In defence of the badgers

LETTER PAYNE RI Farm

Sir,

In response to Kevin MacAuley’s letter ‘Back in the club less favoured by farmers’, I feel I have to write in favour of the badgers.

My first piece is from The Ecologist, 2017, written by Lesley Docksley:

Cumbrian farmers have a problem. Although Cumbria is in the Low Risk Area (LRA) for bovine TB, the disease has quietly been on the increase for some years.

The county was badly hit in the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis. A total of 3500 farms lost all or some of their stock, and when they started re-stocking the following year, it included cattle from an area in the South West that was known to have a high incidence of bTB.

TB testing had been suspended during the crisis so the cattle that went up north were a risk. But, given that farmers were literally in the depths of despair, it was thought best to restock as quickly and cheaply as possible. We now know, as they didn’t then, that the TB skin test is pretty unreliable, and can leave many unidentified infected cattle in the herd.

Cumbrian cattle farmers buy stock imported from other areas of England (even some from High Risk Areas), Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Tanis Brough from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) said that strain-typing has shown that the strain of TB infecting Cumbrian cattle comes from Northern Ireland – a strain that had never previously been present in the rest of the UK.

APHA believed that this particular strain came from Northern Ireland in an animal imported prior to autumn 2014. “How this strain M.bovis 17Z came to be in the Cumbrian herds remains unclear,” said Ms Brough. “We do not know if this original animal is alive. It is probably dead.”

Because of the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis, the tracking system for all farm stock was quickly improved. All cattle can now be individually identified and their movements followed. Yet here the system failed. In LRAs the default bTB testing is still every four years instead of annually. Trading is easier. But does farming in an LRA give a false sense of security? Security which turns out to be not so secure?

The first sign that the LRA was being compromised was in 2011, when Plumpton Head Farm, near Penrith, lost 103 of its 260-strong dairy herd. This herd was said to be a ‘closed herd’ (that is, not bringing in cattle from elsewhere). One possible cause was nose-to-nose contact with cattle on a neighbouring farm.

Slowly the incidence of bTB in Cumbria has increased without any real outcry from the agricultural lobby. Why then, has all of this information suddenly become news? Because, accompanied by a typical knee-jerk reaction from farmers and the NFU, they have now found bTB in some Cumbrian badgers – the first time since the 1980s.

It is admitted that the cattle must have infected the badgers. Seeing that the original source of this outbreak is Northern Ireland, they have to – unless they insist that badgers swam across the Irish Sea. And with so much disease now in the area it would be hard for the badgers to avoid it.

But of course the answer, as always, is to cull the badgers to stop them spreading the disease. Given the rise of bTB across Cumbria in the last four or five years, one would think that the cattle trading, farming practices and inadequate biosecurity are doing a pretty good job of spreading TB without any help from Mr Brock.

The next piece is from the webpage badgergate.org.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of some of the key reasons given by the Government and the NFU to justify badger culling:

1: It is not possible to control TB in cattle without controlling TB in badgers; no country has controlled TB in cattle without also tackling it in wildlife.

2: Culling badgers will have a significant impact on reducing cattle TB incidence and the costs to farmers and taxpayers.

3: Controlled shooting of badgers through farming-industry led culls is likely to be cheaper and more effective approach to TB control than cage-trapping alone or vaccination and also likely to be humane and safe.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

1: The history of TB control in Britain and the recent achievements of Wales show that it is entirely possible to achieve major reductions in cattle TB without culling badgers. The number of cattle slaughtered for TB in Wales has decreased by nearly 50% between 2009 and 2013 since a range of new cattle measures were introduced in recent years, including annual TB testing, stricter movement controls and tighter biosecurity. In 2013 alone, the number of cattle slaughtered was reduced by 34% and the number of new herd incidents of TB was down by 22% from the 2012.

New cattle measures introduced in England by Defra over the last two years also seem to be having an impact with 14% fewer cattle slaughtered for TB in 2013 than in 2012.

2. Badger culling over four consecutive years could result in a 12-16% reduction on average after nine years (from the start of culling) in the incidence of cattle TB in culled areas relative to un-culled areas. The extent of reduction will depend on site-specific conditions and ensuring that culling follows certain minimum criteria, some of which are difficult to meet. The actual reduction in cattle TB incidence is expected to vary quite a lot. There is also a high risk of making cattle TB worse if culling is not carried out properly. Finally, as culling as not been designed in a scientific manner, there will be no way of being sure how much of any future reduction in cattle TB incidence is due to reducing badger populations and how much due to other measures.

3. It’s difficult not to say, ‘We told you so’, but controlled shooting was the first of the many ‘epic fails of the pilot badger culls.’

The long and short of this story is that biosecurity and animal husbandry are hugely lacking on farms. I was told a story last year about a farmer within a 10 mile radius of me… his farm was shut down with Tb, he asked a neighbouring farmer to spread his slurry. When the question was asked “But surely you’d be spreading infected slurry?” His answer was “ah sure no one will know!”

I was speaking to a vet about Tb in cattle a while ago too, he confirmed that biosecurity is “crap” on most farms. Over-stocking is another problem, and taking calves away from their mothers when they are a day old doesn’t leave them much chance of an immune system!

Daera itself states “TB is a difficult disease to diagnose and no diagnostic test for it is perfect. The skin test may leave an infected animal behind or, more rarely, remove an animal that is not infected.” Enhanced testing is needed, risk based trading and disease transmission routes need to be studied.

Last year it was found that hunting hounds carried Tb… and yet they run amok over UK pastures. Deer, goats, pigs, dogs and cats are amongst many animals who carry the disease… So where does all this slaughtering end? Farmers, you have to take responsibility… your biosecurity and animal husbandry should be second to none…. Please leave our wildlife alone.

Yours etc.

Liz Porter, Desertmartin

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