Strong views on future bTB control

01 March 2014, at 12:00am

Richard Gard reports on a recent meeting in Somerset where it was pointed out that policy-makers need to better appreciate local knowledge and farmers need to understand the complexities...

AT a meeting in Somerset in early February of, mainly, beef farmers it became clear that there is great disquiet about continuation of the badger culling trials that are currently being promoted locally by the NFU.

This followed the publication in January of the findings of a social science study, funded by DEFRA. The examination of farmer understanding of wildlife control options for bovine TB has a number of key findings that clash strongly with Government policy. The findings call for the Government to listen to the farmers and the overriding conclusion from the meeting was that the farmer organisations need to do likewise.

The study included interviews with farmers in Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Devon in 2012, before the culling trials. The findings suggest that farmers have a number of concerns about the pilot badger culling and the majority would instead favour a more targeted cull whereby only diseased badgers are removed.

Furthermore, the report discusses the opinion that the farming industry has a unified anti-badger sentiment, keen to control the badger population in order to preserve the country’s cattle industry.

Perception challenged

This paper challenges this general perception via a thorough examination of the understandings and attitudes of farmers towards the role of badgers in relation to bovine TB spread and the need to control the disease in the species.

The Somerset farmers spoke openly about their herd history, experiences and attitudes. It was clear that they fully appreciated that healthy badgers on the farm were acceptable and that their problems were due to diseased badgers. The notion being put forward that “the only good badger is a dead badger” was severely criticised with some colourful descriptions of the local individuals promoting an extension of random culling later this year. 

Terms like “stupid”, “ignorant” and “clueless” peppered the discussion. Comments from local farmers indicated that the combination of shooting and trapping has resulted in poor outcomes.

Another key finding from the report highlighted the need for improved communication between farmers and government. Policy-makers need to better understand and appreciate local knowledge and farmers need to more thoroughly appreciate the complexities surrounding taking a targeted approach for controlling the disease.

A better understanding of both positions would facilitate co-operation between government and industry, which is a key aspiration of the current bovine TB control programme.

There is also detail within the report regarding badger vaccination. Noting that the research was funded as part of the Badger Vaccine Deployment Project, it is clear from the interviews and wider discussions that farmers’ beliefs about nature and their understandings of how the disease spreads call into question the role and practical applicability of badger vaccination.

The views expressed at the Somerset meeting and the views of the farmers outlined in the report also combine with the opinion that culling only infected badgers is a more practical and morally acceptable way to deal with the problem.

There has been some publicity in the south-west of vaccination trials. The costs are high, at several hundred pounds per badger. Some of the funding is from the government, some from charities and some private. 

‘Snouts in the trough’ 

A Somerset farmer is said to have been offered a three-year commercial programme to trap and vaccinate badgers for £15,000 plus. There is no apparent indication of performance in preventing or reducing bovine TB.

The view at the meeting was that these initiatives are all about “snouts in the trough”. The inability to successfully trap badgers and the need to inject each badger each year were highlighted.

The research was presented at the XXV European Society for Rural Sociology Conference, held in Florence, in a working group on Biosecurity and Rural Governance. Although the interviews were conducted in 2012, the contents of the report were not sufficient to change the direction of the pilot culls. There is clearly an apparent difference between the policy direction with badger culling and the considered views of farmers. 

It may be that the harsh comments were in part triggered by the forthcoming election for an NFU president.

So, what is to be done? There is no mention of a veterinary view in the report but at the meeting farmers indicated that they would be discussing their situation with their vet. 

Co-ordination needed 

One of the aspects is the local situation with neighbours. The farmers indicated that they know one or two bovine TB situations locally but a co- ordinated effort to consider the immediate local results was considered to be helpful.

Veterinary practices could do worse than identify where the disease is in relation to clients.

The current initiative for the AHVLA to investigate herds that have been under restriction for 18 months is one angle, but many farmers are now concerned about the spread of bovine TB. The most constructive work for practices could well be with the clear herds to assess local risks to their status.

A further option is being made available to members of the Badger Welfare Association to identify healthy badger communities. Healthy badgers would be retained and only badgers outside those communities would then be targeted for control.

The way forward would be for veterinary practices to request an area assessment working out from a herd of concern. Training for wildlife surveyors and risk assessors is also being planned and it is likely that the involvement of veterinary surgeons to combine their awareness of cattle disease with wildlife risks will be sought by clients.

Disease hotspot

There has been a problem for breeders of pedigree cattle for years with the notion that the south-west is a hotspot for the disease. With the zoning now introduced by DEFRA, this restriction on businesses in the west country is an increasing problem. However, the industry has not promoted that only 20% of herds are under restriction and that 80% are clear.

A group of Somerset Simmental breeders has discussed whether they could assess the incidence of bovine TB within member herds. It could be that the incidence in Simmental herds is much lower than the area average and a 95% value for clear herds is not far from being bTB free.

One or two herds targeted for control could be significant. There is much that could be done with local information. The DEFRA website was still offline as this was written so current county data are awaited. The figures for 2012, that may be revised, were that there were 3,467 restricted herds in the West region out of a total of 18,868 herds (18%).

The total is made up of 4,192 dairy and 14,676 beef herds: the dairy herds make up 22% of all herds but what is their contribution to bTB? Do the 78% of beef herds contribute a greater percentage of bTB or not? Such detail has not been made available but if veterinary surgeons are to become more active in control of the disease, local information will be key.

If any practices wish to clarify and discuss the ways forward with local client initiatives, please contact