Learning from history about tuberculosis in cattle: Part 2

Here in Britain some cattle (Bos primigenius) get bovine tuberculosis (bTB) and we want rid. You might choose to follow my tag ‘tuberculosis’ for other posts on this. Here’s a list of notifiable diseases affecting livestock in Britain.

Here’s another telling of history about bTB in Britain. This time the story is told by TB Free England, a website which presents itself as though it were independent but which I find very loyal to the National Farmers Union (NFU).

If bTB is a growing problem in Britain (which it is), who’s stopping it from being got under control? Soft-hearted townies who care about the badger, or hard-hearted farmers who care about their livelihoods? Those are stereotypes, of course. But with a hint of truth in them.

The TB Free England telling of the history shows how bTB cases have become more frequent since the 1970s. This has happened even though bTB remains a notifiable disease and cattle testing positive (‘reactors’) are not moved off the farm. Why the rise in bTB since the 1970s? Was it because the European badger (Meles meles) became a protected species? Or was it because cattle were moved around more than they used to be?

John Bourne chaired the team which gave us this: ‘A Science Base for a Sustainable Policy to Control TB in Cattle’. In October 2012 Damian Carrington at the Guardian reported Prof Bourne saying that new rules on cattle movement, to be introduced at the start of 2013, were ‘a move in the right direction’ but too weak. I’m inclined to trust Prof Bourne because he’s a very senior scientist. According to him, we need ‘even stricter biosecurity’. We need to learn from Australian history and from our own history.

The Aussies eradicated bTB fifteen years ago. Here’s how they did it. It’s a bit different from our situation here in Britain, though. There are no Aussie badgers and perhaps that’s not the only difference.

Back to Britain. Prof Bourne said that after ‘heavy testing’, if there’s bTB in a herd, cattle shouldn’t be moved from that herd to anywhere else. Not just the ‘reactors’ (the cattle which test positive) but their herdmates too. If cattle were moved from that herd, they’d probably take bTB with them. ‘The attested herd scheme was successful in UK in the 50s and 60s and was the basis of eradication in Australia,’ said Prof Bourne. ‘But farmers would not like it and this is why it is unlikely to happen.’

‘Farmers would not like it.’ No, they wouldn’t. Their herds are their livelihoods. Badgers are more common than they used to be; so is bTB; badgers can transmit bTB to cattle. So shoot the badgers! say some.

Around the same time that the Guardian published Damian Carrington’s article last October, Peter Garbutt at the NFU called for more research. Mr Garbutt said that ‘some of these changes [to rules about cattle testing and movement] are bound to cause consternation to those farming businesses directly affected by them.’ He said that the new rules were too much, too soon. He said that we should wait for the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE) to tell us what it found about people’s views on future bovine TB strategy.

The AHWBE report came out in January. You can scroll down to its page 5 to see who gave opinions. Most people who gave their opinions (nearly 40%) were ‘commercial companies and members of the public’. Almost the same number (over 33%) were ‘farmers, farming organisations and related bodies’. Over 20% were ‘veterinarians, veterinary practices and veterinary professional bodies’. There were also a few responses from ‘wildlife and conservation groups’ and from ‘Trading Standards and inspectors’.

AHWBE said, ‘What this rich body of complex data can provide is an in-depth understanding of stakeholders’ views, knowledge and personal experience of dealing with the disease. This detailed, practical feedback will help in future policy development.’

Yes it’s a ‘rich body of complex data’ isn’t it? There’s a lot of discussion there about how to improve cattle testing. There’s also a lot of discussion about who should do the testing and who should pay for it. There are calls for badger culling in particular areas but not for a ‘shoot the lot!’ approach. I don’t see discussion of the idea that after a targetted cull, badgers will move into the cleared setts. Overall, I don’t see a chorus of ‘blame the badgers and shoot them!’

Mr Garbutt, voice of the National Farmers Union, you wanted to see what opinions would be given. Here they are. Do you still want Owen Paterson, our Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, to push ahead with a badger cull a few months from now? If you want that, why do you want it?

I started this blog post expecting to find out why farmers want a huge cull of badgers, but I haven’t found that. I haven’t even found many farmers wanting the cull. Maybe I’m missing something.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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One Response to Learning from history about tuberculosis in cattle: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Paterson pauses on pesticides. Sorry bees, we’ll let you know in a while | Science on the Land

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