Absolutely Bloody Bonkers!

April 26, 2015 7:29 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Badger lovers were hooting with laughter at the news in the Telegraph of a pensioner being ‘terrorised’ by a giant badger. It was “the size of a pig with teeth 6 inches long ” . It came into his garden with two cubs. The sun was shining brightly. The man was walking his dog in the garden. The dog, a little Jack Russell, must have been on a lead because it was so frightened it pulled its owner back into the house. “The badger would have had me if my dog hadn’t been there.” The holes in the story are bigger than the hole in the man’s hedge.

It must be the silly season at the Daily Telegraph. But, as some comments suggested, with the election looming and the rightwing Telegraph doing what it can to boost the Tories, it was to be expected. After all, if Cameron gets back into Number 10, the badger culls will not only continue but be rolled out to other counties. So the demonisation of the badger will go on, supported by dodgy science and fanciful facts.

Badgers are the enemy, the devil that prowls the night. Badgers eat hedgehogs. Badgers eat ground-nesting birds and their eggs. And badgers infect cattle with TB. The difficulty is that such accusations create a gulf between sides that should be communicating. Farmers are encouraged to see badgers as the source of all their bovine TB ills.

But badgers also eat the crane fly grubs known as leatherjackets. These live in the soil, munching away at grass and cereal roots. At night they surface and go on munching. With climate change, British winters are becoming warmer and wetter, and last year gardeners and farmers were warned of a possible plague of leatherjackets which could damage both cereal and grass crops. In this case, badgers are the farmers’ friends.

” Bovine TB ‘is rife’ in Dorset”, stated the Tory policy guru and MP, Oliver Letwin at a general election Hustings in Dorchester, organised by wildlife and environmental groups. “Farmers were being terrorised by badger TB”, he claimed. “The badger population is out of control,” added the Chair of the Dorset NFU, going on to insist that farmers must be allowed to “control the wildlife on their land”. Both hope that the culls will be rolled out into Dorset.

But at a Badger Trust seminar a few days later a great debate took place between both pro and anti-cull experts. John Blackwell, the Chair of the British Veterinary Association, tried to justify the BVA’s decision to withdraw its support for controlled shooting while still supporting culling badgers by cage-trapping and shooting. He had no good response to Dominic Dyer’s point that the pilot culls were set up specifically to test the effectiveness and humaneness of shooting free-running badgers. He could only insist that the culls were always intended to include trapping – which they were not.

Roger Blowey, a retired livestock vet from Gloucestershire, gave the results of his studies linking the badger culling to decreases in bovine TB figures, looking at both past research and the current Defra statistics on bovine TB. It seemed he felt he was making a good case for the effectiveness of badger culling as a tool for reducing TB in cattle .

Up stepped Professor John Bourne, very clearly deconstructing all the arguments for culling badgers. Professor Bourne was Chair of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) which oversaw all the research of the Random Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) – the scientific conclusions were constantly misrepresented by government ministers and the NFU, followed by the BVA, in order to justify the culls.

In its statement the BVA says:

“The RBCT established that culling badgers can deliver a net benefit in terms of a reduction in the incidence of bovine TB in cattle. BVA is therefore now calling for badger culling to be rolled out using cage trapping and shooting only to other areas where badgers contribute to the high incidence of TB in cattle”.

The RBCT had established that the net benefit was so small that “badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain . Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better.” The BVA insists that, having started the culls, to end them now would make the TB situation much worse, to which Professor Bourne gave a brutally short response:

“Absolutely bloody bonkers!”

He had two useful things to say about the badgers: first, he felt that the costs of culling badgers could outweigh the costs of cattle slaughter. It follows that if badger culling made no meaningful difference to the level of TB in cattle, the country could be paying twice over – once to kill badgers and once to slaughter cattle.

Second, he pointed out that during the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis, all cattle testing was suspended. When it was resumed, vets found a huge surge in the incidence of bovine TB. Curiously, TB also increased substantially in the badger population. Yet it was the cattle that weren’t being tested, not the badgers; the cattle that weren’t being slaughtered if they were infected. He very fairly said it is not clear why the badgers suffered this way, but the implication is there: badgers were, in no small way, being infected by the cattle.

Jan Bailey (Animal Welfare Group) corrected Roger Blowey’s figures, demonstrating just how ‘rife’ Dorset ‘s bovine TB problem is. During 2013 and 2014, Dorset saw a decrease in cattle slaughtered of 37.25 percent. But Dorset doesn’t (as yet) cull badgers, nor is it anywhere close to the Somerset culling area. The same is true for other Western Region counties.

So, try as he might, retired livestock vet Roger Blowey could not make the facts support his belief that the culls had already reduced bovine TB. And Professor Bourne pointed out that one cannot use figures from a few unrelated studies confined to specific areas to arrive at a result covering the whole of England – it is unscientific to do so .

He then moved on to TB in cattle. Most people think the RBCT was all about badgers, because of the emphasis placed on this by the pro-cull lobby. Professor Bourne reminded us that half their time and over half of their budget was spent on studying the disease in cattle, the testing regimes and the farming practices. In his letter that heads the final report he writes:

“‘weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.”

The hidden persistence of TB in herds is not properly addressed by Defra. Professor Bourne mentioned two examples. In one study 200 cattle, tested as free of TB, were isolated for 60 days and then slaughtered. When the carcasses were examined, 29 had TB lesions. Elsewhere, herds under annual testing and considered TB-free, could break down, in some cases after several years of testing clean.

One difficulty is that, even with annual testing, the tuberculin skin test is unreliable, failing to identify 20-30 percent of diseased cattle. The interferon gamma blood test is now being used alongside the skin test, and this is proving much more successful. Jan Bailey points to spikes in the figures for cattle slaughtered, showing where and when this second test was brought into the regime.

Professor Bourne was adamant that a more rigorous testing regime, movement controls and ‘risk-based trading’ was the way to go, and seemed to think it would be more effective than vaccination – “but by all means vaccinate badgers if you want to.” At the time of writing the final report (2007), the ISG concluded:

“Disease control has also been based on an assumption that testing protocols are effective at clearing herds of infection, so pre-empting the possibility of within and between-herd transmission of the disease. Because the pockets of infection that persisted in parts of the South West of England after the rest of the country was cleared of disease were attributed to re-infection by a non-cattle source (wildlife), the emphasis of disease control over the last 25 years has, until recently, focused on dealing with the wildlife reservoir and relatively little consideration has been given to potential means of improving control measures directed to cattle.” (7.1, page 139).

Defra and the farmers already have the answer to tackling bovine TB, and it is not badger culling. Some 6 percent of infection may be attributed to badgers (although it is still not clear exactly how badgers infect cattle), but farmers must deal with the remaining 94 percent. They should look at some of the farming practises identified by the ISG report that create higher risks; larger herds, housed cattle, feeding silage and so on. But the most productive route towards controlling this disease is more rigorous testing with strict movement and trading controls. It should not be looked on as ‘more red tape ‘ for farmers to cope with, but as a route out of a difficult situation, a route that is already showing positive results.

Last year’s badger culls demonstrated that trapping badgers to shoot them was very costly in both money and effort. Vaccinating badgers costs far less and there is an army of volunteers ready to help. To waste huge amounts of public money chasing after the badger, which is after all a protected species and a valued part of British wildlife, when far more effective ways of controlling bovine TB are available is, to use Professor Bourne’s words: Absolutely bloody bonkers!

Lesley Docksey © 26/04/15


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This post was written by Lesley Docksey

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