Thursday, January 07, 2010

Farmers can't wait ...

.... says Shadow minister Jim Paice, MP speaking to the Western Morning News at the Oxford Farming Conference this week.
Cattle farmers in the Westcountry just don't have the time to wait for a vaccine for bovine tuberculosis, according to shadow farms minister Jim Paice.
The ongoing spread of the disease, which caused the destruction of 40,000 cattle last year, would have to be tackled by dealing with diseased badgers, he insisted.

Mr Paice was speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference and told the WMN that an oral vaccine for badgers would not be available until 2014 – and that was far too long to wait, given the havoc wrought by the disease in beef and dairy farms in hot spots such as the South West.

"We have waited far too long for a conclusion to this dreadful problem and wasted far too much taxpayers' money and got nowhere," he said.

Well he got that bit right.

So how is this little exercise in futility, for which the 'farmers can't wait' coming along?

It was launched in a fanfare which gave the impression that most of the badgers in TB hotspots would be vaccinated against bTB, and that would be that. And £20 million of course, but let that pass.
But that is not strictly true. For a start, the Vaccine Scoping Study is being rolled out in stages. Very slow stages.

In November last year, a PQ submitted by the David Drew, MP received this answer on the progress of our Minister for (some) Animal's Health latest daft idea prevarication project.

From what we can see from that answer, of the six 75,000 acre (300 sq km) blocks of land where it is proposed that badgers endemically infected with bTB, are vaccinated against, er ... bTB, only about 33 percent of the land may be available? And of that 25,000 acres (that's 100 sq km )only about a quarter of landowners have signed up, leaving 75 per cent having declined FERA's invitation to this particular party ? (as at November 10th anyway)

You get the gist of where we're going with this?
Now, cage traps and the use of injectible vaccines are proposed until 2014, when an oral version of vaccine, may become available. So having compressed the land areas into much less than was proposed, further reduced by non-participation, how much further can numbers of endemically infected badgers be squeezed within such a trapping programme? And what is the effect on a 'programme' of vaccination that we are told as farmers needs at least 80 per cent coverage to be effective?

We understand that the hope is for contractors to catch between 60-80% of badgers in each target area to vaccinate. So if no other landowners agree to participate, that will mean 15-20% of badgers being vaccinated in the 100 sq kms plot, which itself has already shrunk from the headline 300 sq km or 75,000 acres.

Contractors are now being asked to tender for this work. But from what we can see, it is a complete dogs breakfast and a way apart from the initial headline grabbing figures offered for public consumption. When "badgers will be vaccinated over six 75,000 acre plots", actually equates to "we may get to vaccinate 5 - 7 % of the badgers in that area" someone, somewhere is taking spin to the extreme. And Jim Paice is quite correct to say 'the farmers can't wait'. Neither can the taxpayers.

But from a contractor's point of view as well, that 'someone' is also on a different planet. These people are being asked to tender to trap and vaccinate 'x' number of badgers in an area of land, not yet decided ? And the badger surveying, we understand, will not be in the hands of the contractors tendering for the job, but 'someone else'. Someone who may assess numbers correctly, but may not. And if they do not, then tough.

Both vaccines and cages are to be the responsibility of the contractor, and their purchase, storage and maintenance, together with assessed labour and area to be covered will be the basis of the quotation offered. This is so vague as to be like catching smoke. Especially as by the date tenders have to be submitted, the majority (80 per cent)of surveying will not have been completed.

Security clearance, public liability and insurance for working with a grade 3 pathogen are also to be the responsibility of the contractor, for what is described as a 'one year contract'.

Walking blindfold on this week's ice and snow would be easier. And much safer.

An update to the Fera (Food and Environment Research Agency) badger vaccine project arrived this morning, giving us a little more meat on its skeletal bones.

Today (8th January) was the closing date for the consultation process, on amendments to legislation which will allow lay vaccination of badgers, using BCG.

And a little more detail is given on Fera's timetable for this project.
"During year one (2010) Fera staff will survey and vaccinate up to 100 sq km of the first Glos. zone at Stroud. They will also begin to survey and vaccinate about half (50 sq km) of the second Glos. area, north of Cheltenham. It is on these two areas that contractors will be trained.
Up to 20 sq km of the other four patches, Staffs, Hereford/Worcs and the two in east Devon will also have received visits.
During the second winter, from November to April, Fera will survey the remaining 80 sq km areas of these four blocks, and the remaining 50 sq km of the zone north of Cheltenham. By the end of 2011, all areas will have been surveyed"

So in 24 months time, at the end of 2011, all the six areas will have been surveyed? And of the original much headlined 1800 sq km, (of which 600 sq km they hope might be signed up), "up to 230 sq km" may have been actioned?

No particular urgency then?


Anonymous said...

Meantime what few startled badgers are caught, will be heading across the red line on the maps.
As I understand, they aim to vaccinate a percentage of badgers each year for five years, and hope those not yet vaccinated will volenteer within that time span. A very slip shod and unsatisfactory way of going about a serious job.

Matthew said...

Anon 9.49

This whole idea sounds very much as if it policy made up on the hoof which nobody really understands..
What we hadn't added was that Defra do not yet know how long BCG may last in badgers. The best they can say is 'up to 20 months' - ish. So, it is not a case of one shot and protection, and that in an uninfected badger. It is a case of one shot, hope the candidate is not already infected - and repeat after a year or so...

.. " A very slip shod and unsatisfactory way of going about a serious job"
You said it.

Lesley said...

I attended the Tiverton meeting and signed up. At the time I was impressed by the sincerity and approach of the project leaders who clearly felt that given the resources and backing AND the support from farmers, it could work. However, I certainly had not realised that vaccination was not a "once in a lifetime" thing and this was not mentioned to my recollection. Retrapping the following and subsequent years might catch the badgers again I suppose as they will not be distinguishing vaccinated from non vaccinated over the 5 year project. Re vaccination we were told, was harmless but it now appears it is essential if it only lasts about 20 months!!
I had also not realised the appallingly slow timetable of rollout which was not made clear nor the poor take up by farmers. Are there any exact stats available yet for take up in each area?
Initially I signed up believing that as this was the only thing the government was offering we had better take it since it was better than nothing but now I'm not so sure.

Matthew said...

Hi Lesley.
Always with Defra it's what they DON'T say that is important.
Figures we have seen indicate numbers overscribed in one area, (Stroud, from memory) and about half in others. But this does not tally with the PQ answer we quoted, which was given only 3 weeks earlier.

The contractors are not too happy with their side of things either. Much hope and expectation, with little actual meat on their bones.

VLA's Glyn Hewinson said at the launch of this project, something along the lines of 'we hope it won't make things worse' - which says it all.
Defra really do not know the effect of vaccinating badgers endemically infected with TB, with a drug which offers limited immunity, but introduces stress- and thus possibly stress induced infectious TB (as opposed to walled up infected status) into the candidates.

Having been on the receiving end of Defra's last BIG IDEA, the badger dispersal trial, and seen first hand the havoc that caused, the further away from scientists- playing-politics we can stay, the better.

Anonymous said...

The main 'foundation' for the ISG's conclusion that a cull should not go ahead was that it was uneconomical. The main cost of the RBCT was trapping badgers. So what is DEFRA doing instead? Trapping badgers and injecting them, which must be more time consuming and therefore more expensive than shooting them, in order to obtain a result that is guaranteed to be poorer than the RBCT results!

Matthew said...

Anon 5.04

Yup. Never underestimate a politician's ability to spend your money.