Sunday, February 28, 2010

Moving the line?

As our readers will know, we have long been critical of Defra's 'maginot' zoning lines on a map. Badgers can't read, and cattle on 3 or 4 year testing regimes may have already been infected. As no testing is required prior to any sale, let alone dispersal sales, prospective purchasers may inadvertently import trouble.

The parish testing map on the right of the pic, is the new improved 'red' zone requiring annual testing and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. A buffer of two year testing edges it to the east, and further east, but only a couple of miles from acknowledged hot spots, trade continues as normal.

Last October, several dairy farmers purchasing high quality and high priced animals from a big dispersal sale from beyond Defra's 'maginot' line, bought trouble. We heard of this quite early on with the Holstein jungle drums beating loudly as cattle purchased days before, became reactors or inconclusives during routine tests in their new herds from Glos. to Cornwall and as far away as Norfolk. One particular cow that we know of was condemned on slaughter, with generalised TB. Thus a purchase of several £thousand only days before, was 'worth' peanuts on Defra's tabular valuation, and nothing at all as salvage clawback.

But although the sale was mid October, Defra's cattle tracing mechanism has moved about as fast as a sloth on Valium in following up purchases from this sale - as the Eastern Daily Press reports.
Ken Procter, who is the former president of the Holstein Cattle Society explains:
We bought three cows on October 14. We had them tested. One failed and the others were inconclusive. They were only with us for four days," said Mr Proctor, who as a precaution put the cows into isolation on another holding, which does not have cattle.

When re-tested on December 19, two cows were both positive for bovine TB and have since been slaughtered in early January. Although he will receive some compensation, the loss on the breeding cattle will be more than £1,000 per head.

But Mr Proctor, who said that the disease had to be kept out of Norfolk, was concerned about the whole approach to testing: "The speed at which cases are tackled is horrendous. What really irritates me is that they still hadn't followed up the farm where the cows had been, and we didn't get a letter until about three weeks ago. They had waited four months before sending out tracing letters."

This farm was outside Defra's red area, and outside its buffer zone - which one presumes will now have migrated a tad further east?

'Fluid' data = questionable results.

After the remains of the ISG (in the shape of the outpourings from Christl Donnelly's computer), further boosted our Minister for (some) Animal's Health in his decision not to cull badgers in TB hotspots, we have patiently attempted to deconstruct the origins of that data.

We could not criticize the ISG computer, nor would we. But as we pointed out in this posting the costs from which their data was drawn, was decidedly questionable. Farmers Guardian explores this further this week (sorry - no link) with quotes from a WLU manager, who said it would be
"pointless and misleading" to judge the cost effectiveness of any future culls on the basis of the "hugely inefficient" trials.
But so like Melville's Captain Ahab, roped to Moby Dick and ultimately destined for the bottom of the ocean, our minister is clinging maniacally to his very own whale. The RBCT.

John Bourne, chairman of the ISG pointed out on more than one occasion to the EFRA committee, that 'culling as undertaken in this trial' was not to be taken as a bench marker for any future cull. His WLU personnel, based in just two areas spent an inordinate amount of time in their vehicles, and racked up over a 1,000,000 miles a year visiting Krebs triplets hundreds of miles apart. Defra having advertised their locations, the teams then had to run the gauntlet of Animal Rights activists, removing, damaging and destroying traps. Police activity varied tremendously as well, with Staffordshire enjoying their policing from urban coppers used to trouble, up with which they would not put. By contrast, the south west triplets had to run the gauntlet of almost uninterrupted terrorism, intimidation and damage to farms, as well as traps.

All this data was adding £thousands to each badger actually caught, until protocol was tweaked in 2003/4, but this is what was entered into Donnelly's computer, which prepared the base for her conclusions. Although our PQs told us quite unequivocally that:
"Information on the costs of trapping as a 'proactive' culling method in the RBCT cannot be used to to assess the resources required to clear an area of badgers, because this would require the use of snares, poisoning or gassing which have been ruled out by the government on welfare grounds. The RBCT clears as many badgers as possible from the Proactive areas using cage traps, but this removes, at best, 80 per cent of the badgers". [ 148659: 22/ Jan 2004]
But Prof. Donnelly's computer has done precisely that. So what about the cattle side of the RBCT? Constant, or a fluid, ever moving base?

Most of our contributors were involved in one or other of the triplets, so as well as general points, we can make observations from personal experience.

When the 'trial' was first announced and meetings held to explain it, farmers who attended and were already under TB restriction were not well pleased to learn that they didn't qualify. As didn't herds who had had the benefit of a Ministry badger clearance in the previous three years. Whether this restriction on potential entrants carried on, we are unable to say, but certainly herds were allowed to leave and to join the trial at any time during its duration. Thus it was not unusual to have different cattle herds involved at different times of the trial, and thus the results of any badger dispersals associated with these herds, were not a constant over the whole time period.

Another tweak was boundary change. The triplet areas were mapped in 1997 as circles, but phone calls to our contributors over the course of the trial indicated a degree of 'fluidity' in areas covered. Two farmers in Hereford and Devon, having been excluded from the trial at its inception, were included after 2004. And a Parliamentary Question, confirmed:
"All areas were modified marginally to include or exclude whole farm premises following surveying and prior to initial proactive culling."
Fair enough, but after four years? Blocks of land in excess of 200 acres suddenly hoovered up, that had not been included before? The answer continued and gave us a grudging 'yes':
"On occasions slight changes in treatment boundary have been agreed by the ISG [ ] in response to changes observed in badger activity and social group organisation."[150894] 28th Jan 2004 ."
Define 'slight' if you will. So what do we understand from that? Boundaries were drawn, setts mapped, farms and cattle herd details entered, then a social group of badgers see the WLU boys approaching and leg it? With the Defra landrovers in hot pursuit? Over a different farm and different cattle from those mapped in 1997?

Sounds a bit like it.

And even the basis for trapping appeared to change. In the ISG 4th report a 'TB Breakdown' is described as - "A cow or herd of cattle found to suffer from TB", a description which needed TB to be confirmed by lesions or culture to trigger a removal of badgers. But later, the Final report has 'Breakdown' explained as either a
Confirmed breakdown "when cattle are proven (eg by postmortem examination to have TB) or a TB incident, when one or more cattle in a herd shows evidence of exposure to M.bovis, the infectious agent of bTB (ie reacts to the tuberculin test)
If indeed these significantly different definitions in the two reports were adhered to, (and it may explain why one of our contributers whose 'TB breakdown' was not confirmed for two years, was ignored by the WLU teams from 2001 - 2003) this would certainly skew the resultant data would it not?

But all this - and we have no doubt there will be more - is the basis for the latest pronouncements from the ISG computer. And their extraordinarily skewed conclusions which have sprung from it. Or as the ISG has treated, and continues to treat bTB as a disease of cattle, was those conclusions actually the beginning?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Doing nothing

...... [ ] and allowing TB to spread through the UK badger population, is not necessarily a position of moral superiority".

As the thorny question of targeted badger culling refuses (quite rightly) to lie down, Veterinary Times last week published a thought provoking Point-of-view, from T.O Jones, MBE, BVSc, CBiol, FBS, FRCVS on how this may be achieved.[ sorry no on-line link, so we'll summarise.]

The piece begins by describing the TB situation in West Wales, which has led to the Welsh Assembly's intention to pioneer a targeted cull of badgers in that area. We have covered some farmer's stories from this area here (Trioni Farms) and here (Cilast herd) But how will Wales actually carry out the deed? So much red tape is wrapped around this animal, that cage trapping and shooting appear to be favourite - not ideal, in fact far from it, which is why Mr. Jones puts his eloquent pen to paper.

He points out that this method is unlikely to achieve even 80% of the target group at best, with the RBCT's halo of 'peturbation' and spread of bTB by distressed untrapped badgers as a result. (We continue to attribute this 'perturbation' phenomenon to the Badger Dispersal Trial, and that alone, because it was not evident in previous AH culls.) And of course, there has to be a 'closed season' from February to May to avoid leaving cubs to starve underground by shooting lactating females. All in all, a pretty poor effort if one is serious about disease control.

The use of carbon monoxide (CO) Mr. Jones suggests, is worth looking at, with a machine which uses it for rabbit control being tested in Australia. He then asks if this is not available in the UK, in cylinders? or as solid (concentrated) frozen CO?
"Many humans would opt for an unpremeditated, painless euthanasia during sleep as their exit of choice. Pure unadulterated CO poisoning might well be acceptable for such an approach in badgers."
Also a possibility is Carbon dioxide (CO2) and possibly pure nitrogen. Pointing out that:
"Mobile on-site nitrogen generators are used in the oil industry, but are presumably too large for the Welsh countryside. But would it be worth purpose building a small one? One litre of liquid nitrogen produces 683l of gaseous nitrogen at normal atmospheric pressure and could have a place in euthanasia apparatus."
As Mr. Jones points out, badgers obligingly live in their setts during Defra's working hours and during prolonged cold periods may not emerge for several weeks when they are said to be in a state of 'torpor'. "Could they not", he asks "be euthanased while in 'torpor', during this period?"
"Collection and disposal of carcases would not be problematic [ with gassing] A 100 per cent cull, with no perturbation could be anticipated. Setts could be blocked or collapsed to hinder recolonisation in the sure knowledge that no live animals were present."
Much of this thought provoking essay, calls on other industries to throw their respective hats into the ring and offer ideas for practical administration of a humane gas to these subterranean animals.

The delivery of gas into badger setts has been trialled both by Defra and Porton Down when with their very own unique buckets and spades, they built an artificial sett - each. And despite howls from the Badger Trust, gas was available in adequate quantities at all parts of the sett - once they'd blocked up the entrances.

Mr. Jones argues that a targeted cull of badgers in bTB hotspot areas, followed by a gradual infiltration with vaccinated, healthy badgers would deliver the nirvana of healthy badgers, healthy cattle (and cats, dogs, alpacas, llamas, goats, pigs ..... ed)
"Our country has an established meline TB problem - some badgers suffer from TB and spread it to healthy badgers. A lingering death from progressive TB in a proportion of infected badgers is painful. What action is suggested? Doing nothing, and allowing TB to spread through the UK badger population is not necessarily a position of moral superiority"

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Policy on the hoof

We have become used to our department's habit of altering policy on a whim, or making it up as they go along. And that evolutionary process is arguably better than the 'cognitive dissonance' which affected them over FMD.

However, not to acknowledge such departmental developments is stooping very low indeed.

A letter from Mr. D. Denny, B.Vet., MRCVS published in Farmers Guardian Feb 12th., pointed out that there were many sticks with which to beat farmers but few incentives in government's handling of TB.
"The handling of the TB crisis is typical of the micro management of farmers by politicians with their own agendas. Instead of giving farmers incentives, the Eradication Group recommends more superfluous, petty and expensive impositions on farmers, none of which will have any significant impact in controlling TB."
A longstanding critic of 'vaccinating ' badgers already endemically infected with TB, Mr. Denny then remarked on the protocol of the vaccine scoping trial, pointing out that having to purchase their own vaccine was "hardly an incentive" to its success.

We covered Defra's on-the-hoof developing protocol for their latest prevarication wheeze, here. And in mid-December, such a purchase was on the cards.
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.
As this project unravelled, potential contractors trying to get to grips with exactly what it was they were tendering for, apparently pointed out the vagaries of this smoke and mirrors idea and along with Santa's little helpers, and after the inevitable departmental New Year jollies, came the clarity of a rethink on some of the cost sharing. Particularly those on the purchase of vaccines for an unknown number of badgers, on an unsurveyed patch of land of indeterminate size.

Thus in this week's Farmers Guardian, and curt note appears from a representative of our beloved Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stating that Mr. Denny is incorrect in his statement that 'contractors would have to buy their own BCG vaccine'.
"That is not the case. The cost of the vaccine used in the BVDP will be funded by Defra".
We are delighted of course, to give our readers an update of Defra policy, even as it evolves. But not so delighted that they omit to mention that it had been updated, implying errors on the part of a comment made ahead of the now acknowledged policy change.

We also note no mention was made of the meat of Mr. Denny's letter which concluded "demoralised farmers must be given incentives, not petty reforms".
"Nothing short of a targeted cull of infected badgers will result in any improvement in the TB crisis".
Thus in the absence of howls of derision, we assume that with that final statement, Defra's representatives must agree.

The money trail

Today we have 'borrowed' a posting from our co-editor who tells the tale of his own bitter experience in attempting to fly in the face of 'science'.

There was a time when scientists chased information, de-constructed that information and formed considered opinions. Now it seems the conclusion is what drives 'research'.

Dr. North points out:
Anyone who has the remotest idea of how academia works will know instantly how corrosive this sort of money really is. Department heads, anxious for funding to keep their empires going, would tailor their research proposals to ensure that they conformed with the programme objective. Without being told, they would know that to submit a counter-hypothesis [] would be to invite instant oblivion. The chances of getting funding would be nil.
Dr. North then relates his own first hand encounter with the Ministries who steer our industry.
I actually saw this at first hand after the 1988 Salmonella-in-eggs scare. With food poisoning in the headlines, the issue suddenly became fashionable in the halls of academia and the Research Councils, MAFF (as it was then) and the Department of Health were suddenly throwing huge amounts of money at the perceived problem.

It was at that time that I decided to do my own PhD, offering a counter-hypothesis that the "egg scare" was an artifact, arising from poor investigational technique, institutional bias and many other factors, including scientific fraud – yes ... we've been there before.
Naturally, Dr. North was unable to get funding, his presence on campus "could prejudice the ability to tap into the well of funds aimed at supporting the prevailing hypothesis." So much for 'investigative science'. But one brave pioneer did take him on. The consequences of which were that:
"He was summonsed down to London and grilled by MAFF officials. Only under the most stringent of conditions was his funding stream allowed to continue, which included my (Dr. North) being excluded from all the government-funded activities in the department.
Having seen the complete bias under which the RBCT worked, the scorn and derision poured on previous work, scientific and veterinary experience by a self seeking bubble of individuals, all circling around each other, we see a depressing parallel. As Dr. North says, of this 'political science':
Basically, it is bought and paid for – it will follow the money. [] ... "scientists" will dutifully fill in their grant applications, proposing to do precisely that. Those who do not conform fall by the wayside – they simply do not get funded.

Then, of course, the overwhelming weight of funded papers is taken as proving the point, and evidence of the "consensus". But it is money, not science, that is talking.
The basis of the RBCT was graphically explained by its leader, ISG chairman Professor John Bourne, who said quite openly to the EFRA committee:
"We repeatedly say "culling, as conducted in the trial." It is important [that] we do say that. Those limitations were not imposed by ourselves. They were imposed by politicians."

"At the end of the day I think you have to accept that it is the price society puts on a badger. [ ] In this country there is a price on a badger and on badger welfare".

"Whatever has driven that I do not know but the fact is that a price has been put on the badger in this country which related to the way we were able to carry out our scientific work. That is exactly what we report".
And as we saw last week, this particular politically driven gravy train shows no sign of stopping.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Costs - and Defra costs

This week saw the publication of a further tranche of material from the ISG's electronic abacus. Professor Christl Donnelly having agreed that when badgers are removed, cattle TB reduces, sometimes significantly - then concluded in this paper that removing badgers was too expensive.

Quotes from the farming press ask expensive for whom? But we will take our own line and examine answers to Parliamentary Questions on the trial protocol and its efficacy, communications from WLU staff working on the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial and our personal experiences of their efforts - all of which have informed us just how the ISG went about their task of trying to cull badgers and the influence this had on their costs. These costs of RBCT cage traps averaged £3,799 per sq KM per year, (updated within this paper to £17,709 per sq KM ?) and form the basis of the paper published this week.

From a submission to EFRAcom in 2006, a culling trial manager stated:
" The whole basis of Krebs was to remove badgers off the ground. For the first four years, that effort was farcical, due to restrictions placed upon us. The trial had too many flaws in it to be trusted to produce meaningful evidence. How much weight do we give the latest ISG report, detailing their ‘robust’ findings to the minister? If it were down to me and my staff, very little".
And on the subject of using anything to do with trial costings, the submission was emphatic...
The costs for a future culling policy must NOT be based on Krebs costings. The Wildlife Unit have many great ideas on how to reduce costs vastly should the State remain involved in it. Give the Unit a chance to see how innovative it can be when it comes to reducing operating costs. Krebs was ridiculously expensive for what it delivered.
However, this latest paper appears to rely on 2005 costings of badger culling as carried out during the Krebs trial referred to in such scathing terms above. As usual the figures in this mathematical modelling exercise are subject to 'assumption' but what isn't, is the raw, unadulterated information from the trial, gleaned by answers to our PQs over a similar time scale to Donnelly's 'assumed' costs.

The RBCT relied on cage trapping over a very short period of 8 nights annually, with locations widely advertised. Operations were co-ordinated from two VI centres: Polwhele near Truro in Cornwall and Aston Down near Stroud in Glos. Approximately 133personnel from these sites covered all ten trial areas. Thus WLU operatives from Truro, after visiting farms on their home turf could head north on the M5 / M6 for Staffordshire via Hereford, while Aston Down's staff were also covering many miles at exorbitant and unnecessary cost.
[141974] The number of WLU staff employed on the RBCT was 133 in 2003/04, at a cost £6.8 million.
So what were they doing? Catching badgers? Nope. Not all the time. In fact not much of the time.
[1509079] In 2003, 1,130,000 miles were driven in WLU official vehicles, which equates to 2 - 3 hours travelling per person, per day.
How many times to the moon and back is that mileage? And as local expertise was not used, overnights, B&B and security allowances were also stacking up to the tune of around £130/day per operative, over and above their usual salary. That's £500 a week for each operative + salary. All presumably included within the ISG costs of their very own unique method of trying to trap badgers. We are unaware if Prof. Donelly's or the rest of the ISG team's own remunerations were included in the total.

So what of the efficacy of their attempts?
[141971] Of 15,666 traps sited in the RBCT to October 2003, 8,981 were 'interfered with' and 1,827 disappeared.
A pretty poor success rate then, if almost 70 percent of the traps set at dusk were empty in the morning. And the cost to the trial of traps damaged was answered thus:
[150494] (Over a similar time scale to the PQ above), 6,239traps suffered damage and 1,926 were stolen or lost at a cost of £50 each.
So, £408,250 to be added to 'costs' of not catching badgers in cage traps. But how did all this affect how efficiently the RBCT was able to do what it allegedly intended? i.e to catch and cull badgers?
[157954] There has been a level of illegal activity and interference with the operation of the RBCT which is certainly undesirable and could be considered significant. Culling stopped for a variety of reasons, including interference from activists and weather. Some activities led to trapping being extended or prematurely suspended.
But presumably the costs which now form the basis of Donnelly's paper were not suspended? WLU personnel were paid to set traps; whether or not they succeeded in catching badgers in them, we are unable to extrapolate from the ISG data.

Given such skewed protocol, operated under bureaucratic straitjackets and unbridled costs the average cost per badger caught and dispatched would be £thousands. And yet in spite of all the aforementioned and acknowledged problems, Donnelly confirms a drop of an average of 30% in new herd breakdowns of TB. (a figure which in itself is misleading, as herds under restriction at the beginning of the 'trial' did not qualify for badger removals, and although forming mini-hotspots within the ten triplets, are not included in RBCT data.) And 30 per cent is very meaningful if you happen to one of that number.

Dividing these extraordinary WLU 'costs' during the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial by the number of badgers they actually managed to catch is a crude assumption, but it is the only one available to them. Their trial, their data, their conclusions.

But commenting on the paper, Professor Bill Reilly, President of the BVA, said:
“This paper clearly demonstrates that badger culling did have an impact on the incidence of bovine TB in cattle, which is a very positive outcome.

The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) was undertaken in very specific circumstances and it could be misleading to extrapolate the findings to any future control programme".

The ISG final report and everything which has sprung from it, confirmed (again) that badgers do transmit TB to cattle, but it showed us quite clearly how NOT to deal with that situation.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Update: New bTB leaflet for Camelids

Defra have updated their advice leaflet on Tuberculosis in Camelids, which may be accessed on this link.

They point out that:
Transmission can occur between animals, from animals to humans, more rarely from humans to animals and between humans.
Transmission is predominantly through exposure to respiratory aerosols from an infectious animal. Camelids have a habit of spitting a mixture of gastric contents and saliva and this could increase the risk of transmission, particularly in the later stages of infection when lesions are present in the lungs and bowel.

In their new missive, and keen on the bio-security angle, Defra also advise that water troughs (and feed?) be offered '3 feet off the ground' to prevent the ingress of badgers.
Aim to make salt and mineral blocks inaccessible to badgers by raising them off the ground. Water troughs should also be raised at least three feet above the ground to prevent badger access.

Filming carried out by Professor Tim Roper of Sussex University showed badgers feeding from cattle troughs set at 4 feet 3 inches off the ground, which as Defra were helpful to point out in answers to our Parliamentary Questions, is too high for cattle (or camelids) to access. Thus to comply with Defra's advice may involve the modification of both camelids and cattle with one of these.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

BCG - how it works

From Dr. Ueli Zellweger we have received the following explanation of how BCG vaccination - the live attenuated strain of Mycobacterium bovis known as Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) - works.

Defra are keen to use this in hotspot areas (where badgers are known to have endemic tuberculosis) The vaccine may or may not work, they really do not know, but are on record as hoping 'it won't make matters worse'. The jabs will need to be repeated at least every twenty months. And that, together with advice on bio security, constitutes Defra's 'eradication policy' for tuberculosis in England..
Why BCG does not perform like other Vaccines

In any normal infection the body defence works by production of vast amounts of antibodies. Such antibodies can also be stimulated by ordinary vaccines for all kinds of bacteria and virus diseases and they can be traced in blood which makes diagnosis with various techniques fairly easy.

But this does not work for Tuberculosis – it never did and it never will do – because the tubercle bacteria have a waxy coat to which antibodies cannot attach. Tuberculosis therefore causes a so called humoral body defence; that means the very slowly multiplying bacteria are attacked by enzymes and white blood cells mainly. These are killing or even digesting the bacteria by a method called phagocytosis resulting in crumbly pus in the so called tubercles – whole heaps or lumps containing several 1000 to billions of bacteria.

This defence is much more unspecific and slower than the usual one by antibodies.

Any BCG vaccine stimulates this humoral defence only but never prevents an infection; it may keep it on a low scale maybe. There is no other vaccine available and there most probably will never be another one.

No matter how many millions more DEFRA invests ( I hear of some 30 so far for the Vaccine only ) this is nature - which cannot be forced by politics.
Dr. Ueli Zellweger
More on Defra's badger vaccine scoping project, it's progress and time scale here.

We have added the following link to an email sent to by virologist Dr. Ruth Watkins who explains how BCG works when injected and also points out:
BCG is not effective if given after infection with M bovis or M tuberculosis.

All those queueing up to 'vaccinate' badgers endemically infected with TB, please note....