Monday, January 27, 2014

Falling off the edge?

This week, the journal Nature, published the result of the latest badger census, - [link] which showed an increase of over 100 per cent in main setts. This is not to be confused with the controversial head count last year, when teams from the same agencies changed the numbers a couple of times and Owen Paterson blamed the badgers for 'changing the goalposts'..

In this census, only main setts or 'dens' were counted, with authors reserving the right to 'further research' before commenting on their occupancy. From the report:
"While badger sett surveys are well suited to estimating the abundance of social groups, on their own they are limited in their suitability for estimating populations of individual animals. This is principally because sett characteristics are a poor predictor of badger numbers, and group size can vary widely making it difficult to obtain a representative mean across an adequate sample. We are currently undertaking work to estimate group sizes across a large sample of setts in order to estimate badger population size".
No, we couldn't work that one out either. Particularly as the same agencies trousered £3.17m for counting badger heads and paws prior to those pilot culls; a task which they now describe sett side, as 'limited' in ability to estimate its occupants.
 Since the early 1980s the accepted formula for counting badgers has been an average of 6/8 adults per main sett, updated to 8/10 adults as populations expanded in the 1980s.

Exploring more of this paper,  Farmers Guardian - [ link ] has some snippets and comments and few more from the paper, we highlight below:
"The implications of increasing badger populations are numerous.

Badgers are the largest terrestrial carnivore in the British Isles. They feed across numerous trophic levels, and largely eat soil invertebrates, but will also prey upon ground nesting birds, hedgehogs and other vertebrates. Evaluation of the ecological impact of badger culling during the Randomised Badger Culling Trial identified an increase in fox abundance associated with reductions in badger density while reciprocal relationships between hedgehog [] and badger distributions suggest that increasing badger numbers might have had a negative impact on hedgehogs."
I think we get the picture. Too many badgers = not much of anything else? Including the 'iconic' hedgehog. Although whether those 'ecological surveys' conducted for the RBCT  by a graduate standing for 4 minutes on a red X within 1000 acres, once a year, achieved anything at all - is debatable,

We are also, thanks to the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial very well aware of the danger of shattering TB infected social groups, especially when the infection level of such groups in areas of endemic tuberculosis is typically around '43 per cent'. (quote: Mark Chambers - FERA)

But typically, this paper concludes:
"In terms of tuberculosis epidemiology, at a local level, disease prevalence and incidence appears to vary with mobility among groups and prevalence has been shown to be higher in smaller social groups. Consequently, despite a broad landscape scale correlation between the incidence of TB in cattle and the distribution of badgers, badger social group density alone may not predict patterns of TB infection in badgers or cattle."
But it's not just cattle, however much Defra and its quangoes would like to pigeonhole zTB to that end. After all, we're told often enough that cattle get killed anyway." - [link] But last December, that myth was well and truly busted with the publication of Defra tables which may be a tad more accurate than their previous efforts, which deliberately listed the single confirming sample.

Thus 'bovine' TB is no longer a 'bovine' problem', - [link]  but a problem for many grazing mammals and sadly,  their owners too.

But what does that 103 per cent increase in badger main setts actually  mean for their English inhabitants?

 Apart from an indication of the success of their voracious and high profile protectors, the level of disease (quoted by FERA) in these animals is quite shocking. But more than that, where are they expected to live?

They can't sit on each others' shoulders. They have to go somewhere. But to find them gazing out to sea from a Cornish beach is unusual to say the least.

The 'Nature' report concludes:
" Nonetheless, our survey represents a robust, national-scale assessment of badger social group abundance in 2013. It is comparable in approach to those based on sett surveys conducted in 1985–88 and 1994–97 and so is the best, and probably only, basis on which to assess badger population change at the national scale."
And the survey reported a doubling of main setts. And from our picture above, taken on a Cornish beach last weekend, one could assume, that there are so many badgers now that they are falling off the edge of our overcrowded island. A victim of their protectors' success.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Natural England and badger 007 licenses.

Since the much talked about, but rather elusive 'moratorium' on culling badgers 'to prevent the spread of disease', in 1997, Defra quango Natural England has consistently opposed the issuing of licenses for farmers with herds under TB restriction to cull badgers - should they be the source of the herd breakdown.

In fact spokespersons for NE say they have issued no such licenses in the last 15 years.

Prior to NE's tenancy of such licensing, in answers to Parliamentary Questions [Hansard 18th March 2004 - Col.431 W [158605] the answer given was similarly unequivocal:
"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"
Originally the paper shield of the RBCT was used for this moratorium's existance. But having ended in 2006,  that excuse is now looking rather threadbare.

However,  a number of such 007 licenses have been issued both by Natural England or their predecessors.

 In fact, since 2002, records show that 22 licenses to kill badgers have been issued involving 311 animals. - [link]  The NE criteria for this category of license is 'Disease' and the option across the spread sheet data is 'kill'. And in another document we see that the vast majority of licenses issued 2002 - 2011  for culling of TB infected badgers, were to premises in Somerset with the description of purpose:
"Euthanasia of TB infected badgers". 
Now that rather knocks on the head the old argument of  "you can't tell if a (live) badger has TB or not" does it not? So, musing aloud here, is the difference in license application between a farmer losing shed loads of cattle (or an alpaca, sheep or pig farmer losing his herd) and suspecting badgers by default, and badgers testing positive to TB by such sanctuaries as Secret World - [link] the crucial difference?

 Or is the difference, as the PQ answer implies, between 'wild' badgers and those held in captivity?

Of course zTuberculosis doesn't differentiate between the two such badgery hosts:  and it would be churlish to point out that wild badgers have more than a fighting chance of sharing their disease.
We could also point out that farmers, with a little help from AHVLA, badger tracking and possibly PCR can also identify tuberculous badgers - and probably with a great deal more accuracy than those tested in sanctuaries.
But we digress...

From that link to Secret World, the fragrant Ms. Kidner has tested 600 baby badgers and euthanased 78 of them as positive to the old Brock test.

Now this is a blood assay test trialled in the mid 1990s as a 'live test trial' and which although it proved pretty accurate on a positive, with published sensitivity of just 40.7 per cent, was dangerously inaccurate on a negative. It was so bad that even the diminutive John Bourne said it was rubbish, as did our Parliamentary Questions. The ISG Final Report described this test, (used by some, but not all, sanctuaries to screen its badgers before re-locating them) thus:
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-and Woodroffe et al., 1999)
Since 2006, Natural England have held the competence for the issuing of  licenses to control badgers on a 20 year lease, as we explained in this posting. - [link]   But having spent a fruitless couple of hours trawling the Protection of Badgers Act (1991) for any sign of a Statutory Instrument, debated in Parliament which would legally support NE or their predecessor's stance on Section 10 licenses and this mysterious 'moratorium', our co editor patiently explained, 'it's not there'.

So, unless we've missed something, it is no use looking for that 1997 moratorium on Section 10 (2) a anywhere in writing to check NE's interpretation. Apparently, it does not exist. So how did this road block on a legal Act of Parliament come into being? Cooked up behind the equivalent of the Parliamentary bike sheds in exchange for £1m bung? Value for money then, if you factor in a £1 billion spend, 350,000 dead cattle and the possibility of another trade ban.

 And if that is how easily the Laws of this land are tweaked, what is the point of the rather grand building in the picture below, which is pretending to be the cradle of democracy ?

Paragraph 9 of the Protection of Badgers Act states quite clearly that:
"A licence under this section shall not be unreasonably withheld" .
And they are being withheld. Or, unlike those issued for sanctuary blood test failures, their conditions of issue to farmers made so damn difficult, complicated and expensive to operate that they can only be described as designed to fail - [link]

Perhaps a small levy on our 9million remaining cattle would help ease things along, if that is how this Parliament operates?

Finally, unNatural England, having made such a horlicks of counting badgers for the last pilot culls, and who together with their friends at FERA trousered a reported £3.17m for their trouble, are inviting expressions of interest, should the pilot culls be deemed acceptable enough to be rolled out again this year.

Details of criteria to be met are pretty much as onerous as before and can be found on this link. - [link]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

SAM - not fit for purpose?

The sorry saga of Great Britain's struggle with successive governmental non-policies for the eradication of zTuberculosis can be, or could have been, tracked by a glance at the statistics which Defra / AHVLA produce(d) monthly.
 But thanks to a new, state of the art, multi million £££ computer system with the acronym 'SAM' these are once again suspended and up for investigation.

As we reported in this posting, - [link] taking over from the 'VetNet' computer system, SAM started his carnage in the autumn of 2011. More chaos and upgrades followed - [link] as we tracked his progress - [link] into 2012.

 Finally, the statisticians and analysts were happy - if AHVLA vets and farmers weren't - and in evidence - [link] to the EFRA committee on the 1st February 2012, AHVLA admitted the chaos 'should never have happened' but would fixed as soon as possible.

And by April 2012, AHVLA statistical analysts were confident - [link] that all was well. Until yesterday, when all TB statistics were again suspended pending yet another revision of input data. - [link]

Farmers Guardian has the full, sad and sorry tale of this monumental cock up.

Meanwhile the multi million £ white elephant known as SAM, having had huge and expensive resources thrown at him and numerous 'upgrades,' is once again acknowledged as being 'not fit for purpose.'
We hear that AHVLA may have to return to their old system of disease monitoring, developed internally in the late 1980s / early 90s by people who actually knew what they were doing.

Computers will only do what they are programmed to do. And based on what appears to duplicated or inaccurate information, SAM is still churning out overdue and penalty notice letters to farmers at a rate of knots, regardless of circumstances.

This data is now linked to the RPA computers - [link] and swinging penalties applied for alleged discretions. But it would appear that this particular computer (SAM) isn't always right.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Paying twice?

We note with interest and not a little curiosity that the press has released a set of figures - [link] which  assess the cost of the pilot badger culls using free shooting, at £4,100 per badger shot.

Wildlife charity 'Care for the Wild', through various sources, has attributed the costs of the shooting parties thus:

Farmer contribution was assessed at £1.49m, with policing of the cull areas, including police travelling time accounting for £2.66m.

But the biggest slice of  the £7.3m largesse goes to Natural England, FERA and Defra who, having dreamed up the most complicated, bureaucratic and divisive - [link] load of tosh ever, trousered £3.17m. 

One may wonder, what these governmental quangoes do for a day job, if this sort of 'work' is audited separately? And it also bears pointing out that in most civilised countries, the control of zTuberculosis whatever its source, is by statute. These laws are not subject to add on 'policing' costs and they invite custodial sentences for those who break them and encourage its spread..

Spokesman for 'Care for the Wild,' Dominic Dyer, also claimed:
... the figures undermined any justification for rolling culling out to new areas this year and claimed that, over four years, the costs of culling would outweigh the financial benefits of reduced disease incidence by more than seven times.
Those simplistic mathematical gymnastics ignore a very important side effect of allowing widespread zTuberculosis to decimate our cattle herds.  And that is the cost to the UK economy of another trade ban. - [ link] Which may be the not insignificant result of Defra's fiddling while this disease spreads not only throughout our tested sentinel cattle, but other internationally traded mammals - [link] and, as we saw in the 1996 'Beef Ban', the hundreds of products which cascade from them.

Finally, to compare this pilot cull with the cost of vaccinating badgers is just plain naive.

Conveniently ignoring as it does, both the efficacy of available vaccine (poor) and the disease status of any candidate (unknown) - should it volunteer to be cage trapped and jabbed at all. But also Natural England and FERA appear to require no data whatsoever on either numbers of badgers to be vaccinated, disease status of that population or the percentage of those totals which actually volunteer for a jab.
This seems strangely one sided one sided to us - to the tune of £3.17m.

But cost and potential trade bans aside, the main difference is that dead badgers don't spread zTuberculosis, either amongst themselves or to other mammals. And that is the point.


Thursday, January 02, 2014

New testing rules for 2014

Today, Farmers Guardian's Alistair Driver describes Defra's new 'stick but no carrot' - [link] approach to TB tests which may be a day or two late on a desk jockey's computer print out.

These dates are now 'shared' with the RPA (Rural Payments Agency) who will dutifully deduct up to 5 per cent of any payments owed to the farm concerned. The full list is in FG's article.

 Commenting on the new rules, agricultural lawyer David Kirwan remarked that:
" Penalties would bring ‘further misery to cattle farmers already unjustly punished by Bovine TB regulations’.

Mr Kirwan, head of the agricultural unit at law firm Kirwans, said:

“This is the latest in a seemingly relentless series of punitive administrative and financially swingeing measures on farming families. Farmers need practical support not a bullying, stick-wielding master hell bent on inflicting more misery and hardship. It is an already over-regulated industry. This will make financial conditions even more difficult, prompting some farmers to quit beef and dairy production.”                     

He stressed TB testing was important but added that ‘common sense and flexibility over paperwork and deadlines is also important’.
With all of that, we would agree.
And it's also important to point out that TB testing cattle is not always a simple procedure, or one with which they willingly comply. Apart from bumps, bruises, trapped fingers, strains and sprains which are the inevitable result of shoving and jostling 800 kg where it would rather not go, during 2013, two farmers lost their lives while TB testing their own cattle.

One in Wales a year ago - [link] and the second a farmer from Shropshire, in December. - [link]

So to all our cattle (or sheep, pigs, alpaca and deer) farming readers; please be careful while complying with Defra's New Year present of non negotiable extras to the eradication of zoonotic Tuberculosis.