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Despite many efforts, no one has yet managed to demonstrate how badgers are supposed to give TB to cattle

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Cumbria's Bovine TB problem - hidden for years but now in the news

Lesley Docksey

25th August, 2017

Slowly the incidence of bTB in Cumbria has increased without any real outcry from the agricultural lobby. Why then, at the beginning of this month (August), has all of this information suddenly become news asks LESLEY DOCKSEY

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

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.

However, farmers that had been to hell and back in 2001 were hypersensitive to disease risks and somehow managed to contain any possible bTB, so much so that Cumbria was rarely troubled. In 2013 in the northern half of Cumbria there were only three incidences of bTB (between Penrith and Carlisle).  There were a further eight incidents in southern Cumbria.

But since then, in the north and in less than four years, there have been around 61 separate outbreaks, with yet more in the south.  Bovine TB now surrounds the Lake District (see http://www.ibtb.co.uk/ - select all types/all years)

That infection had to come from somewhere, so what went wrong?

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, at the beginning of this month (August), 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.

But no... badgers have to be ‘controlled'.

And we return to ignorant and uninformed statements about badgers.  Take this Penrith vet, talking to the BBC:

"Badgers live in the same fields as cattle; they can move into cattle buildings and eat the feed and poo in the troughs.  It's very easy for badgers to spread the disease to cattle."

Defra has issued some fairly comprehensive advice on the biosecurity measures farmers should take to prevent badgers from accessing yards, feed stores and cattle housing.  And farmers are advised to fence off any areas in their fields where cattle could get close to badgers.  But it is only ‘advice' that, sadly, most farmers ignore.

Study after study has found that badgers avoid cattle and cattle housing (when the cattle are there). Despite many efforts, no one has yet managed to demonstrate how badgers are supposed to give TB to cattle. And badgers don't ‘poo in troughs'. Why ever would they? They are clean creatures and dig latrines to defecate in.

You would hope that this succession of events would persuade Defra, Natural England, the NFU and farmers that badgers really are not the problem. It is farming-based. But no; to deal with the disease one of the options would be to kill the badgers which have had the misfortune to become infected.

There is hope. Recent research by a Nottingham University team has developed a new bTB blood test.  This identifies bTB in cattle at a much earlier stage than current testing methods do. Their study, carried out over four years at a Devon farm, also identifies many more infected cattle than the standard testing does. And that appears to show that the reservoir for the disease was within the herd, not the wildlife - news that won't be welcome to farmers.

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Lesley Docksey is a campaigner and regular contributor to the Ecologist

 

 

 

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