so widespread that any solution has to be more 'management' than 'wipe out'. And that is achievable. So rather than see George Monbiot's teddies flying high, why not look more closely at a workable solution? For sure several 'scientists' may well have to look elsewhere for gainful employment, but with a workable eradication plan, we - as in GB plc - may just avoid walking into another trade ban.

Yesterday's Western Morning News carried an article by freelance journalist Anthony Gibson, describing just such an approach. Mr. Gibson describes not a blanket 'wipe out' as envisaged by the emotional Mr. Monbiot, but a "highly targeted selective cull, on a sett-by-sett basis."
It would obviously rely on being able to identify which badger social groups were infected, and which not. But that can be done either by using the so-called PCR test, or through visual assessments, carried out by people who understand badgers and can tell from looking at them and how they behave, whether or not they are diseased. There is at least one individual in this region who claims to be able to do this, and I have no doubt that there may be others.
"So why ," asks Mr. Gibson, "is neither the technology nor the human expertise being employed as the basis for a culling strategy which everything we know about bovine TB and badgers suggests would be (a) effective, (b) acceptable and (c) affordable?" He answers this rehetorical question:
The explanation, as I know only too well from my days in the NFU, is that any culling policy in England must be able to survive the inevitable legal challenge from the Badger Trust. And the received wisdom is that a culling policy that departs from the recommendations of the ISG might well get the thumbs down from the courts.

No matter that the trials which the ISG assessed were badly carried out and seriously disrupted by activists and foot and mouth disease, or that the ISG's conclusions have been heavily criticised as both illogical and premature by other scientists, including the Government's then Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King. There is a clear danger the ISG report would be viewed by a court as gospel, and that a government attempting to do something not sanctioned by it would lose. It was that analysis, more so even than his obvious lack of political courage, that led Hilary Benn into making the decision he did last year..

And so we have the quite bizarre situation, where as Mr. Gibson points out, "the only badger culling policy on the table is a culling policy we know would be worse than useless." Thus far, both opposition parties appear to have taken on board the necessity of a targeted badger cull, limited to endemically infected areas, and possibly based on the PCR identification of grossly infected setts. And the further they distance themselves from a prevarication 'trial' which showed if nothing else, how not to cull badgers, the better; but let that pass. Mr. Gibson continues:
So what can be done to make a positive outcome more likely? The first thing is to forget about the ISG's crazy ideas on wide-area culling and get behind a selective, targeted cull. []. The second is to make the case for selective culling to the public, and I was delighted to hear sponsorship is well on the way to being lined up for a film which will do precisely that, to be made by Chris Chapman in the autumn.

A twin-track strategy of clearing infected setts by culling, and protecting healthy setts by vaccinating, is not only the obvious way forward with bovine TB, it is the only way forward.

It is essential that the industry now unites behind it.

And then at least these youngsters, may have a chance of avoiding the ever open maw of Defra's killing machine.


Mike said...

When will the farming community accept that bTB is just that--a cattle disease passed from cattle to cattle? It thrives when they are packed together for months on end, and it has been helped along for decades by the stupidity of buying and selling diseased cattle (ie noi presale tests). The way bTB was taken from the south-west to the north west and to Scotland after foot and mouth restrictions were lifted, demonstrates clearly where the real blame lies. Thornbury was not soley a badger eradication programme.Other cattle control measures were carried out in tandem. So, as the ISG, pointed out. Thornbury does NOT prove that badger culling works. Decades of culling in the south west also demonstrated that badgers are not the central problem. Claims that some farmers can tell from visual signs that badgers have TB is ludicrous nonsense. They are either fools or liars. The only way to determine whether a badger has TB is by post mortem. The PCR test isn't yet a reliable disease-testing tool either. Get a grip on reality. Accept that the disease has been sustained by irregular, ineffective skin tests, useful for finding bTB in herds, but no good at rooting all the diseased animals. Accept, too, that by shifting cattle from farm to farm, to shows and markets you have hightened the risk of the disease being spread. David King's 48-hour £4000 report has been widely discredited. The ISG's report has been peer-reviewed worldwide. Talk of culling badgers in infected setts is fanciful rubbish, an attempt to convince a gullible public that culling will somehow be targeted. It can't be. It will be just another wholesale, futile slaughter. Rees Hughes

Matthew said...

You're listening with your ears shut, Mike.
What part of 'NO BOUGHT IN CATTLE' did you miss?
How did badger TB get into our herd? And herds of other contributers? No cattle neighbours, no hired bulls and no shared equipment either. And why is it when cattle are housed, if badgers can be kept out of the buildings and feed troughs, they frequently test clear, only to break down again when they hit infected pasture at turn out? Wake up and smell the coffee.

We started this site, 5 of us all with the same problem. Self contained herds, some beef, some dairy, some large, some small, some organic, some conventional.
The common denominator was dead and dying badgers. and herd breakdowns which we did not expect, having purchased no cattle. Two of us took the trouble to ask for spoligotypes from the carcasses of both our dead cattle and badgers. And guess what? Identical, even down to VNTR .

You're right, the skin test is good as a herd test, and it is used universally as a primary diagnostic tool. If your hope theory (cattle to cattle) held any water at all, then no country would have managed to eradicate TB from its cattle herds by its use. And most have - in the absence of a wildlife reservoir.

Those that have not - yet - are all very close, and are acting in parallel on reservoirs of infection wherever they may be.
All except the UK that is.

PCR will come. It has to. But meantime, using badger's own selection, it is certainly possible to identify excluded individuals who live in completely different circumstances from a thriving healthy social sett. And those doing it (very successfully), are now backed by ex wildlife unit operatives and vets.

This site does not support wholesale slaughter - of any species. And a targetted cull of infected badgers is not 'fanciful nonsense'. It is the only way to 'manage' a situation which is already spilling into other species, than sentinel tested cattle.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike

MAFF / DEFRA’s own data over 30 years or so show that:-

1. When the badger population is culled there is a reduction in bTB in cattle.
2. When badgers are culled more harshly the reduction is greater.
3. When badgers are culled harshly for a longer duration the reduction bTB in cattle is further reduced.

When this Labour regime ceased culling badgers in 1997 the disease exploded and will continue to do so until the culling of sick badgers is re-introduced.

The Welsh Assembly is doing the right thing!

Peter Brady