A private initiative is underway in Devon and Cornwall to assess wildlife in and around cattle farms in collaboration with veterinary practices.
Following the successful completion of assessments, a way forward is being developed which will be available to veterinary practices and their clients from October 2009. Assessments are governed by the seasons and are best carried out from October to March.
The planned initiative is that farmer clients of six to eight adjoining cattle farms, some or all under-going 60-day TB testing, are contacted by the veterinary practice. Badgers do not respect farm, parish or county boundaries and it is important that these farmers are willing to cooperate with their neighbours.
A map of each farm, showing field outlines, will need to be made available to the assessor. Where possible the assessor will need permission to go onto all land within the area, which is where the neighbourhood approach becomes additionally important.
Some of the land may be owned by farmers without cattle and possibly by people who are not farmers. If permission is not available then the assessor needs to be aware of the land to be excluded from the assessment.
Each cattle farmer is charged an assessment fee of £150, to be collected by the veterinary practice. Assessment days need to avoid any hunting or shooting arrangements. Two assessors will normally be involved using quad bikes.
The observations from each farm will be recorded and transferred to an area map. An evening will be arranged for the following week for all the farmers and their veterinary surgeons to meet at one of the farms to discuss, with an assessor, the observations and the way forward.
This meeting is very important. At a recent such meeting, of 12 farmers and two veterinary surgeons from different practices, there was a valuable open discussion about the experiences of the farmers with TB and the whole atmosphere was very positive, with many aspects raised related to seasonal incidence and biosecurity.
The location of healthy activity and unhealthy badger setts, signs of wildlife in buildings (foxes and badgers) and the routes from setts to buildings provided valuable information and increased awareness for both the vets and the farmers. It became clear where interaction with wildlife was taking place and where this interaction was a benefit to the farms and where this interaction was a risk to the cattle.
It is of interest that cattle farms that have no history of bTB also have a population of healthy (green) badgers, even within an area where there are many farms with cattle slaughtered for bTB. The aim is to have only healthy badgers interacting with cattle. Encouraging healthy badgers together with the 60-day test and removal of infected cattle offers a way forward for a major reduction in bovine TB.
Within a cattle farming area in Devon and Cornwall, assessments have indicated that 10 farms would have 200 to 500 badgers. Sett activity indicates that around 10% of the badgers in an area are currently exhibiting unhealthy behaviour.
These red unhealthy badgers, living in satellite, abandoned and small setts and the skanky badgers living a solo existence, do not have normal runs and latrines, but these animals are considered to be the primary source of M. bovis for cattle from wildlife.
Elimination of the unhealthy badgers, where identified by assessment, would take an hour per location. It is hoped that by next autumn consent will be available from the Government to manage the unhealthy badger population by trained people, who would manage the unhealthy (red) setts in an area on the same day.
The total cost per farm of assessment and control, managed as a group of farms, would be about £250, paid by the farmer.
The assessment process, the meeting of farmers and veterinary surgeons and the management programme would be repeated the following year. Veterinary practices would monitor the incidence of bTB on their clients’ farms in the interim. The combination of farmer cooperation, veterinary support and wildlife assessment is a very real opportunity to provide a way forward with bovine tuberculosis.
Recent assessments in areas with four-yearly bTB testing have shown an alarming increase in the incidence of unhealthy badgers. The prediction is that, as tests are carried out, an increasing number of cattle farms in previously free areas, where there are red and skanky badgers, will yield TB positives.
Badger cubs are being born underground in infected setts and the likelihood of contact between cattle and infectious badgers increases with adverse, stressful, weather conditions. The recent wet summers and incidences of flooding are expected to have increased the percentage of unhealthy badgers within a community.
Apart from the private initiative for Devon and Cornwall, there is no national programme to train wildlife assessors. Farmers are not usually aware of the detailed activity of badgers and foxes within their farms, and experience shows that farmer training to carry out wildlife assessments and management would have an unpredictable outcome. If assessment and wildlife management is to be part of the control of bovine TB, then the job has to be done well. The theme is “do it well or leave it alone”.
It appears that the decision by the Minister not to approve general badger culling was correct.
Where farmers, through frustration, have attempted wildlife control, with various means, the badgers they see on the farm are targeted, healthy setts are disrupted and the numbers of unhealthy wildlife increased.
When the specific local information is assessed and mapped, the extent of the wildlife contribution becomes apparent. However, the wildlife assessment and management approach is based on the experience of a countryman. It would be ideal if scientific proof was available but I’m afraid this way forward is country based.
No funding has been allocated from any sources other than by time and arrangements of interested individuals. Furthermore, in the on-farm climate existing today, there is considerable advantage in a private initiative. Farmers are not expected to welcome officials to visit the far corners of cattle farms, whereas an initiative in conjunction with their veterinary practice is seen as a positive step.
Where cattle farmers are experiencing 60-day TB testing with cattle removal, veterinary practices have often reported the difficulties of introducing other test and cull disease control for, say, BVD, Johne’s and Neospora. Maybe, just maybe, the value of farmers cooperating with their neighbours and vets to control bovine TB will help with acceptance of neighbour co-operation for the control of other bovine diseases.
As one dairy farmer commented at the recent TB gathering in the farm kitchen, “I am in competition with every other dairy farmer in the UK, but that doesn’t really include Frank, Rodney and Henry: we need one another to keep the pheasant shooting going.”
- If you wish to comment on this scheme or report, please e-mail Richard Gard at firstname.lastname@example.org.