Monday, December 31, 2012

More cattle measures - that'll do it...

On January 1st  2013, more cattle measures will be heaped onto GB's long suffering cattle farmers. We described them in October, and in this article, Farmers Guardian reported the bones of what was to come. They expanded a little more last week.

The EU's cash hand out for TB eradication comes with caveats for its use, so all the tweaks that Animal Health and their predecessors, the State Veterinary Service had put in place to enable farmers to 'live with' TB restriction over the years of their badger worship, are, with indecent haste, being unravelled. But still with no strategic parallel action on this most successful  much loved, iconic assets  of wildlife reservoirs.

In brief, the New Year brings trading opportunities which are severely curtailed. The movement window after a clear test shrinks to a mythical 30 days for herds under restriction. We say 'mythical' because that particular clock starts ticking on jab day, which means the first week is lost. So in effect farmers will be lucky to move tested cattle inside 22 days: throw in a couple of bank holidays and weekends together with a ten day notice period for AHVLA licensing, and the word we are searching for is .... 'stuffed'.

 Buyers with new herd breakdowns, often desperate to keep up milk volumes or slaughter throughput, will have to run the gauntlet of at least one 60 day herd test, and then a satisfactory AHVLA risk assessment before a license to purchase in can be considered. And the lifeline of Approved Quarantine Units (AQUs) for young calves from restricted herds ends now.

How we read that is that any calves purchased from TB restricted herds have to be taken through to slaughter. We'll stand corrected if this is wrong. Historically, the Approved Finishing Units have paid reasonable money for forward stock close to slaughter weights, but absolute peanuts for anything younger. So these calves may not have a sale value at all.

Pre movement tests for shows, and linked holdings have yet to feel the full force of restrictions on their movements. 

The comment sections of the farming press are full of gleeful and frequent 'Anonymous' jibes, that 'bovine' TB is being stamped down on. This is a disease of cattle, they tweet. So these measures should stop this disease in its brutal tracks, should it not? But what these people do not realise is that all these cattle-only measures have been tried before - and failed. Spectacularly, expensively and utterly.

We discussed Ireland's Liam Downie's attempts in an earlier posting, and even earlier than this, the late William Tait had no success at all, by nailing West Cornwall's cattle to the floor. Why would they, when the problem wasn't the tested sentinel cattle at all?

 But cattle farmers will no doubt accept this latest kick in the teeth tranche of rules and regulations with their usual stoicism because if these single species commentators are correct, then vaccinating their chosen species badgers and gluing cattle in one place should stop this epidemic in its tracks, shouldn't it?

So how long do we have to wait for failure this time? We now have over 10 per cent of GB herds under TB restriction in Defra's last twelve month period to report. Appalling. The NBA (National Beef Association) report that South Africa have already issued a ban on beef from cattle herds under TB2 restriction and although this being challenged "a positive outcome could take some time".

 And remember Russia? We do. We covered an previous international skirmish in several postings made during September and October 2004.

 And we also remember the parallel actions described by the European Union's DG SANCO, in the documents which proposed these cattle measures. But for your reference we will repeat them:
"The elimination or reduction of the risk posed by an infected wildlife reservoir enables the other measures contained in the programme to yield the expected results, whereas the persistence of TB in these wildlife populations impedes the effective elimination of the disease. Major socio-political resistance (lobbyism) against any measure involving the removal of infected wildlife or interventions affecting the environment are to be expected. The additional costs associated with these actions are not likely to be negligible".
But their latest report on GB's efforts to slaughter out its cattle industry was the hardest hitting yet:
"It is however of utmost importance that there is a political consensus and commitment to long-term strategies to combat TB in badgers as well as in cattle. The Welsh eradication plan will lose some impetus as badger culling will now be replaced with badger vaccination. This was not part of the original strategy that consisted of a comprehensive plan that has now been disrupted.

There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.

UK politicians must accept their responsibility to their own farmers and taxpayers as well as to the rest of the EU and commit to a long-term strategy that is not dependent on elections."

So we close 2012 with a toast to ... what? Blinkered stupidity? Government policy driven by vociferous, misinformed focus groups which has resulted in the unfettered spread to many mammalian species, including human beings, of that iron jacketed, zoonotic bacterium known as M. bovis?

Or the beginning of the end of of all that, with a balanced and tightly targeted eradication policy for Tuberculosis - wherever it is hiding.

We'll drink to that one, because despite the title of this posting, cattle measures alone will never 'do it'.

A Happy New year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

That magic roundabout again.

We have mentioned this roundabout several times. bTB has become a beneficial crisis, employing many on its tortuous and mainly circular route. But we've been here too long.

A 'new' paper published by Exeter University's Nicola Weber and others describes badger behaviour as 'correlating with bTB status. Well hallelujah for that. But here we have problem. This is not 'new'.

In 2003/2004 the then Shadow Minister at Defra, Owen Paterson MP, bombarded his counterpart at that department with the almost 600 Parliamentary Questions which form the basis of this site. We have them stored. One such, asked on 17th March 2004, asked:
".. to what extent and under what circumstances non resident badgers will visit setts inhabited by social groups to which they do not belong; and whether this represents a significant opportunity for the spread of TB between badger social groups" [ 157989]
And the answer, (almost ten long years ago)was :
"The most common reason for visits by badgers to setts within other social groups is likely to be breeding forays by males. This close contact between individuals from different groups is likely to represent an opportunity for the inter group spread of TB."
And along similar lines, Mr. Paterson also asked:
.. what is meant by a 'super-excreter' in respect of badger infected by TB and whether badgers so described exhibit atypical behavioural characteristics." [158375]
 The answer to that question was that 'super excreters' was a term given to badgers in the advanced stage of disease progression. And their behaviour, in 2004, was described thus:
"Research conducted by the Central Science Laboratory has identified behavioural differences between badgers excreting M.bovis, and uninfected animals. Badgers excreting M.bovis had larger home ranges and were more likely to inhabit farm buildings."
And so we come full circle dear readers, and many of those same old familiar names on this paper that have been making hay while Woodchester's peanut fed pets continue to cough, for decades. Not the same badgers it has to said, but their grandchildren, even great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. All merrily hoovering up taxpayer's cash, while their carers repeat previous 'work'.

The Western Morning News carries a piece about this latest paper, with Robbie MacDonald once again doing his Oliver impression:
"It would be valuable to test the relationship between behaviour and infection more thoroughly.
 No it would not. You already have the CSL research which answered that question a decade ago.
 Just Google it. You know it makes sense.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas...

Last year, after finding sacks of badger feed in the aisles of some pet stores, we wished readers a very happy  Brocklemas . Not that this gave cattle farmers under TB restriction much cheer, but as FERA reminded us in spectacularly 'unscientific' language, a badger holds 'iconic' status. And we said in the post below, a badger, even or especially one with tuberculosis, is a valuable asset....

This year we have picked up a video clip from YouTube which features some very cute alpacas and is set to a poignant background song. So when the animal rights brigade start rambling on about cattle and in particular dairy cattle in the same breath a 'bovine' TB, remember these popular companion animals. They are especially susceptible to 'badger' tuberculosis, highly infectious and as the skin test is bad at detecting exposure, inter herd spread is common. They have also infected their owners.

And also please remember the ongoing and concerted effort by the head counters in all departments occupied by AHVLA and Defra as they dumb down the sheer numbers of these delightful animals who have died when compiling their statistical tables. The tables are in no way comparable to the cattle TB statistics, in that they only count the single microbial sample which confirms m.bovis. No other deaths or euthanasia, even if TB is confirmed by postmortem or are the result of any TB disclosing test appear. These animals have just 'disappeared'.

Thus the true level of such losses, Defra hide in a web of their own deceit to avoid searching Parliamentary Questions.

 We thought this year, that just maybe, with the BBC's publication of a single outbreak of 'bovine' tuberculosis in which over 400 alpacas died the Ostrich mentality of Defra's statisticians may be shamed into reality. But we were mistaken. Just 30 samples appear on their 3rd. quarter samples table. And we note that many trace herds are still 'tethered' to the index outbreak, and counted as one.

So while these collective heads remain firmly in the sand and alpacas and many other mammals are dying of 'bovine' TB, spread by an 'iconic asset' of Defra's creation, there is only one place we can perch Santa's hat....

A very Happy Christmas to you all.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

A new (old) headline.

This week, the authors of that previous outrageous mischievous vaccination headline, (74 per cent success rate for badger vaccination, in case anyone has forgotten) have revisited their work. The revamped paper was published in Plosone with a strap line claiming a 54 per cent drop in bTB in (pre screened) badgers vaccinated with BCG, by using a bank of modeled diagnostic tests. Progress of a sort, we suppose.

From the abstract:
Here we present new evidence from the same study identifying both a direct beneficial effect of vaccination in individual badgers and an indirect protective effect in unvaccinated cubs. We show that intramuscular injection of BCG reduced by 76% [] the risk of free-living vaccinated individuals testing positive to a diagnostic test combination to detect progressive infection. A more sensitive panel of tests for the detection of infection per se identified a reduction of 54% [] in the risk of a positive result following vaccination. In addition, we show the risk of unvaccinated badger cubs, but not adults, testing positive to an even more sensitive panel of diagnostic tests decreased significantly as the proportion of vaccinated individuals in their social group increased. [] When more than a third of their social group had been vaccinated, the risk to unvaccinated cubs was reduced by 79%
This sounds encouraging until we go back to the original study, which pre screened its 844 badgers with the three or four tests mentioned, and excluded any positives. This is not made particularly clear in this paper, but for clarification, we quote:
A total of 252 individuals qualified for the event history analysis, following the removal of those individuals caught only once and those that were likely to have been infected prior to vaccination.
From personal communications, the infection rate in these badgers was 43 per cent. Thus to launch, as has been done, the concept of blanket vaccination of a genuinely wild and similarly infected population is a completely different ball game which is likely to have substantially different results and possibly some unintended consequences.

We also would respectfully point out that the results of this research are described as by 'proxy'. That means a mathematical model of projected data achieved not by measured exposure and postmortem, but by random exposure and 2, 3 or 4 diagnostic tests.
The authors explain :
Vaccinating free-living wild badgers with BCG significantly reduced the risk of an individual developing a positive result to a range of diagnostic tests used as a proxy for M. bovis infection.
. They also explain this - but way beyond that attention grabbing headline:
The effect of vaccination on the triple testV outcome was to reduce the risk of a positive result by 54% in vaccinated individuals. Without post-mortem data it was not possible to ascertain what proportion of the triple testV-negative, vaccinated badgers were protected from infection and what proportion still acquired infection, but were not detected using the triple testV.
It is unsafe to assume that triple testV negativity equates to the absence of infection.
Quite.  'Unsafe' it may be, but nevertheless that headline will be used, particularly as publication of this paper, once again coincides with a Consultation on vaccination.  As ever,  FERA has shown impeccable timing and media manipulation, particularly in their use of the word 'iconic' as a description of badgers in the paper which is somewhat less than scientific.

To the Badger Trust that description would definitely apply. To the Wildlife trusts whose collecting tins bear its silhouette, probably. And as an 'asset'  to provide constant research to FERA and others, most definitely. But to most of the population, if they think about it at all, a badger is a part of the ecology. Not the part, a part. And it is neither 'iconic', 'endangered' nor about to be 'exterminated'. But we digress:

There are quite a few references to the presence of infectious adults within the social group, adding to the burden of infection within the group and negating any vaccination attempts. Common sense really and answered 6 years ago in our PQs : 
2 Feb 2004: Column 1560W
Mr. Paterson: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what assessment has been made of whether infection of M. bovis bacillus between infectious female badgers and their offspring leads to an increase over time in the incidence of infection within a social group. [153924]
Mr. Bradshaw: From research carried out by the Central Science Laboratory, it is believed that the transmission of infection from mothers to cubs may be important in the maintenance of TB infection in badger populations. There is a correlation between the presence of infectious females in a group and the proportion of TB positive cubs. No information is available as to whether this has influenced the incidence of infection within a social group over time.
This paper repeats that information thus:
"The argument that many badger cubs will become infected during this period (i.e. before they can be caught and vaccinated), has been identified as a key potential constraint on the effectiveness of badger vaccination as a management tool."

"The risk of an individual being culture-positive has been shown to be related to the presence of other culture-positive (i.e. infectious, actively excreting) animals in its social group."
Pretty obvious really. So here's a thought. Why not screen the badger populations using the same tools which we propose for targeted culling? Reactor mapping, overlaid with badger group identification and PCR for disease status confirmation? Then offer vaccination (at the Badger Trust's expense) to groups testing clean? Particularly as a cordon to act as a buffer after removal of infected groups in endemically infected areas. Simples.

But we are puzzled by an apparently contradictory observation in this paper which is explained thus:
Prevalence for the population as a whole based on the combined outcomes of the above three tests reduced from 53% in 2006 to 35% in 2009. Reductions in prevalence were observed in both vaccinate and control groups.
So at a cost of £2500 per sq/ km or around £156 per badger for an average head count, (Defra / WAG figures) did BCG work at all on these pre screened badgers - or not?  As it would seem from that paragraph, the unvaccinated control group also experienced a reduction in disease prevalence.

And we also note that the authors have used 51 points of reference in this paper and many of the named authors appeared several times. What did we say about the asset value of those 'iconic' tuberculous badgers?

Saturday, December 15, 2012


When we trawl through the numerous papers written about m.bovis, badgers, cattle and other mammals who may or may not have met this armour plated bacteria, the thing which strikes the more pedantic of us is just how much 'research' rests on a the back of a coughing, tuberculous badger.

 Take for instance that huge 450 page pdf file in which we found research confirming that there is bugger all very little bacterial spread of m.bovis into or from, anything other than badgers, (and one water vole.) Although locally, un-managed deer populations may cause a problem. Venison anyone?

 So rather than watch water running through his cattle yards this weekend, one of our contributors totted up the cost of the 49 listed research projects in that 2007 file. The total was £55.8 million paid for by the British taxpayer Defra, and £8.4 million by 'others'.

 And almost every one of those papers ask for more research to confirm, clarify, expand or repeat.

Let no one be in any doubt, a coughing badger is a very valuable asset. .

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Dear Secretary of State....

Below are the thoughts of an former Defra Wildlife Unit manager, who we have quoted before on this site. This is a copy of his recent letter to the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP,  Secretary of State, DEFRA.

As the ex-Defra Field Manager running the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) in the South West, I feel well qualified to make recommendations as to the best way forward if a cull is to be acceptable by the general public, including the Badger Trust and its many allies. Firstly, unless land owners are convinced that only, and I mean only, infected badgers are being removed from their land they will never participate in any trial willingly.

I had the task of visiting all those who refused to participate in the RBCT. The common theme was – "unless my badgers are infected you can’t touch them." No amount of cajoling would change their stance.

In February 2010, I met with a minister and other interested parties at the Enigma Diagnostics HQ in Porton Down. There we discussed the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology as a way forward in combating the disease. We were all  totally sold on the idea as it would keep all factions happy if it were introduced. Sadly, since then, the idea seems to have fizzled out for whatever reasons. It is now time to resurrect that interest and to introduce it, on a trial basis, as a way forward in combating the disease.

As an aside, we were then told that in 2010, there wasn’t enough time to undertake PCR trials as the farming industry wouldn’t entertain the idea of waiting for a solution. They were after a “quick fix”. Here we are, 30 months later, still without an effective tool to combat bovine TB !  How ironic !

I understand that Warwick University have been working on PCR technology for some time with increasingly encouraging results. Surely, by cage trapping badgers, testing their blood/sputum/urine/faeces using PCR, backed up by a blood test, we would have a viable live time, in-field test that could be rolled out fairly quickly? Reactor and field mapping, such as was used in previous culling operations could closer target the use of PCR on infected setts.

Imagine being able to identify the infected badgers and removing them from the countryside, combined with the vaccination of “clean” badgers before releasing them back into the wild – what a way forward for all concerned !

I was involved in the Live Testing trials  (of badgers) in 1994/5. The test was dropped as it wasn’t accurate enough to move forward with. When we did find infected badgers we culled them and all the occupants of the setts they came from. Using PCR would facilitate similar action being taken.

You may be aware that the  Alpaca TB Support Group  have already commissioned the trial use of PCR technology on dead alpacas, diagnosed by postmortem and culture with tuberculosis? Their results to date have been more than encouraging, with an over 80% detection rate. The second phase results on animals with less advanced lesions, are also encouraging. If this small group can do such a trial on a shoestring budget, surely a larger project, publicly funded, could be trialled using badgers instead of alpacas ?  If Public funding wasn’t available, levy a TB tax on every animal passing through our livestock markets to raise enough cash to fund it.

DEFRA will never win over the general public with a mass cull of badgers. The fact that 84% of those which we were able to trap and cull during the RBCT were on postmortem, not lesioned, is too fresh in their minds and will always be used as ammunition to fight any 'area' type cull. If you really want to win the public over, go down the PCR route combined with vaccination. Do not let FERA or DEFRA deliver the trials as they can be done more cheaply and efficiently using Contractors. To me it is a no brainer !

I am always happy to input my thoughts into any trial that may occur in the future, in the best interests of farmers, badger lovers and the general public.

Yours sincerely

Paul Caruana
Ex-Defra Field Manager (Polwhele)
Paul is now a director of Field Services South West Ltd.,

Friday, December 07, 2012

PCR for Alpacas - Looking good.

We have received news from the Alpaca TB Support Group that the second stage of their privately funded PCR Proof of concept study is now complete and has come up with some encouraging results.

 The first screen was on faeces and sputum taken from animals with gross lesions and this achieved a high sensitivity - with no false positives. This second run was on samples from animals with much less advanced pathology and the results are described on the Alpaca TB Support Group website as follows:
"AHVLA scientists have now looked at the whole spectrum of pathology from minimal to severe that is found in camelid M. bovis infections. The results are very promising and far better than we had expected.

The test was able to detect nearly all of the camelids with the most severe pathology with a falling sensitivity as pathology became less severe. They were even able to detect some camelids that had minimal pathology.

The faecal samples were marginally more sensitive than nasal swabs. Due to the difficulty in collecting blood from a dead camelid, AHVLA were not able to evaluate blood samples as they were unable to collect sufficient suitable samples for testing."
Publication of the full trial results is in preparation and this study will be peer reviewed before it is published.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

PCR - used on everything but badgers?

Two pieces of research which were completed around 2005, and published in 2006 may be of interest. They both deal with 'bovine' TB in species other than badgers, and the risk to cattle from these mammals in a farm environment.

We found these papers in a huge pdf file on the Defra website, which if nothing else shows just how much 'research' a coughing badger generates. Scroll down to P. 336 for the work on SE 3010 (The risk to cattle from Wildlife species other than Badgers, in areas of high herd breakdowns.)
The conclusion, after a £754K spend was that locally, some species of deer could prove problematic, but that common farmland wildlife, other than badgers, are relatively unimportant to the control of bTB in cattle:
Most species exhibited a relatively low risk to cattle. The highest risks were associated with fallow and red deer. Given these results, the paucity of data on interactions between deer and cattle and their rapidly expanding numbers and distribution in southern England, deer may be a potential source of infection for cattle.
But for us, more interesting was a parallel study using live sampling, costing £1.2 million and known as SE 3009 which can be found on p 324. (The risk to cattle from Mycobacterium bovis infection in Wildlife species other than Badgers.) The conclusion of this one:
The same strain of M. bovis can infect bank voles, badgers and cattle on the same farm. However, the prevalence of infectious individuals is extremely low in this, and in other abundant farmland wildlife. Mathematical modelling suggests it is unlikely that the wildlife species we studied represent a significant reservoir of infection for cattle, though occasional spill-overs from badgers and cattle may occur. Our additional case-control study supports the view that small mammals are unlikely to contribute to the risk of bTB in cattle.
So far so good. Of  4,180 samples, only badgers and single bank vole tested positive. And what method was used 10 -12 years ago to sample bits from these16 species of  mammal which  included foxes, rabbits, rats, squirrels and many varieties of mice?
Confirmatory testing of presumptive positives was by growth onto selective media by the TB Reference Laboratory, Weybridge and/or confirmation by polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
No, you did not mis-read that; the paper goes on the describe:
Four PCR-based methods were used. These were PCR for IS1081, a multi-copy element generally present in 6 copies in members of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) complex; PCRs to detect and distinguish between M. microti and classical M. bovis on the basis of deletion regions (known as RD7 and RD4); and Spacer-OLIGOnucleotide TYPING – ‘spoligotyping’.

So why after a spend of £1.2m and a published paper which concluded that " the modelling of risks was not possible due to the very low infection rates found" (using PCR) is this technology, now a decade more advanced and available from AHVLA on a commercial basis for some m.tuberculosis complex bacteria, being so sidelined for badgers?

 We could say 'more research?' but we will resist the temptation. This time.

Simple squared...

.. very often equals stupid. Especially when mathematical modelers are let loose with their 'simple estimates' and 'rough assumptions', which are then tortured into some very dubious 'facts'.

 We saw it with the ISG, who pumped 2 parts cattle, one part badger into their model and then believed their own guff 'tenatative predictions' that cattle to cattle transmission of bTB was so high. (7:24 - ISG Final Report)

But now Cambridge University have geared up their models to assume a hidden reservoir of bTB missed by the skin test. But only in GB it seems?
The skin test is the primary tool for TB eradication, world wide, and yet no other country seems to have a problem using it. And GB abattoirs are not reporting thousands of cattle turning up with lesions.
 Last year, just 1013 out of a kill of several million.

So we refer back to Owen Paterson's original Parliamentary Questions on this matter, tabled in 2003/ 04.
8 Dec 2003 Col 218W (141968) Mr. Paterson: To ask how long the current Tb skin test has been in use? Mr. Bradshaw: The tuberculin skin test has been compulsory since 1950. This is the test prescribed by the OIE (Office of International Epizootics) for international trade, as well as under EU directive 64/432/EEC.
30th Jan 2004 Col 540W (150492) Mr. Paterson: How many countries use the current skin test and how many have reported problems with it? Mr. Bradshaw: All countries that have either eradicated or have programmes to control bovine tb use one or more forms of the current skin test.
.. and just as a reminder re GB's 'scientist's' current rush for more work BCG vaccination:
25th March 2004 col 989W ( 159061) Mr. Paterson: What assessment has been made of the need for a) vaccination of i) cattle and ii) badgers and b) other measures to control the incidence of Tb in cattle herds? Mr. Bradshaw: Evidence from other countries shows that in the absence of a significant wildlife reservoir, cattle controls based on regular testing and slaughter, inspection at slaughterhouses and movement restrictions can be effective at controlling bovine tb without vaccination.
Owen Paterson teased all these points out of reluctant Minister, and they are archived in our 2004 postings.  They include this gem concerning the success of the Thornbury badger clearance:
"No confirmed cases of tuberculosis in cattle in the area were disclosed by the tuberculin test the the ten year period following the cessation of gassing" [150573]
So not 20 years of buggering about trying to cull out infected badgers in ones and twos, very occasionally? (Or even taking pot shots at the scent markers ?) So we asked why should there have been this astonishingly quick result. Was anything else done? Biosecurity? Extra cattle measures? Pre movement testing? No cattle movements at all? Licenses? Shrink wrapped grass, raised troughs and cattle in hermetically sealed boxes?
 The answer:
" The fundamental difference between the Thornbury area and other areas [] where bovine tuberculosis was a problem, was the systematic removal of badgers from the Thornbury area. No other species was similarly removed. No other contemporaneous change was identified that could have accounted for the reduction in TB incidence within the area" [157949]
So as all this taxpayer funded 'research' spills into the press, hang on to those basic facts. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. And sometimes, simple squared really does equal stupid. .