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These cows on the Kerry Ridgeway in Wales are subject to annual TB testing - key to halving TB incidence over 5 years. Photo: John Clift via Flickr.
These cows on the Kerry Ridgeway in Wales are subject to annual TB testing - key to halving TB incidence over 5 years. Photo: John Clift via Flickr.
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Bovine TB - biosecurity works, new Defra figures show

Lesley Docksey

18th June 2014

With the 6th International Conference on Bovine TB under way today in Cardiff, Lesley Docksey reports on Defra's latest statistics. BTB in England is falling - and it's falling fastest where the strongest biosecurity measures are in place, confirming the experience of Wales and Scotland.

Scotland has achieved official TB-free status, and Wales is on the way - both without killing badgers.

On 12 June Defra released its latest bovine TB statistics, much to the satisfaction of those campaigning to stop any further culling - by whatever method - of badgers.

They show that yet again, even if by a small amount, the incidence of BTB in England is dropping.

For too long have badgers taken the blame for cattle suffering the effects of this horrible disease and farmers suffering from seeing their valuable herds being slaughtered.

Wales - annual BTB testing is key

In vain have people begged Defra - in the person of Environment Secretary Owen Paterson - to look at how Wales has managed to achieve a drop of nearly 50% in the number of cattle slaughtered with not a single badger killed.

Just 6,102 cattle were slaughtered in 2013, down from 9,287 in 2012, following peaks of 11,671 in 2009, and 11,401 in 2008. Annual testing was introduced in 2008, and measures were tightened in 2009.

Speaking at the 6th international conference on BTB which is taking place in Cardiff this week, Wales' Chief Veterinary Officer Christianne Glossop attributed Wales's success to annual testing of cattle. "Our annual testing regime is an essential part of our work to find bovine TB infection quickly", she said.

"We know we can beat TB. Other countries have done it but it is going to be a long haul and this conference, and the opportunity it provides for us to learn from the experiences of others, is another important milestone in our journey towards a TB free Wales."

'No other country ... '

Yet all Owen Paterson, Farming Minister George Eustice, Defra and the National Farmers' Union have done in response is to parrot the meaningless and inaccurate phrase:

"No other country in the world has managed to eradicate bovine TB in cattle without addressing the reservoir of the disease in wildlife."

At a debate held at Bristol University in May on the policy of badger culling, when Adam Quinney (former NFU Vice-President) started to say "No other country ... " half the audience dropped heads into hands and groaned.

And with good reason: Scotland has achieved official TB-free status, and Wales is on the way - both without killing badgers.

Northern Ireland has also seen a welcome drop in the incidence of BTB, again without a badger cull - so far. They are now planning limited culling through a process of trapping badgers, vaccinating the healthy badgers and killing those with disease. But this plan has just received a bit of a blow.

A recently published study - as reported in The Ecologist - showed that even a small amount of badger culling could cause "perturbation" amongst the badger population (infected badgers fleeing into another area) - and a possible increase in the incidence of TB among cattle. Paterson et al have remained silent.

Good cattle management is the answer

The real proof that it is by good cattle management that farmers will defeat BTB lies within Defra's latest figures.

Although generally TB incidence and the resulting slaughter of cattle have decreased by a small amount, the drop is more noticeable for the West Country, host to the pilot culls, and a 'hot spot' for BTB.

The number of 'reactor' cattle slaughtered in England between January and March this year had dropped by 5.15% compared to the same period last year. However, in the West Country the drop was 7.38%, a small but significant difference.

Defra and the NFU cannot claim this is a result of the badgers killed last autumn because all the cattle that tested positive for TB would have probably already been infected. Sadly, we are unlikely to know for three or four years whether the culls have contributed to any spread of the disease because of 'perturbation'.

But the England-wide decrease can be attributed to the stricter cattle controls that were implemented in early 2012, and which were also responsible for falling number of 'reactors' recorded in 2013.

But why should the West Country - with more incidence of BTB in herds, where "the disease is out of control" and where all badgers run around "spewing out disease" (to quote Owen Paterson), and where "50% of badgers have TB" (to quote George Eustice) - why should this hot spot show more improvement than the rest of England?

TB incidence creates the necessary controls

In Wales, since 2008, all herds undergo annual testing, and in 2009 a strict and wide-ranging regime of bio-security and control of cattle movements was put in place. As noted above, the incidence of TB has been dramatically lowered.

In Scotland too they have beaten BTB with an ongoing stringent package of measures for cattle and dairy farmers. The tiny number of recent TB cases have all been traced to cattle brought in from outside Scotland.

In England any farm where BTB occurs and all surrounding farms have to undergo annual TB testing along with very strict movement controls. In the majority of cases there is a complete lockdown on cattle movements except for cattle going for slaughter.

But elsewhere herds are only tested every four years and although there is now individual testing before and after moving cattle, cattle movements are still not as controlled as they should be.

For instance, someone may hold farms in two different counties, but they can be regarded as one holding. So cattle could be moved from Devon to Lincolnshire with no testing to hinder the process.

And as it is, current TB testing is not that accurate. Not a few cattle test negative for TB when the reverse is true. Other perfectly healthy cattle get slaughtered.

Then there is fraud. It is not unknown for ear tags to be swapped between an infected cow that happens to be a good milker or breeder and another, less valuable but healthy cow, which gets slaughtered in her place.

Cattle movements are still a major problem

It is hard to believe but, even with greater controls in place, there are several million cattle movements around the country every year. According to Defra's figures there were 5.3 million cattle and calves in England in 2013. Consider how much travelling a bull calf might possibly do.

Born on a dairy farm where only heifer calves are needed, he will be kept for a few weeks then go to market (journey 1) where, along with other calves he will be sold to another farm and raised for beef (journey 2).

After a year he might go back to market (journey 3) and be sold again, this time to a farm to be fattened (journey 4). He might even be sold yet again to yet another farm that specialises in 'finishing' (journeys 5 and 6) before his final journey to the abattoir.

It is a lucky beast that gets to live out his life on one farm. There are times when it seems that the major part of the cattle business is simply shipping animals around the country, and where BTB is concerned it is a major problem.

In February this year a dairy herd was sold at a Cheshire market. It was thought to be TB-free, and being in a four-year testing area, pre-movement testing was not compulsory.

Infected cattle went to farms all over England, Scotland and Wales. A massive investigation was launched by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency to trace them all.

Livestock auctioneers call for more TB testing

BBC Radio 4's Farming Today featured the story in early April. A spokesman for the Livestock Auctioneers Association called for TB testing to be done more frequently in all areas, not just those where TB is known to exist. The auctioneers do not like being responsible for selling possibly diseased animals.

He described a hypothetical example to show how lax the system could be: Just before his herd is due for its four-year TB test, a farmer takes some cattle to market. They are bought by another farmer whose herd has just had its four-year test.

It was therefore quite possible that a beast, perhaps infected, could escape any kind of testing before it was slaughtered.

Instead of wasting public money on killing badgers along with the heavy costs of policing the culls, also taxpayer-funded, Defra (and farmers) should look to Scotland and Wales.

The choice is clear - farmers put up with the increased regulations that will protect their herds and their livelihood, or they go on living with TB.

At the moment, paradoxically, it looks as though England has reached the point where farmers have a better chance of beating BTB if they live in a hot-spot area.



Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for the Ecologist on the badger cull and other environmental subjects.

See her other articles for The Ecologist.



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