Foxhunting hounds and bovine TB - why the official silence?

The Kimblewick hunt on its Boxing Day meet, 2016. Photo: Roger Marks via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
The Kimblewick hunt on its Boxing Day meet, 2016. Photo: Roger Marks via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Teresa May's promise to bring back foxhunting has proved one of the most unpopular items in the Tories' election platform. So we should not be surprised at the official silence over the TB-infected hounds in the Kimblewick hunt, writes Lesley Docksey. Nor, given the political power of foxhunting landowners, should we be surprised that officials are shrugging off any idea that bad biosecurity in hunt kennels could possibly have anything to do with TB in cattle.
The obvious answer is that the hounds were fed raw, TB-infected meat via the 'fallen stock' arrangement that hunts have with farmers - putting hunt hounds at far more at risk than our domestic pets.

After the initial indignation about so many foxhounds from the Kimblewick Hunt being culled because of having contracted bovine TB (see The Ecologist here and here), everything went quiet.

Defra wasn't exactly being free with information when asked how they were responding to this disease outbreak. A phone call to Defra's press office resulted in a very bland email letter from the Animal and Plant Health Agency:

"TB is not a notifiable disease in dogs and this case is being managed by the kennels and their private veterinary surgeon.

"APHA is carrying out an epidemiological investigation to identify the various ways that the animals could have become infected and will share that information with the owner and their private vet.

"Incidence of TB in dogs is extremely rare and this is the first case ever recorded in a pack of hounds in GB. Dogs pose very little risk of transmitting the disease to cattle herds and overall play an insignificant role in the persistence of bovine TB.

"Options for managing TB in dogs include further testing to identify all infected animals, treatment and euthanasia. Treatment of animals is not recommended due to the difficulty of achieving an effective cure, the risk to handlers of infected animals, and the potential to cause resistance to drugs that are important to treatment in humans. This is a decision for the hunt kennels, to be made in consultation with their private vet."

The 'private vets' - who just happen to be Kimblewick hunt supporters

Given that the question asked of Defra was what steps were being taken to consider how other hunts might be affected, the thrice-mentioned 'private vet' made it clear they were treating Kimblewick as a little local difficulty.

And the 'private vet'? There are two vets helping the investigation into the outbreak. According to Hounds Off, who originally broke the story, one has a small animal practice in Berkhamsted, and the other is an equine vet from Aylesbury, Bob Baskerville.

And both are members of the Kimblewick Hunt. How cosy.

A further letter from APHA then had to correct one statement. TB in dogs is a notifiable disease, but only if TB lesions are detected or the bacterium found in laboratory samples (post mortem scanning surveillance).

But how many foxhounds get autopsied or monitored in this way? Most likely none. It is not surprising that Kimblewick is "the first case ever recorded of TB in a pack of hounds". Failing hounds are culled by the hunts, and those hunts appear to be uninterested in what the hounds might be suffering from. It's cheaper and easier to simply cull and replace.

The obvious answer is that the hounds were fed raw, TB-infected meat via the 'fallen stock' arrangement that hunts have with farmers - putting hunt hounds at far more at risk than our domestic pets.

The continuing welfare of hounds is, of course, not considered.

Disease transmission and treatment

"Dogs pose very little risk of transmitting the disease to cattle herds." I would agree with that, but as Defra maintains that cattle can get TB by sniffing badger faeces and urine, wouldn't the same apply to hound faeces? And surely, what we are looking at here is cattle passing TB to hounds.

Although APHA is "investigating the cause of the outbreak" the obvious answer, confirmed in an anonymous email to Hounds Off, is that the hounds were fed raw, TB-infected meat via the 'fallen stock' arrangement that hunts have with farmers. And that would mean that hunt hounds are far more at risk than our domestic pets.

"Treatment of animals is not recommended due to ... the risk to handlers of infected animals ... " So, it's a risk to handle these infected hounds. What of the risks to those who handle the hounds every day, the huntsmen, kennel men and other hunt staff? What steps - if any - are APHA and the Kimblewick Hunt taking there?

Are UK hunts concerned about Kimblewick? When huntsmen and hunt supporters of another hunt were asked if they were worried about the possibility of TB in their own hounds, the answer was a defiant "Not at all!" Are they ignoring the risks, or is the bluster hiding genuine concern?

Writing to APHA - and back again

A long and detailed letter was sent, via an MP, to the Farming Minister George Eustice. It raised the above issues and more:

  • It is known that a quarter of a very large pack was culled. That would under any other circumstances count as a serious disease incident, not as something to be kept between the hunt and its 'private vet'

  • That TB had never been found in hounds because it had never been looked for. Defra was asked to remember their predecessor (MAFF) blocking the publication of a study into hounds suffering from hound ataxia due to being fed BSE-infected meat. And would there not be more chance of TB in hounds in a TB High Risk Area?

  • Given the Irish study on disease in foxhounds, and the long list of painful conditions found, and the fact that hunts regularly cull 'failing' hounds without investigating what is wrong with them then: 1) TB-infected hounds may not be picked up and 2) this points to a shockingly low level of welfare for the hounds.

  • Surely one of Defra's roles is to prevent the spread of disease from farm stock to other animals. As a matter of urgency, APHA/Defra should be checking all packs of hounds and the hound welfare standards of the hunts.

The letter was passed to the Defra Minister in charge of animal welfare, who passed it on (or back) to APHA. APHA's reply did not really address any of the issues raised. Instead it:

  • talked of the risk to 'domestic' animals; wrote about Defra's 'holistic' strategy to tackle the TB reservoir in cattle and badgers;
  • added 'badgers' to 'cattle' several times more as though they were joined at the hip;
  • and finally mentioned the TB oral route to hounds via fallen stock.

It also failed to ease my concerns by saying Defra had recently commissioned a Veterinary Risk Assessment on the tuberculous fallen stock issue. When will that be published, do you think?

It ended by saying that "active surveillance for TB in hunting dogs would need significant investment from public funds" which the Government could not "justify". There you are then - too expensive for us to do anything.

Very vested interests

Does it come as any surprise that Defra is very unwilling to take this issue further? Or that the Minister supposedly in charge of animal welfare is, according to one source, "up to his neck in covering up the bTB outbreak in the Kimblewick hounds"?

Particularly when you learn that the said minister is Lord Gardiner of Kimble, once Chairman of the Vale of Aylesbury with Garth and South Berks Hunt, later rebranded as the Kimblewick Hunt, of which he was Master until 2006.

He is also Deputy Chief Executive of Countryside Alliance, and a landowner with shares in a cattle-breeding business in Kimble. And he is still a member of the Hunt. Naturally.

As a letter received by Hounds Off pointed out, the Kimble Easter Saturday point-to-point was held on Lord Gardiner's land next to the Hunt kennels - where the hounds were still under investigation (and therefore under quarrantine). Not only that, those hounds were still being exercised on the local lanes.

Point-to-points are huge money raisers for Hunts, and Kimblewick's event must go ahead, regardless of the risk to the public and local farmers. Lord Gardiner is doing his best to sit on this issue and allow hunt vets to manage the investigation, when, as Hounds Off's contact says, "It needs to be people with no vested interests."

No wonder animal welfare is tossed out of the window when there's a Hunt to protect.

But Hounds Off and others are still working on the knotty problem of hunts happily taking their hounds and horses and quad bikes over farms that are under bTB restiction. So, if you know which TB-infected farms have been visited by your local hunt, then contact Hounds Off with the details.

The more information gathered the better.



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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