Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cull conflict

(This post has been updated)

As two small pilot badger culls get underway in Somerset and Gloucestershire, the airwaves are full with pictures of badgerists holding vigils and farmers showing off their prime cattle - still alive at the moment.

Dear old Krebs has been wheeled out again, spluttering that the pilot shooting party idea is 'insane'. And he could well be right. But how much more insane was the political tweaking of his original very well thought out project by a diminutive professor, who was sooooo proud to identify his puppeteers?

All this current discord is a predictable spin off from the mathematical models produced by Professor Bourne's RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial team. Their base 'rough assumptions' and 'estimates' projected up, up and away and grabbed eagerly by Defra's mandarins as an excuse for inaction.

Historical veterinary data was available. It was not used. Epidemiological information about this bacterium and how it performs in various situations has been known for over a century. That was ignored.
Job creation has flourished, as both badgers, cattle and now many other mammals have died - from one of the most deadly zoonoses on this planet. Tuberculosis.

 This argument or polemic should never be about badgers or cattle. It is about an international statute to protect humans from tuberculosis. And that is the point.

 The more infected badgers around, the more Defra's heap of skin tested sentinel cattle reactors has grown.

Our chart shows the various loosening up of badger controls over decades of non-strategy and the inevitable rise in cattle slaughtering.  In 1997 a moratorium was placed on Section 10 (2) (a) of the Protection of Badgers Act . And in answer to Owen Paterson's Parliamentary Questions almost a decade ago:
Under section 10 (2) (a) - to prevent the spread of disease: "It is current policy not to issue any licenses under sub section 10 (2) (a) to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis, except for animals held in captivity."
And since that moratorium on Section 10(2)a) (purchased in 1997 with Political Animal Lobby cash) we have culled no badgers 'to prevent the spread of disease' , except a very few in the RBCT, the operating protocol of which ensured not the control of Zoonotic tuberculosis, but its spread.

Defra has studiously ignored its own dead sentinels while piling more insults and restrictions on their owners.

The inevitable result is more upspill of zoonotic tuberculosis into other mammals (alpacas, sheep, pigs, and especially cats and dogs) despite valiant attempts by the AHVLA carcase counters to dumb down their own true figures. Which means more opportunities for transmission of zoonotic tuberculosis to the owners of these animals. And that's without mentioning direct contact with detritus of infected badgers, marking children's play areas or domestic gardens.

And that is the reason for culling badgers.

 For the future, to quote a timely and iconic statement, we have a dream. We would like Krebs' original prediction of PCR diagnostics to 'identify infected badger setts within 2 years' to be brought to fruition. No more mathematically modeled plots with indiscriminate population reduction overseen by a quango which has made no secret of its opposition to culling badgers for any reason at all.

And we support targeted underground culls based on the presence of disease.

Thus cattle farmers can see a badger and appreciate his stripey face, without that sinking feeling of expectation of the inevitable cattle reactors at the next TB test.

 Edit: An addition to this piece from today's Farmers Guardian online, where opposition spokesperson and MP for inner city Wakefield, the fragrant Mary Creagh, hinted at plans to abandon badger control, should her party gain power in 2015.

Allowing for a couple of 'off' periods where badgers rear more cubs than have been culled, that's about a year away. So we better get on with Plan B hadn't we?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

All clear - in 5 years?

We have been alerted to literature produced by Wildlife Trusts in the English midlands, which tell their members and contributors that if badgers are vaccinated, tuberculosis, the disease which is endemic in them, will cease to be a problem in 5 years. Thus the conclusion is no cull, vaccinate instead.

Sounds easy doesn't it? But is it?

 The Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust are confident that there will be no bovine TB in badgers after their five year vaccination programme.

 They do mention that vaccination only works in badgers that do not have the disease already.

 But Neil Pilcher, the Senior Conservation Officer at the Trust, says
"..those badgers in the area that are already infected with the virus will die off within the project timescale."
Very comforting. For the pedants amongst us (and of course for Mr. Pilcher ) mycobacterium bovis is a bacterium. The clue is in the full title. It is not a virus. And it would be naive to assume that all or most of uninfected local Leicestershire badgers will be cage trapped and vaccinated annually over the next 5 years, and equally naive to assume that because this product is licensed, it actually works.

As we've said before, the license was issued by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) in 2010 on 'elf and safety' data, holds a Limited Marketing Authority (LMA) license only and as VMD so quaintly point out, its efficacy is the 'responsibility of the end user'. 

 Also piling in on the act is the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, who point out that the pilot culls are "being undertaken as part of measures against the devastating impacts of bovine tuberculosis (TB), a disease which is carried and transmitted by badgers and other wildlife (one water vole??) as well as cattle, and costs the UK cattle farming industry tens of millions of pounds every year".

They also say that:
With the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border identified as another hotspot for bovine TB, a cull could be carried out in Derbyshire in 2014.
After this overview they then regurgitate - incorrectly - the conclusions of the Badger Dispersal Trial RBCT, and thus the Trust condemns culling. Not culling ' as done in this trial', but completely. They point out that an injectible badger vaccine is now available and has been used by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.
They continue:
In Derbyshire, we are planning a five-year programme of badger vaccination, starting in 2014. This will contribute to the local control of bovine TB by creating immunity in a population of Derbyshire badgers.

Badger BCG vaccine alone is not the solution to bovine TB, but it does have an immediate effect with no known negative impact other than cost.

Our five-year programme aims to make a worthwhile contribution towards finding a solution to a serious animal disease problem and to explore the practicalities of vaccination. This important work will take a great deal of our time and resources and is currently unfunded.

Please make a contribution to this appeal to help protect Derbyshire’s badgers and fight the scourge of bovine TB.
He's right about badger BCG not being the solution to the problem but no known negative impact? And the cost is £2500 - £4000 per hectare. Or as Wales found out, £662 per badger in one year ?
With already infected wild badgers cage trapped, stressed out, jabbed and released, the jury is out.

So where has this mythical '5 years' to achieve badger immunity come from? Look no further than a Jack and Jill Q & A page on the Defra / AHVLA website. Of course neither of these august bodies are interested in the health of badgers, only in so far as it affects cattle and taxpayer's cash. For this they have a statutory responsibility to test and pay up for tested cattle reactors. A responsibility they seem loathe to shoulder, but let that pass.

The Q & A goes like this:
How long will it take to see a positive effect on the levels of bovine TB in cattle? Mathematical modelling work carried out by researchers at both the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA, formerly the Central Science Laboratory) and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) showed that a number of factors will influence the how long it will take for a reduction in disease levels in badgers to translate into an impact on cattle disease.

Whether wild badgers can be caught at all ? We understand there are not many volunteers from genuinely wild populations which are completely different from Woodchester's peanut fed pets.

These include vaccine efficacy, the proportion of badgers vaccinated, what contribution badgers make to the disease in cattle and how effective cattle controls are at preventing cattle to cattle spread.
As we have said, no data was submitted for BCG vaccine efficacy. And all these assumptions for badger BCG rely on mathematically modeled blood tests of those badgers which turned up for a health check.

The contribution to the spread of zoonotic tuberculosis made by badgers is easy. AHVLA risk assessments after new breakdowns, say up to 90% in endemic areas.

And as for the last 40 years of collating information on strains, cattle haven't plastered the countryside with a kaleidoscope of different TB spoligotypes, cattle movements and cattle to cattle spread is overstated by a long mile.
The vaccine is unlikely to benefit already infected badgers, in which case these animals will need to die off naturally for the disease risk to cattle from badgers to be reduced.

Unlikely? It could finish them off, but let that pass.

How long will allowing diseased badgers to 'die off naturally' take and how many victims skin test reactors or pets and companion mammals will die on the way?

Most badgers have a lifespan of just 3 to 5 years and the annual population turnover of the UK badger population is estimated to be 30%, therefore we expect that it will take 5 years to vaccinate a sufficient number of naive badgers to achieve herd immunity and reduce TB incidence within a badger population.
Other work by FERA suggested that an infected badger can live for up to 9 years: an infected sow produces cubs annually over that time and in the confines of the sett, it is likely she will have infected her cubs before they see daylight - or a needle.
And finally from this comforting load of tosh, where all badgers will volunteer for their jabs, the vaccination miraculously works - immediately and no one sees the death throws of a tuberculous badger:
We do not know how long it will take for this to translate in to a reduction in cattle herd breakdowns
Actually, you do. Defra predicted that in some of their paperwork - and it ain't 5 years. A thumbnail of facts about badger BCG can be found here, where Defra quote an estimated time frame for the procedure to affect the population and its upspill into sentinel tested cattle, thus:
"If only 50% of badgers can be trapped and injected with a vaccine which is only 50% effective, and only 50% of farms are involved the disease control benefit becomes rapidly diminished in any given year - 50% of 50% of 50% = 12.5% of the potential available benefit. While there will be a benefit, as any level of vaccination will produce a benefit, it will take substantially longer to appear in terms of reduced cattle breakdowns and vaccination will have to continue for a much longer time in order to accrue the benefit."
That paragraph contains a lot of 'ifs' - as do most of Defra's predictions about badgers and the zoonotic tuberculosis which they carry. But the first 50 per cent (badgers trapped) appears optimistic when applied to a wild population, with single figures being bandied about by some areas.
The 50 per cent efficacy is also a mathematical model, but possibly a good deal more accurate than the mischievous and misleading headline of '74 per cent' which is still doing the rounds.
But bear in mind that BCG does not prevent tuberculosis in any candidate. It may, if it works at all, reduce the size of and spread from lesions. So over generations may damp down disease.

 But Defra have also told us why they are so keen on badger BCG.

This phrase is contained in a 2011 paper on controlling zoonotic tuberculosis:
a): Bovine tuberculosis Animal species: Badger vaccination: Description of the used vaccination, therapeutic or other scheme Badger BCG licensed in March 2010 has been used as part of the Badger Vaccine Deployment Project to build farmer confidence in vaccines as a key tool in an eradication programme.
To build farmer confidence?
What an extraordinary reason for promoting a vaccine which may not work at all, or may not work in an acceptable time scale, for a zoonotic disease which kills.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Death by 1000 cuts

This is the story of a beef farmer who is giving up the unequal struggle between his business and badgers infected with tuberculosis.

A story with which we can both empathise and sympathise.

Until 2007  Mervyn Mullard farmed (please note past tense here) 200 head of beef suckler cattle, all bearing his own herdmark - with one exception. The herd bull, which was replaced every 5 or 6 years to avoid inbreeding when his daughters were brought into the herd. And since then, Mr. Mullard has lost 130 of those cattle as reactors to TB.

Left with just 50 cows and their calves, the business is no longer viable, and rather then put himself and his business through this crazy 60 day merry-go-round of testing and slaughter, he accepts that if TB doesn't take the remainder of his cattle, he will let them go by natural wastage. No more heifers will be retained as breeding cattle. The vegans may clap their hands, but buying imported beef to feed the masses, while consigning the British countryside to tuberculous wildlife, in the longterm is not very smart.
 Farmers Weekly report that:
Mr Mullard, who farms 200 mixed cattle on his farm in Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, said he had spent nearly 50 years building up his herd, which had remained free of the disease until badger numbers exploded in the area. It has left him in no doubt that a cull has to be part of a series of measures to tackle the disease in cattle and allow healthy wildlife to flourish.
"I want to see healthy badgers and healthy cattle, but at the moment that's not possible. It's left me in the position where I won't be replacing my heifers and will instead be winding down my herd."
"I only used to see one or two badgers across the whole farm, but now I can see 20 badgers in just one field some evenings," he said. "I have even had sick badgers in my garden, which is horrible to see".
"I want to see healthy badgers and healthy cattle, but at the moment that's not possible. It's left me in the position where I won't be replacing my heifers and will instead be winding down my herd."
This story is expanded in Farmers Guardian with an intriguing comment about vaccinating these infected badgers, some of which have been seen sick and dying in Mr. Mullard's garden.
 Mr. Mullard told Farmers Guardian that:
...he was working with the Badger Trust on a four-year vaccination programme but questioned its effectiveness after only four badgers out of ‘around 50’ were trapped and vaccinated in the first year.

With the rules only allowing [trapping] badgers over two nights he said it was essential that the protocol and methods deployed for vaccinating badgers were improved to make the process more worthwhile.
You did read that correctly. Vaccinators are only allowed to trap on two nights, then they have to walk away. If they catch none, they are allowed a further two nights..
And their trapping success rate? Just 4 out of 50?? And those 50 of unknown health status? Madness.

As is wasting taxpayer's money on testing six times a year for 6 years and killing 130 head of cattle from a closed herd, while leaving sick badgers to reinfect and reinfect and reinfect. Spreading the disease both amongst themselves and to any mammal crossing their infectious path. Madness.

About a mad as this carnage, to which we shall return next week with an update.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The computer doesn't lie.

That is a an phrase used by many to defend reports, discussions, research projects or practically anything really. But is that true?

Regular readers will have noticed that courtesy of Pete, the blog fairy, we've had a face lift giving us a new sleeker look. And a side bar with the most popular posts, or most read, or something like that.

But are they? Only our editors have access to the blogger Dashboard, but guess what?
The computer has lied.

There are half a dozen posts which deserve more prominence than the one describing Brian May swinging a badger around his bushy head.

 That of course is not the airbrushed PR stunner used to advertise Team Badger, but ours is more realistic we think.

We don't believe that one post on that right hand side bar has had 27,856 views either - but we digress.

Below are a few more 'popular posts' which on Blogger count page views should have appeared, but by some strange mathematical fluke by His Lordship Blogger, do not.

 Following Dr. May's wildly inaccurate statements in defence of zoonotic tuberculosis badgers, this post from 2010 attempts to put the record straight on GB's pathetic history of non policies for dealing with zoonotic tuberculosis.

We used a chart of cattle slaughtered, overlaid with different non-strategies and prevarications to illustrate the dramatic increase in deaths, following the various clamp downs on badger control over three decades.

Another post, which on the Blogger computer's list of page views, merited a mention was A Vet's view of the Badger Dispersal Trial RBCT. We posted this one in 2006.

And this posting  was not the first time that the Badger Trust's verbal gymnastics had attracted our attention in our story about TB incidence on the Isle of Man.

And now something which really irritates every cattle farmer with his cattle firmly nailed to the floor, testing every 60 days and shooting many. This posting describes the utter craziness of the imbalance between badger and cattle controls in this country.

We called it  'Relocation'. And unfortunately, animal sanctuaries are still moving badgers around the country, despite even tougher rules on cattle movements. Many sanctuary owners are  never seen without an armful of baby badgers. All seeking new homes, having been 'rescued'.
Want one? Anyone can apply. From any location.


Finally the architect of many of our current mathematically modeled problems, bowing to his computer which never lies of course; the arch wizard of the culling trial is in full voice. Professor John Bourne speaking to the Efra Committee..

Read his statements - so many time misquoted - and weep.

And remember, the computer never lies. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Could do better?

The industry's reaction to Defra's latest Consultation (the third in eight years) on how or whether to cull badgers in response to breakdowns of zoonotic tuberculosis in cattle, is unusually sceptical. In fact pretty much as we posted  last week. And although perhaps more politely phrased, the message is the same.

 Farmers Guardian carries comments from the NFU, in their combined report of David Cameron's visit to North Devon show last week. Polishing bucolic egos, Mr Cameron referred to farmers as the 'backbone' of the rural community. But last November, wasn't it the very same 'David Cameron' who exercised a downward push on CAP payments which have led to a 30 per cent reduction for the UK? It was. So UK farmers will certainly need that 'backbone' to survive heavily subsidised imports from their closest trading competitors. But we digress.

 FG's report quotes from an NFU  letter to the minister and their concern over this latest consultation:
“The NFU and most farmers accept that TB eradication will require simultaneous action on a number of fronts. But the common perception is that additional cattle controls have been progressively ratcheted up along with a promise of a comprehensive approach but, ultimately, no action has been taken on badgers,” the letter states.

The letter warns the document is ‘lacking in any detailed rationale or risk-based analysis for many of the elements of the strategy’.
But there's plenty of detail on cattle measures in the damn thing, and therein lies the problem. As we said when it was launched, shaft me once, shame on you. Shaft me twice, shame on me.

And this is the third bundle produced by Defra's apparatchiks ' yet still there is SFA nothing positive for cattle, sheep alpaca or pig farmers to support on a TB policy 'in the round'. Just vague fluff on contraception, vaccination, and new technology for badgers. Sometime..

 The Western Morning News carried the story in which it noted a significant change of tack for the NFU: 
.... formerly seen as broadly supportive of the Government's bovine TB eradication programme, the organisation (NFU)  has signalled its dissatisfaction with progress so far.

There is widespread anger that officials have launched a "tick box" consultation, threatening restrictions on livestock movements, before pilot badger culls have even started.

And in a further action of defiance the NFU has said it will not complete the DEFRA consultation – an electronic questionnaire rating answers by multiple choice – but will instead set out its core principles, which puts building trust among farmers at the top of the list.

Kevin Pearce, NFU director for England and Wales, told the Western Morning News he didn't "doubt the sincerity" of the Secretary of State Owen Paterson but said cattle farmers had been given so many broken promises they "just don't believe it".
We too, do not doubt the sincerity of the Secretary of State. The same cannot be said of the mandarins who run his department. And the NFU are correct about the tick box, computer read, multiple choice answer to very specific questions.

Our advice would be the same. Write your own answer, but make it short and make your feelings clear. 

Monday, August 05, 2013

August update.

A couple of snippets have come in to us this last couple of days to which we'll link, and just paste tasters for readers to explore the stories for themselves. Meanwhile we are ploughing on through the extraordinarily cryptic Consultation document, looking for commitment to a policy which includes wildlife management.

Not that we need one from our Secretary of State, Owen Paterson MP, but from the lackeys who have prepared the 117 page document. And probably prepared the previous versions as well.

But until that elusive beast 'vaccination' arrives and while Defra are still dreaming up ways to clobber cattle farmers, Professor Glyn Hewinson, speaking at an AHVLA briefing last week warned that Defra's estimate of a time line for an oral BCG vaccine for badgers was 'optimistic'.

Reported by Wales on line, Prof. Hewinson pointed out that:
“The draft TB eradication strategy that’s just been released by Defra suggests a timeline of 2019 for the first availability of an oral vaccine, but that is the most optimistic timeline and of course it’s still at the research stage, and if we knew exactly how long it would take then it wouldn’t be research.”
He also said that AHVLA had no idea of the effect BCG orally baited badgers would have on cattle TB, which is why AHVLA wanted more farmers to sign up.
“One of the big evidence gaps we have in TB control is how vaccinating badgers will affect TB in cattle,” he said. “One of the things we’re very keen on is to encourage people to make use of Defra’s funding pool for training lay vaccinators to go out and vaccinate badgers so that we can generate data to see what effect vaccinating badgers might have on cattle TB.”
It would be churlish to point out that vaccinating un-prescreened badgers which are already infected with zoonotic tuberculosis, is perhaps not the brightest of ideas. And that not all wild badgers are as keen to participate in this exercise as AHVLA's newly trained vaccinators.

And then there's the problem of chucking shed loads of baited peanuts around in areas where cattle can access them and become reactors to their next skin test. But we'll mention these problems anyway.

 Meanwhile from TBfree England (the original site - not the young pretender) a letter from a Goucestershire vet, Rob Darvill. Mr Darvill writes passionately about how his training was not to deliver death sentences to his client's cattle, while offering them platitudes, but no solution to a problem not of their own making:
"In the area where I practice in Gloucestershire, 78 per cent of the cattle farmers I work with have had a TB breakdown in the past two years. It’s a disease you always hope you’re never going to find in a herd. When you start getting large numbers of reactors you start crossing your fingers and hoping that the next cow, and the next one, will be clear because you’re watching a disaster unfold in front of you and you are powerless to stop it or provide any hope or comfort.

"You’re essentially watching yourself destroy the business of someone who, until that point, you’ve been helping, by treating and curing their animals so they can thrive.

Nothing can prepare you for that."
Click this link for the full text of Mr. Darvill's letter, which describes the problems most SW cattle vets have. The content will also be achingly familiar to any cattle farmer unlucky enough to be farming in a zoonotic TB hotspot.

And finally, a letter in reply to William Langley's article in the Sunday Telegraph (28/07/2013) which we discussed in this posting:

The letter is from Robin Don, of Norfolk who says " Culling badgers is the only way to stop TB ".
SIR – I have great sympathy with Angela Sargent, whose situation as a dairy farmer in Derbyshire is intolerable (report, July 28). Tuberculosis (TB) causes terrible suffering to badgers.

In the worst affected areas, between 50 and 90 per cent of the population is infected. All will eventually die of TB. This cannot be right.

If Derbyshire County Council really cares about its badgers, it will aim to achieve a TB-free badger population. Informed veterinary opinion has established that this will never be achieved by vaccination and certainly not with the BCG vaccine, which has proved its ineffectiveness so conclusively that it is no longer used for humans.

Culling of infected setts to achieve a balanced population is the only sensible solution. Of course this must be done in as humane a way as possible. Vaccination only exacerbates the problem.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

"Farmers don't trust Ministers....

.. to beat TB" was the front page headline in the Western Morning News yesterday.

This was the impression given to the paper's editors attending  the first of a series of meetings to discuss Defra's latest consultation on the way forward out of a mess of their own making. Perhaps that headline should have read "Farmers don't trust Defra.. " but we digress..

 The general impression was not one of support.

Too much emphasis on cattle measures which will cripple the industry within the 'zoned' red area, and 'premature' ahead of the pilot culls which have yet to take place, were just two of the points very forcefully made.

 For a partnership to work, then both 'partners' must agree. And farmers attending these meetings had the impression that Defra was kite flying. Passing all the efficiencies costs they could onto cattle farmers, while hoping that they'd agree to at least some, in exchange for ..... what??

The wildlife part of this so-called package was variously described as 'fluff', 'vague' and ill thought out - if had been thought of at all.

And many remarked, as have we, that they'd been here before. In 2005 and 2010.

 It was suggested by one speaker that  Defra had effectively abdicated its responsibility for an EU strategy (on the eradication of zoonotic tuberculosis) to which it was a signatory. And that as its current policy suggestions would put many cattle farmers out of business, recourse to the European Court of Human Rights might be an option?

It was pretty unanimous that the 25 year time line mentioned, was ridiculously long. And that if wildlife reservoirs were tackled, then incidence of zoonotic tuberculosis in cattle, alpacas, sheep, pigs and domestic pets would drop like a stone and very quickly.

 Also bitterly criticised was the idea of zoning, which also reinforced what an expensive farce preMovement testing (introduced as part of the 2005/6 consultation) really was. A shot in its proverbial foot which Defra seems to have missed?

Bio garbage security measures had been put in place by many, they said. But to no good effect at all.

So what is left? The pilot shooting parties? Tiny in size, uncertain in outcome and unproven in effect. And bugger all else for wildlife control which farmers can get their collective teeth into, read and understand. But stacks more cattle measures, which they have read and fear will come.

They note that there is no statute proposed for Camelids bouncing around the country, and no mention of licenses for badger rescue sanctuaries, happily shifting badgers around to anyone who volunteers an orchard for them to play in.

So what now? Do farmers have to take control of this as they did with BSE, to prevent a complete melt down of our cattle industry, and spin off problems into other mammals too?

 We discussed our Plan B in this posting, and our thumbnail conclusion then was to target the disease itself in the following way:
1. A structured investigation using veterinary expertise, to locate clean setts, and protect them. This can be done at the same time as reactor mapping, already done by AHVLA staff - but unused, and gathering dust. Join the farms up into as big an area as possible.

2. Overlay those maps with locations of badger territories interacting with any confirmed reactor animals.

3. Use of cutting edge validated technology (PCR) to confirm infected groups.

4. Targeting only groups so identified by steps 1 and 2 and confirmed by 3 - underground euthanasia using a material which, in a sub lethal dose will not maim, and possibly carried in a product such as this.
There should be complete removal of groups so identified, and only these, to halt the carnage ripping through our countryside. Fewer badgers would be culled and only infectious ones; clean ones protected and nurtured with more space.

What's not to like?