ON 3rd July 2008, Hansard records the following written answer (www.parliament.the-stationeryoffice.co.uk):
Mr Drew: “To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what estimate he has made of the number of cattle herd tuberculosis breakdowns accounted for by cattle-to-cattle transmission.” Jonathan Shaw: “It is often very difficult to conclusively determine the precise cause of a TB breakdown in a cattle herd. However, in low bovine TB incidence areas, there is evidence that cattle to cattle transmission could be responsible for around 80 per cent or more of cases. However, the situation is quite different in the high incidence areas of the country where 85-90 per cent of all confirmed breakdowns occur.
“Some herds in these areas are also infected by purchased cattle, but wildlife is a major source of new herd infection and in many counties wildlife may be a more important source than cattle. It is impossible to put precise figures on these possible sources.”
The following day the BBC news carried a report that the Minister was not going to approve a cull of badgers and the full text of the statement by Hilary Benn is available at www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/ministers/statements/hb080707.htm.
An initial news report and others that followed also carried an interview with the director of the Badger Trust who said that the decision not to cull was correct because TB is caused by cattle to cattle transmission and not by badgers. Mr Shaw is presumably jumping up and down and mouthing, “Listen to me please.”
I have again spent time with the “badger men” and spoken to several people about a way forward with badgers. My thanks to Andy Biggs and Peter Jinman for sharing their views and it is clear that the depth of work that has been carried out is like a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing. We know what we know. I believe it is fair to say that the science has not provided the resolution to date for TB afflicted areas.
One thing that is clear is that the whole issue of TB in cattle and badgers is not a topic limited to veterinary surgeons and farmers. On the day that the “no cull” policy was announced, a local resident stopped her car and said, “Now it will be a free for all to shoot badgers, the farmers will have to do it themselves.” The indications are that this will be a sure way of spreading TB.
In all the conversations, I have found no one who disagrees with the notion that a healthy population of badgers on a cattle farm is a good thing. Our haylage contractor, who is also a TB-positive beef farmer, wants to know if he can build up healthy badgers by providing feed and licks in the winter.
Peter Morley has indicated that some of his dairy clients have looked carefully at the cost to them of the culling and TB restrictions and although I do not have precise figures I believe they run into tens of thousands of pounds. It is said that these farmers are desperate to find a solution.
It should be highlighted that there is a view that veterinary surgeons are making too much money out of TB to want the disease to be controlled. This is tempered with “I don’t mean my vet” but vets, the unknown faceless ones. Maybe a veterinary recommendation should be offered as part of health planning and biosecurity to cover each TB positive herd. Is it clear what needs to be said?
Reactive culling ‘makes problem worse’
The Ministerial statement says: “The ISG’s final report, published last year, concluded that reactive culling – killing badgers in areas where there had been local TB breakdowns – made the problem worse, and that proactive culling – taking an area of about 100 square kilometres and repeatedly culling badgers over a number of years – only produced marginal benefits because although TB was reduced in the area, it increased outside because of the disturbance and movement of badgers.
“While scientists agree that a prolonged and effective cull over even larger areas – some 250 to 300 square kilometres – could reduce the incidence of bovine TB, the ISG’s judgement was that the practicality and cost of delivering a cull on this scale meant that ‘badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB’.”
I find it hugely encouraging that the badger men agree with the Minister that reactive culling and proactive culling are not going to control TB in cattle. There appear to be two highly practical steps to benefit biosecurity.
Step 1: Assess each farm for badger activity. Classify setts as healthy and active (green) or unhealthy (red). Look for badger activity in buildings and classify the farm buildings as free from badger activity (green) or badger active (red).
A proposal is on the table to train two teams of six badger activity assessors at a cost of about £1,000 per assessor. These men need to be available from November 2008. Fourteen points of assessment will form the basis of green or red setts. The idea is that a team would work an area including cattle farms and adjacent land and present each farmer with an assessment of his farm and the immediate area.
The cost to each farm would be of the order of £200 depending on size and location and the plan is to assess 80 to 100 farms per week, in excess of 1,000 farms per team over the winter. Assessment would be repeated in 2009. The findings would be collated and a training fund is required.
Step 2: Means of stopping entry by badgers with red buildings to be actioned by the farmer. The farmer will be able to review penetration as an ongoing biosecurity procedure.
The way forward with red setts would be gassing of the setts. The sett needs to remain intact so that unhealthy badgers will revisit. Green setts would be left alone with no disturbance. The number of badgers that would be gassed from a smoky tractor is expected to be one or two per sett but the TB impact of these unhealthy badgers is reckoned to be high. Red setts within an assessed area would be gassed on one day by the assessment team.
What is proposed is a down to earth approach based on observation and wildlife awareness, at low cost. The scientific approach is now dependent on test and cull of the cattle with vaccination in the future for calves and badgers, accelerated by a £20 million infusion of funding. There would be merit for the veterinary profession to support both approaches, to be run simultaneously