Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Badger Trust pick up their pencil...

... and appeal the judgement, handed down by Mr. Justice Ouseley last week. In fact they appeal every point on which he trashed their original challenge. From Farmers Guardian report, (link later)
“It underlines the trust’s strong belief that the Government’s proposals to kill badgers in England are likely to do more harm than good,” the trust said, claiming that, despite the judge’s ruling, the science still showed ‘culling badgers can make no meaningful contribution to the eradication of bovine TB in Britain’.
FarmersGuardian has the full story, but those weasel words, contained in the ISG Final Report, were not bourne born out by their author's oral evidence to the EFRA committee, which we reported in this 2007 post.  To refresh your memories, this is what Professor John Bourne actually said, not what was written for him:.
"Let us go back to 1999 when we started our work. It was made very clear to us by ministers of the day - and they have not refuted it since - that elimination of badgers over large tracts of countryside was not an option for future policy".
"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."
and finally:
"Whatever has driven that I do not know [ try copious multi million ££ donations to political parties? - ed) 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".
"Culling, as conducted in this trial, can make no meaningful contribution to the eradication on bovine TB in Britain" is much more sensible that this oft quoted truncated version. But the man knew this at the beginning, he said he did and he geared his trial protocol to achieving it.

This expensive charade known as the RBCT  showed us exactly how not to control tuberculosis in badgers.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

2 + 2 = 1 - The bigger the lie...

The title makes no sense does it? Of course 2 + 2 doesn't equal 1 unless of course you happen to be a treasury bean counter, or in this case a TB statistician within Defra.

Over the past months, we have noticed that many articles, all culled from Defra press releases, refer with shock and horror to '25,000 cattle slaughtered in 2011'. Leaving aside the hiccoughs with Defra's new toy, a computer called SAM, who found it difficult to add up and abandoned its monthly stats mid way through the year, the final tally was not 25,000. Or not if you were wanting a figure comparable with previously quoted figures. The oft mis-quoted 25,000 or 26,394 to be precise, is the figure for England. But Defra always collated their figures for 'GB', not its devolved parts. Unless of course this dumbing down was deliberate act. Surely not?

For the pedants among you, the total cattle casualties for GB which SAM has coughed up for 2011 are 34,505, including 7971 for Wales and 140 for TB free Scotland.

 But far worse are Defra's statistician's mathematical gymnastics when collating  'other species' deaths from TB, or slaughterings in the course of a Defra inspired cull. We have highlighted this many times and originally had not a little fun, printing off the most ingenious reasons which Defra gave for not making 2 + 2 = 4. This post describes a list of exclusions, which at one point, was longer than the table itself.

Nothing changes, and we now learn of another ruse to dumb down the 'other species' figures.

If trace animals prove positive on another holding, or in another group; or if they are not traced but merely die from TB but have originated in another herd, the stats 'tether' them to the index outbreak. Thus, the 398 animals slaughtered in the Sussex alpaca TB breakdown would which we told you about in this posting,, would appear on the Defra tables as the single (or a couple if we're being generous) microbial sample, confirming bTB. But moving on, the four herds traced (so far) which bought animals from this source and were found to be infected, remain on Defra's unique abacus as 1 outbreak.
"Je größer die Lüge, desto mehr Menschen es glauben werden."
Paraphrased from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf in 1925, (but attributed also to Joseph Goebbels) the point of any political party's speeches is to persuade people of what they think right. ... misquoted or paraphrased the above phrase translates as: "The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed."

And this is how we come to have press releases and statements from Defra, indicating '25,000 cattle slaughtered last year' (but forgetting to say that they are only from a devolved part of the previously quoted total GB figures) and a very small handful of bTB outbreaks in alpacas, which of course, are no problem at all. Except to the many hundreds which are dead.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Over the first hurdle...

Press reports today tell us that the judge who presided over the Judicial Review into the proposed pilot badger culls, has not upheld the Badger Trust's challenge on its legality. However, despite this verdict, the legal threat has not entirely disappeared. The Badger Trust said it was ‘considering an appeal’, after the judge refused an oral request for appeal but left open the option of a written application.
 Farmers Guardian has more. And the Guardian's comment section has some predictably inane comments. The Farmers Union of Wales had this to say:
The Farmers’ Union of Wales today welcomed a High Court ruling that proposals to cull badgers in England to control bovine TB are legal.The Badger Trust had challenged the English proposals on three grounds, all of which were turned down. Responding to the decision, FUW’s TB spokesman, Carmarthen dairy farmer Brian Walters, said: “During the hearings the Badger Trust’s barrister acknowledged that they were not challenging the science behind culling badgers, but the legality of the decision. “The judge has made it clear that the English decision is legal and that licenses to cull badgers ‘for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease’ can be issued.”
Perhaps someone should point out to the learned judge that a moratorium, brought in in 1997, is still in force on that particular section of the Protection of Badgers Act, some 7 years after the RBCT ended its dispersal efforts.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Anytime soon would be good...

We read last weeks' news from Northern Ireland with great expectations. With a strapline "Northern Ireland Announces a Badger control Programme", one would expect the thing to be on the starting blocks.
The research project, which will involve a combination of culling and vaccination of badgers, could begin in targeted areas of Northern Ireland as early as next year, the Minister told the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. She has tasked her officials to develop an approach to bTB control that would involve testing live badgers in the targeted areas. Badgers that test negative for bTB will be vaccinated and released back into the wild, while those that test positive will be ‘removed'.
The majority of farmers we speak to, want this type of approach. Not 'wipe out', not 'extermination' or any other emotive claptrap designed on a Pythagoras based model, but a measured and parallel strategy to protect other mammals from tuberculosis carried by free ranging wildlife. What was interesting was the reported response to this announcement. A measured welcome from Ulster Farming union with the caveat that this approach might take a while, but from the Belfast Telegraph report:
The Northern Ireland Badger Group also said it welcomed the minister’s announcement of a science-led badger strategy.
Well ain't that a surprise? After decades of blaming cattle and their owners for the spread of tuberculosis among many other mammals (and human beings), they 'welcome a science led badger strategy'. Mmmm.
So we asked exactly what 'screeening tests' would be used to identify groups of infected badgers. Together with others who enquired, we received what can only be described as a 'fudge' :
“Considerable preparatory work is required before the TVR approach can be finalised. The first step will be to commission the necessary mathematical modelling in order to help us design this wildlife intervention research to ensure that it is scientifically robust. This modelling will help us to answer “what if” questions, identify the most appropriate area, the optimum size of that area, and the appropriate duration of the intervention.
Methods of badger capture and removal and the types of tests to be used are also under consideration as part of this preparatory work. Animal welfare considerations will be paramount in the test, vaccinate, remove (TVR) approach that we are planning to pursue in the north of Ireland. We are committed to ensuring that any badger removal will be undertaken in as humane a manner as possible and in compliance with the terms and conditions of any legal requirements.”
So what is on the table to 'model' as a screening test for TB ridden badgers? This has been trialled before. First a lab based blood assay, known as the 'Brock Test' about which the ISG in their Final Report had this to say:
1.7 [] ... A live test for badgers had been developed and subject to trial from 1994-96, but its sensitivity was much poorer than had been hoped, successfully detecting only about 40% of infected badgers (Clifton-Hadley et al., 1995-a,Woodroffe et al., 1999)
Then Chambers et al, they of the '74 per cent' fame at FERA had the following comments having investigated the Stat-Pak blood screen :
The Brock TB Stat-Pak is a lateral flow assay to test for the presence of antibodies in serum to M. bovis antigen MPB83. It has an estimated sensitivity of 49.2% and an estimated specificity of 93.1% based on a study of 1464 badgers naturally infected with M. bovis as determined by culture (Chambers et al., 2008). Sensitivity of the Stat-Pak varies according to disease severity, such that sensitivity was found to be 34.4% in infected badgers with no visible lesions at post mortem, 66.1% in infected badgers with visible lesions at post mortem, 41.7% in infected badgers that excrete M. bovis; rising to 78.1% in so-called "Super-Excretor‟ badgers (Chambers et al., 2008).
So, to date, with much fanfare publicity, not born out by the results of 40% and 49% sensitivity respectively, two laboratory based blood tests, which require animal capture and blood samples before action - in either direction. Compare this, to the total media silence on this screening test, which can be field based, uses faecal samples, is pretty much instant and whose candidates may either vaccinated or 'removed' on results of over 80 per cent sensitivity - and no false positives. PCR is now a peer reviewed and validated test for TB in badgers, and awaits a larger field trial. Where? Ireland? Wales? England? Don't all shout at once.

We wait with baited breath, the results of the 'modelling' described in our reply to 'how are you going to do this'. Of course, being simple souls, we could suggest using the sentinel tested cattle as 'canaries' of a wildlife problem. But that wouldn't involve a 'scientist' or a model. We are assured that no coughing badger will be harmed in this exercise, but don't expect anything to happen any time soon. They still have to work out the 'removal' bit.

(With acknowledgement and thanks to Ken Wignall for the use of his cartoon, first published in Farmers Guardian)