Sunday, February 28, 2010

'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?

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