Different country. Different countryside. Different objectives, Bourne intimated. But not it has to be said, different badgers, different strain of micobacterium bovis or different cattle. Different politicians with different paymasters? - maybe.
In an in depth interview with Irish farming minister Mary Coughlan, and an overview of the Irish policies by veterinarians in charge, Farmers Guardian analyses strategy and results. Two countries. Two similar problems. Two very different approaches. And two very different outcomes.
A decade ago, the UK and the Republic of Ireland both had tough decisions to make about how to deal with rising incidences of bovine TB in cattle, and the potential role played by badgers in spreading it. The UK set up the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) in 1998 to gauge the impact of badger culling on bTB incidence.
During the 10 years it was taking to find no solutions to the problem, a ban was imposed on badger controls outside the trial areas.
Meanwhile, bTB incidence was trebling from just over 700 confirmed herd outbreaks in 1998 to around 2,000 in 2005 and 2006.
Ireland took a different approach. Shorter and more straightforward trials between 1997 and 2002 convinced the Government that the only way it was going to get on top of the bTB problem was to tackle both sources of infection.
Since 1998, the number of cattle bTB reactors in Ireland has fallen by 46 per cent.
While acknowledging that the badger culling is only one of a number of contributing factors, Irish Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan said recently she was ‘satisfied that the badger removal policy had made a significant contribution to the improvement of the situation’.
Not so, says the Independent Scientific Group on bovine TB, which has gone out of its way to stress that the Irish experience is not relevant to the UK.
Presenting his report at an open meeting in London, ISG chairman John Bourne played down the success of badger culling in Ireland, suggesting it was not having the impact the figures coming out of there suggested.
More importantly, differences in badger populations, environmental conditions, farming practises, trial design, capture methods and social attitudes add up to make the Irish trial and policy irrelevant to the UK, he said. Plus, he said, the current Irish badger culling policy ‘seeks to eliminate badgers from 30 per cent of the land mass’, a situation that would be ‘politically unacceptable’ in the UK.
(This is point which has come up in comments on the site; more on its context and accuracy later from the Irish deputy veterinary officer)
Michael Sheridan, deputy chief veterinary officer explained how the approaches differed from the start. “While the RBCT was comparing policy options, we had a very simple experiment to assess whether the disease in badgers was a constraint to making progress on the bovine side. In the Four Area trials (1997-2002), we took badgers out of an area as far as possible and it showed clearly that if you do, that you make significant progress on the bovine side. Existing measures begin to work and you go well beyond where you are.”“
While the RBCT showed only marginal benefits from culling, in the Irish Four Areas trial, it was associated with a 60 per cent drop in bTB in cattle herds under restriction. Mr Sheridan said this was hardly surprising, given the way the trials were set up. The four areas chosen in Ireland were much larger than the 100sq km RBCT areas and, unlike the RBCT, were specifically designed to prevent the so-called ‘edge effect’.
Having established that the presence of bTB in badgers was a major constraint to eradicating from cattle, the Irish Government was then able to set about solving the problem.
“The trials showed if you succeed in taking badgers out of the equation you make progress with eradicating the disease. The next logical step was to invest in the only long-term solution that is allowable and feasible – vaccination. So have put our efforts into that,” Mr Sheridan said, “But that is still a few years away, so in the meantime we have introduced an interim culling policy. The trials showed if you succeed in taking badgers out of the equation you make progress with eradicating the disease.”.
This approach enabled the Government to gain the support of farmers and the acceptance, at least, of the public and Irish animal welfare groups, who, he said, appreciate that culling is a ‘necessary’ medium-term measure while a more ‘environmentally acceptable’ one is developed.
Mr Sheridan refuted Prof Bourne’s claims, also spelled out in the ISG report, about the scale of the culling policy.
“It’s wrong to say we are doing it over 30 per cent of the country – that is an upper limit and it is not a target. Currently 11 per cent of the land mass is subject to culling controls,” he said. It is also not eradication. It is a reactive cull that takes place where there is clear epidemiological evidence badgers have caused major breakdowns. We do not see it as a long-term solution, but it is necessary until we get a vaccination policy in place. John Bourne may have misinterpreted what he was told, but I am not saying he has said anything wrong. He can say whatever he wants.”
The contrast with the UK is stark.
But what the Irish policy (at least they have one - ed) demonstrates, is that where there is a will there is a way. The Irish approach has been geared to finding solutions, backed by common sense, science and political consensus – from the way the trials were set up, to the decision-making process and the development of practical policies.
While UK has waited and waited for a trial, that cynics say appears designed only to prolong the wait further and still cannot find the political will to move forward, Ireland has been acting. And bTB incidence is falling.
Mr Sheridan said Ireland now had a ‘road map’. The reactive culling policy was moving it ‘in the right direction’ until a more sustainable long-term solution is found. He was adamant, too, that the Irish approach was cost-effective when placed against the ‘to do nothing’ approach that would see disease incidence continue to rise in cattle.
"Our policy all along has been to deal with diseases in both species,” he said. “Addressing the disease in cattle on its own won’t work – you have to deal with the badger issue in parallel. You can’t remove a herd of cattle and leave a sett of diseased badgers behind. You have to act realistically and deal with both sides of the problem. It is worth putting proper effort and resource into having a healthy badger population and a healthy cattle population.”
"Addressing the disease in cattle on its own, won't work", Mr. Sheridan said.
And he should know. Ireland tried it in the late 1980's as described in our posting below. And it definitely did not work. Why on earth would it? It is like leaving one side of hospital ward with patients suffering endemic infectious disease, while removing patients from the other side to the mortuary; drawing a heroic line down the middle and expecting new patients on the other side not to succomb to infection. And yet by ignoring the reservoir of infection in badgers and proposing extra cattle controls, this is precisely what John Bourne has promised ministers will reduce cattle tb in the UK by around 15 per cent per year. A 'virtual line' in the sand.
Can we really afford to ignore what is happening just across the Irish Sea? asks the Farmers Guardian's Alistair Driver. Full story here