Badger infections are following, not leading, TB infections in cattle.
I understand that, due to the unexpected but welcome early close of the West Gloucestershire badger cull, that there is to be a Parliamentary Adjounment debate on the future of the badger culls at Westminster Hall this coming Wednesday 11 December between 2.30pm and 4pm. This is a subject that is close to my heart.
I hope you will be taking part in the debate. I hope even more that the debate will be founded on facts instead of the misinterpretation of science and statistics that has held sway so far - what the National Trust's Patrick Begg has described as "shifting scientific sands".
As a very simple example: Natural England, Defra and the NFU quoting the Krebb report as saying that culling 70% of the badger population will result in a 25% drop in the incidence of bovine TB in cattle.
Were this true, farmers would still have to deal with the remaining 75%, but - careful study of the statistics given in the Krebb report show that all such culling would produce is a 25% drop in the increase of incidents.
That is, if last year there were 20 outbreaks with an expected 20% rise on that figure this year, all the cull would do is limit this year's total to 23 rather than 24 incidents of bTB.
That's no answer to a serious problem and I really feel it is dishonest of Defra et al to misuse figures in this way.
Here are some of the questions that need to be addressed.
1. Are badgers responsible for giving cattle bovine TB?
Fact: Cattle in the Isle of Man suffer from bTB. There are not, and never have been, any badgers in the Isle of Man.
According to the Manx Wildlife Trust, "Although several species of mammal are not present on the Isle of Man - fox, badger, otter, deer and moles are all absent - other species that are in decline in the UK are doing well in the Manx countryside." Foxes and deer are among other species that can carry bTB.
Fact: Some areas in Ireland have had all their badgers killed, yet bTB remains rife in the cattle.
Fact: Vet John Bourne, who led the 10-year badger culling trial (that reported that culling would make no meaningful contribution to cutting bTB) castigated the lack of regulatory control of cattle movements and the poor testing regime.
He also said that, although badgers could infect cattle, the true problem is that "badger infections are following, not leading, TB infections in cattle."
A Northern Ireland study supports this idea, finding that a drop in the incidence of bTB in cattle was followed by a drop on bTB in the badger population, and a rise of bTB in cattle was followed by a rise of bTB in the badger population.
Further, it appeared that without re-infection by cattle, bTB naturally died out among the badger population. Bovine TB, where badgers are concerned, is not self-sustaining. This strongly suggests, unpopular as the idea would be to some, that it is cattle that are the reservoir for the disease.
2. The difficulty of vaccination, and of being able to tell the difference between cattle that have been vaccinated and those that are infected with bTB.
In his written statement to Parliament on Monday December 2, Owen Paterson said that Defra is "working to develop effective and usable cattle and badger vaccines."
Fact: We already have an effective vaccine for badgers. It is being used in Wales.
Fact: There are already vaccines for cattle, used in other countries.
Fact: In May this year researchers from the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency announced they had developed a DIVA test (a test that can Differentiate between Infected and Vaccinated Animals.) This is never mentioned by Defra.
Fact: In 2005 Mr Paterson visited the USA to speak to various bodies tackling the American bTB problem. When he returned he wrote a long article for the Farmers Weekly, titled 'Owen Paterson MP visits the USA to discuss Bovine TB policy'. And in it, having given extensive descriptions of the wonderful science being carried out, he writes this:
"The old chestnut of vaccinating cattle leading to the difficulty of identifying vaccinates and non vaccinates has been resolved either by gamma interferon which can be targeted at antigens not in the vaccine, or by PCR as MPB70 is not in the vaccine."
In other words, the Americans have already solved the problem in two different ways.
Mr Paterson should be pressed as to why this isn't being followed up.
3. Can bTB be dealt with by better farming practices?
Fact: By the very early 1970s bTB was almost eradicated, and that without culling any badgers.
Prior to this any farm that had an incidence of bTB, apart from losing cattle to slaughter, had to put various measures in place on the farm: any buildings housing cattle had to be properly ventilated; thorough disinfection carried out regularly; double fencing around fields to prevent any cattle in adjoining fields exchanging saliva; restricted cattle movements.
These conditions were allowed to lapse due to the cost to farmers, and TB in cattle rose as a result.
Fact: as Dominic Dyer wrote: " ... in 2001 during the foot and mouth outbreak, NFU president Ben Gill pressured prime minister Tony Blair to give up on his plans to vaccinate cattle to stop the spread of the disease in favour of a national badger cull policy.
"Once this cull had been completed, NFU pushed for a speedy restocking of cattle from TB hot spot areas, with no TB testing systems in place. This resulted in a trebling of the spread of bovine TB within 18 months (my emphasis) and remains a key factor in the high level of TB in cattle and badgers today."
Fact: the bTB testing regime had its faults, missing up to 20% of infected cattle and sending other, healthy, cattle for slaughter. However, at the beginning of this year new EU regulations for a much tighter TB testing regime came into force, since when incidents of bTB in cattle have fallen - not something that Defra has made any noise about, wedded as it is to killing badgers.
Fact: the latest publicised new outbreak of bTB happened in early November, on a large farm in Durham. Its business is finishing beef cattle, and it takes in thousands each year from all over the country. The restrictions now placed on the farm include keeping all new imports of cattle in buildings separate from other beasts, and cattle can only go direct to the slaughterhouse, not exported to any other farm.
Bovine TB can be almost entirely eradicated without touching the badgers. We have done it before and we can do it now. But it does mean putting in place such measures as good ventilation and disinfection of buildings that house cattle, double fencing of fields and far greater bio-security measures when moving cattle, along with the better testing regime.
And these measures would most certainly help to greatly decrease the problem while we wait for a full vaccination programme to be implemented.
I can understand some people pushing for more badger culls - it is much easier to blame something else rather than look at poor regulation and farming practices. And of course, it's more fun shooting something than doing a bit of necessary fencing.
But killing badgers will only result in dead badgers. It will not, despite what Owen Paterson claims, eradicate bTB.
I would really appreciate it if you shared this letter with your fellow MPs and Ministers.
Lesley Docksey is the author of the following articles in The Ecologist on the badger cull:
Badgers By Numbers - 18 October 2013
Badgers, Power & Protest - 16 October 2013
Badger culls kill scientific honesty - 15 October 2013
Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.