Human cost of bovine TB underestimated
I RARELY feel compelled to respond to letters regarding my column in the paper but I feel I need to respond to Adrian Coward's letter regarding TB.
I do not intend responding to every point raised – my views were stated in my recent article, which in brief are that whether we like it or not, TB is transferred from cattle to cattle, from badgers to badgers and in both directions between cattle and badgers. Accordingly I do not think the disease can be brought under control without being addressed in both the cattle and badger populations.
The disease is being addressed in cattle; there may be improvements to be made but the fact that 28,000 cattle per annum are being slaughtered as part of the testing programme surely demonstrates this matter is being taken very seriously on every livestock farm in the country.
The same cannot be said for the badger population for which the only action being taken is small-scale vaccination in places by badger groups and the like.
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Further, I do not come to this subject in complete ignorance as was implied by Mr Coward – I have a first class degree in Zoology and in the late 1980s was briefly involved in post-graduate research on badgers and bovine TB. I may not be an expert but nor am I uninformed on the subject.
However, the main reason for responding is not to rehearse the technical arguments about the disease but it is to report on the problems I see this disease causes in the farming community. For example, I know of two dairy farms within a mile of Wells who have lost in total about 500 cattle to TB over the past two or three years. The impact on these farmers has been profound and there are countless other similar stories across the West Country. I could go on in great detail about these incidents but will not do so other than to say the problems faced by these farmers and their families go far beyond their financial losses – it has affected their health and general wellbeing and I think the human cost of this disease is significantly underestimated.
Clearly there is a difficult balance to be struck between animal welfare (both of badgers and cattle), human welfare and the commercial aspects of not changing the existing policy, both at a farm and national level.
My conclusion is that this disease needs to be tackled head on in both cattle and badgers. At present the disease is being addressed in cattle on every farm in the country but the same cannot be said of the badger population which to the contrary receives legal protection and I think this imbalance needs to be readdressed if bovine TB is to be brought under control.
I FEEL compelled to clarify a number of points in Adrian Coward's letter, September 12, especially as I was mentioned and quoted in it.
Before any cattle in Somerset can be moved from one farm to another, or taken to market, they are tested for bovine TB (bTB). If they pass the test they must be moved within a set period of time.
We also have annual bTB testing. If an animal reacts positively to the test it is isolated and sent for slaughter and the rest of the herd is placed under restriction. This means the farm business cannot operate normally until the entire herd has passed two consecutive TB tests 60 days apart.
As an industry we are taking steps to control the spread of bTB within our cattle and the measures in place are having a positive effect. But unless we tackle the reservoir of disease in wildlife we will never be able to eradicate this terrible disease because our cattle will continue to be reinfected, despite our best efforts to stop it. The only way to guarantee that badgers and cows won't come into contact is to keep cattle constantly locked up in secure housing. But this goes against the wishes of the vast majority of people who love to see cattle grazing in iconic settings across the region and would not be practical for many farming businesses.
And these animals also play a crucial role in sustaining some of our most beautiful and treasured grassland landscapes.
I've always said that vaccination, of both badgers and cattle, has a key role to play in the control and eradication of bTB, especially in areas that are TB free. I welcome the news that field trials for a cattle vaccine and associated test to differentiate between an infected and vaccinated animal are to begin in the UK next year.
But the fact remains that at the moment there is no vaccine available to protect cattle and best estimates from the European Commission suggest it will still be ten years before a licensed vaccine is available. Similarly, vaccinating badgers using the available injectable vaccine is not a viable alternative at present. It is of no use at all if a badger already has bovine TB, it is logistically challenging and, as a result, costly as the trials in Wales, where it has cost £662 to vaccinate each badger, have shown.
We must do everything we can to tackle this devastating disease using all the tools available to us now. Breaking the cycle of re-infection between wildlife and cattle is one of the keys to ensuring healthy badgers, healthy cattle and a healthy countryside, which is what everyone wants. For more information, please visit www.tbfreeengland.co.uk
Chairman, Somerset NFU