Badger cull free TB eradication in Wales and Northern Ireland? The science demands it!

| 6th December 2016
Bovine TB is above all about the cows themselves, and on-farm biosecurity (or the lack of it). Cattle in a farmyard in Pancross, Wales. Photo: Ben Salter via Flickr (CC BY).
Bovine TB is above all about the cows themselves, and on-farm biosecurity (or the lack of it). Cattle in a farmyard in Pancross, Wales. Photo: Ben Salter via Flickr (CC BY).
Al available science indicates that badgers have little if anything to do with bovine TB in cattle, writes Lesley Docksey. This is reflected in Wales's consultation on its 'refreshed TB Eradication Programme'. We must hope that Northern Ireland's bTB Eradication Strategy will be equally science based - and ready to campaign hard if it relies on cruel, ineffective and expensive badger culls.
Badgers are not the only 'wildlife reservoir' talked about by farmers' unions and politicians. Many other animals, wild, feral and domestic, can be infected, and of all farm animals only cattle are routinely tested. But badgers alone are blamed for TB.

Oh dear - the British Veterinary Association is at it again - trying to support killing wildlife instead of science.

They may - officially - reject free shooting. But they still think badgers should die because of bovine TB in cattle.

The BVA, in the person of Neil Patton, tried to persuade the Welsh Assembly that badgers must die to control TB in cattle.

Patton heads the Welsh Regional Veterinary Centre, which was formed by the Royal Veterinary College and the Dairy Development Centre - not exactly animal welfare inclusive.

In Wales science leads, not prejudice and assumptions

Farmers and the media got excited when Wales announced that, in its updated TB eradication plan, it might, possibly, look at the Northern Ireland TVR project. Cue headlines claiming that there would be a "targeted badger cull in Wales". The South and West Wales Wildlife Trust said that the Welsh government was "proposing a massive cull of badgers".

Wales has around 11,000 cattle herds, 600 of which are affected by bTB. They were simply considering action against badgers when dealing with the 60 farms that had continuous TB breakdowns, 10 of them for 10 years or more, provided there was scientific evidence proving that the badgers were connected.

As Wales' Chief Veterinary Officer Christianne Glossop explained, with such a history the herd itself was likely to be a 'reservoir' of infection. European countries dealing with bTB might wonder why Wales does not consider whole herd eradication.

However, badgers living on those farms could be trapped and tested. Only if infected badgers shared the same genotype as the infected cattle, might they be put down. A 'massive badger cull' it isn't.

Northern Ireland is also not 'culling' badgers.

What is the Trap, Vaccinate or Remove (TVR) project? It is not, as described by the BBC, a pilot cull. It is a 5-year research project, designed to study whether a "wildlife intervention strategy" can be a potential means of controlling bTB levels in the wildlife reservoir. Only those badgers found with bTB are being euthanased.

Northern Ireland is to be commended for its in-depth research studies into bovine TB over many years, all without resorting to England and Eire's choice - culling badgers. Daera's policy has been a clear: "Badgers are a protected species in NI and culling for TB control purposes is not permitted."

Badgers are not the only 'wildlife reservoir' talked about by farmers' unions and politicians. Many other animals, wild, feral and domestic, can be infected, and of all farm animals only cattle are routinely tested. But badgers alone are blamed for TB.

But on 15th December they will launch their bTB Eradication Strategy for Northern Ireland. Wildlife people may be praying that it will not include badger culling. Farmers may hope that it will. But what reasons could be put forward to justify or refuse such a policy?

Why is it that efforts to control bTB in cattle always seem to be headed by badgers? Since the first TB-infected badger was found in Gloucestershire in 1971, badgers have served as a convenient scapegoat for an industry that perhaps does not want to look at its own practices. Farmers have taken on the belief, not the fact, that badgers, more than other factors, are responsible.

This is not to scapegoat farmers. After all, farmers produce our food. Their industry is rather more vital than some others and, apart from the large land-owning enterprises, often struggle with low prices and difficult conditions. Naturally they will look for the easiest way to 'deal' with a major problem.

How close do badgers get? (Not very)

For over 40 years badgers have been presented as the villain of the piece, the source of the disease. Yes, badgers can be infected by bovine TB as the Badger road traffic accident survey demonstrated. But few infected badgers are also infectious, capable of passing on the disease.

Nor are badgers the only 'wildlife reservoir' so freely talked about by farmers' unions and politicians. Many other animals, wild, feral and domestic, can be infected, and of all farm animals only cattle are routinely tested. But badgers alone are blamed for giving TB to cattle, and few ask where their bTB came from.

The year-long Badger / Cattle Proximity study placed cameras in randomly selected farms. The cameras showed badgers avoiding cattle housing in the yards while investigating feed stores and grain silos. On 64% of the farms badgers visited infrequently, and two had no visits recorded.

One farm accounted for nearly 39% of all badger visits, and a single badger was responsible for over 90% of that. Foxes, rats and cats, all of which can carry bTB, were also recorded visiting. Add that in and badgers turned out to be responsible for under 4% of farmyard visits.

The 'proximity' collars used on both cattle and badgers out in the field recorded how closely the two species interacted. Badger-to-badger and cattle-to-cattle interactions were studied as well as badger-to-cattle encounters. Out of a total 439,776 recorded interactions, absolutely none showed badgers coming within 2 metres of cattle, the maximum distance at which they could infect another animal by coughing or sneezing.

Similar recent studies in County Wicklow and Cornwall demonstrated that badgers avoid cattle, even while still blaming badgers. But Dr Paul Benham of Reading University was researching the known 'mutual avoidance' of badgers and cattle in the 1980s. When will that message be heard?

While the study talked much about the "potential" for badgers to contaminate feed supplies it does not ask a very simple question: why would foraging badgers urinate and defecate on the food they are seeking?

And as NI farmers believe there has to be 'nose-to-nose' contact for TB to spread from cattle to cattle, why should they believe that a badger urinating or defecating in a field or yard is enough to spread TB while ignoring infected cowpats?

The 'strain typing' research

The Ulster Farmers Union welcomed the research done on strain-typing badgers and cattle. It said "it provides new evidence of the close relationship between bovine TB infections in cattle and badgers at farm level."

A typical misreading; the research shows that although all the strain types found in badgers are also found in cattle, many of the strain types found in cattle are not present in badgers. In such cases the infection cannot be linked. The study concluded that "that there did appear to be a link between the distribution of infection in both species, although this did not indicate causality, i.e. direction of spread."

An apparent but not very strong link. The finding could be showing that all the strain types found in badgers came from cattle, and all the cattle-only strain types must come from cattle.

The real problem behind TB in cattle is found in the biosecurity research.

Biosecurity on farms is notable for its absence. A majority of farmers did use raised water and feeding troughs on pasture, but little beyond that.

Bearing in mind the proximity study showed that badgers did not commonly visit farmyards, very few farms had solid gates and fencing preventing access by badgers to the farmyard. If farmers claim that a cause of TB in their cattle is badgers visiting yards and contaminating feed, why are the yards so accessible?

In those farms that had secure cattle housing and well-protected storage of loose and processed grain, farmers still felt badgers could access feed passages, even though signs of badgers in cattle housing or feed stores were never seen, and no extra precautions were taken.

The major risks causing bTB in cattle

Among the identified major risks of a herd breakdown due to bTB is cattle-to-cattle infection, the risk being greater if a neighbouring farm has had a recent bTB breakdown. Advice on biosecurity suggests double fencing or broad hedges between all fields where cattle graze, so there is no nose-to-nose contact. Yet in this study, nearly 60% of boundaries with neighbouring farms would allow for nose-to-nose contact between cattle.

Land management practices such as spreading infected cattle slurry on pasture can create avenues for the disease. Contractors travelling from farm to farm without disinfecting their vehicles can carry the disease, as can cattle lorries going to and from market.

Research in both NI and England has shown that large herds also account for more cases of bTB. The biosecurity study tried to explain this away by suggesting that of course there is a greater chance of finding one infected beast in a large herd. But a recently published English study has this to say:

"The reasons that large herds are at greater risk of becoming infected are not well-understood, but are likely to be associated with increased exposure through buying practices, land use and other management factors, together with the greater risk of hidden residual infection after Officially TB Free status has been restored, due to the limitations of the skin test."

Buying practices, along with the inevitable cattle movements are also recognised as major spreaders of the disease. Large herds trade more cattle. Beef trading is greater than in dairy herds, as shown by the bTB incident records. One way to prevent this spread is by pre- and post-movement TB testing of any beast going to market.

Yet at the time of the study not many farmers made use of this and no more than 11.2% asked for a pre-test on any beast they were buying. When planning future biosecurity measures, only 28% were considering pre- and post-testing.

Of all the biosecurity measures they could take to protect their herds, the most popular was double-fencing farm boundaries, but only 30% of farmers intended to do that. Far fewer intended to implement the other measures. Why?

Effective biosecurity costs money

All the farmers who took part were surveyed, with these results: they didn't want to pay for bTB eradication. They backed cattle bTB vaccination, badger vaccination and badger culling but didn't want to pay. They backed pre- and post-testing, but didn't want to pay for either. And double fencing costs too.

One can't totally blame the farmers. For many of them money is tight. A farm under restriction is an economic shock to the farmer and there's even less money available for biosecurity measures. But still government looks at killing badgers instead of enforcing biosecurity measures. The nonsense of chasing after badgers has to stop.

Wales has dramatically reduced the bTB slaughter rate over the last few years by implementing a strict testing regime and cattle controls, all without culling badgers. Badger culling in England is not working and despite denials by the NFU, bTB has risen in the culling areas. The cost to the taxpayer has been high.

Endless government-funded research trying again and again to prove that only badgers are to blame is a waste of money. Surely that money would be better invested in funding good biosecurity measures?

One can only hope, for both farmers and badgers, that the bTB Eradication Strategy for Northern Ireland will follow the Welsh route.



Action: respond to Wales consultation on bovine TB.

Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics, and on political issues for UK and international websites.


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