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The spread of Bovine Tuberculosis by badgers

January 20, 2018

No country has tackled this devastating disease without effectively dealing with the reservoir of disease in wildlife. (October, 2012)

1. Severity of bTB

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle was shown in the 1970s research by Gallaher & Sainsbury to have been acquired in 90%+ of cases from badger infection. It has become more serious each subsequent year, particularly in the years following introduction of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. The disease in cattle is now out of control in this country; 34,000 cattle were destroyed last year and the cost to the taxpayer over the last ten years is approaching £500 million.

The immense cost to individual farm businesses and trades is additional to this sum. This catastrophic problem is the direct result of Government’s failure to heed Lord Zuckerman’s advice in 1980 (see Section 2 hereunder) and the government’s subsequent well-meaning, but counter productive, introduction of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. This Act made it illegal for farmers, gamekeepers and other authorised countrymen to control the wildlife over the land under their management in the most effective way. 

2.  Reports Commissioned by Government

Lord Zuckerman submitted his Report in 1980 entitled Badgers, Cattle and Tuberculosis to the Right Honourable Peter Walker, Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in which he stated clearly that:- 

“The basic and incontrovertible fact is that TB in badgers is now (1980) a significant reservoir of the disease in parts of the South West, dangerous for badgers and cattle alike. Given the policy of the Government to suppress bovine TB, the disease cannot be allowed to spread in the badger population. Short of a fundamental change in the Government’s policy for the suppression of bovine and human TB, I cannot therefore see any reason for continuing the moratorium on the campaign to eliminate tuberculosis badgers. As I have already said, I am confident that the Ministry’s policy does not constitute a threat to the survival of the species in the United Kingdom. Indeed the very high prevalence of tuberculosis in badgers of the South West seems to me to be a far greater threat, for if disease were to take hold in badgers in other areas of the country, there is no saying what the consequences would be, not only so far as the transmission of TB to cattle is concerned, but also as they relate to the survival of the badger in our country.” 

In carrying out his enquiries in preparation for writing his report Lord Zuckerman encountered fierce lobbying from focus groups dedicated to the welfare of badgers, just as there are today. Clearly he listened patiently and tried to explain the relevant fundamental science. To quote:- 

“Even when they are adamant in rejecting what to any informed scientist would be irrefutable fact, the groups hostile to MAFF’s policy are insistent that they are not ‘crackpot extremists’. The fact is that opposition costs protesters little or nothing – any price that has to be paid is exacted in time by officials, in pounds and pence by the farmer and taxpayer, and in health by the badger”. 

Lord Zuckerman’s recommendations over thirty years ago, which could have prevented a foreseeable problem from becoming a disaster, have not yet been implemented by Government. More recently Sir David King the Government’s Chief Veterinary Advisor in his report “Bovine Tuberculosis in Cattle and Badgers” to the Secretary of State on 30th July 2007 stated that: 

“Badgers are a clear source of infection for cattle. Reducing the density of badgers in those areas of England where there is a significant level of TB in cattle also reduces the incidence of TB in cattle in the same area. Removal of badgers is the best option available at the moment to reduce the reservoir of infection in wildlife”. Many veterinary surgeons consider that the culls now proposed are just a first and totally inadequate step, which will have to be followed by more drastic control measures. 

3.  Transmission of bTB

bTB can be spread from cattle to cattle, from cattle to badgers, from badgers to badgers and from badgers to cattle. There are rigorous controls in cattle, but no controls are possible to prevent the spread in wildlife. All species of mammals including dogs, cats, humans and above all alpacas are susceptible to bovine TB. Infected sputum and urine from badgers suffering from TB can contaminate the pasture eaten by cattle in those fields. If there is disease in the wildlife on a farm, no amount of herd controls will stop the spiral of infection and re-infection. No other country in the world has solved the issue of bTB in cattle without controlling it in wildlife.

4.  Krebs Trial

Defra did not produce its own report on badger culling, but has used the Krebs Report prepared by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) under the direction of Professor John Bourne, who is not a veterinary surgeon. Many vets consider that this report was flawed and that it had been influenced by political factors. It is a fact that around 11,000 badgers were killed under the Krebs trials in the period 2002 to 2004, out of a total UK population in excess of 900,000. But the trial was useless, since it relied on trapping badgers. At least 30% of badgers are trap shy, so only 70% of the badgers in the trial areas were ever caught. The infected badgers that were not caught in the traps went straight back into the infected badger setts, which are like tunnels dug by the badgers in the earth where they live. Some of these badgers were found to go back into their infected setts on the very same night that the Krebs trial live traps had been put out. Furthermore while the Krebs trials were taking place animal rights activists deliberately wrecked so many of the traps that during one of the 6 week Krebs trial culling periods in 2004 activists destroyed £300,000 worth of traps in just one 5 kilometre killing zone. 

5.  DNA Testing of Lungs at Post Mortem Examination

Vets can now analyse the DNA of mycobacteria taken form the lungs of road killed badgers and have consistently found in the West Country that the mycobacteria found after slaughter in the lungs of cattle that have failed the tuberculin test correspond to the same sub type of bacteria that have been found in road killed badgers in the same Parish or local area. Thus DNA testing, similar to tests used by the Police to solve crimes, can also prove the connection between infected wild badgers and cattle diagnosed with TB in the same parish or local area.

6.  Vaccination of Cattle

Vaccination of cattle is prohibited under present EU legislation. Cattle vaccinated with vaccine already developed in other countries would show a positive reaction to the British Tuberculosis Test. Research scientists are attempting to develop a vaccine which could protect cattle from subsequent bTB infection without triggering a positive reaction to the Tuberculosis Test. In the longer term such a new generation vaccine could become the best solution, but at the present time it is not an option since development work is likely to take at least another two or three years.

7.  Vaccination of Badgers

The writer feels it wholly impractical to attempt to manage and treat a wild animal such as a badger in the same way as domesticated animals such as cattle or dogs. If a vaccine to protect badgers were ever to be developed it would not cure any infected badgers. These unfortunate wild animals would continue to suffer from a painful and protracted illness, sometimes lasting two years until being relieved by death.

8.  Super Excreter Badgers

There is evidence that some old badgers, suffering from TB so badly as to have become weak, are expelled from the badger sett by the younger active badgers. These infected older super-excreter badgers then try to find shelter, food and water in areas where they do not have to compete with other badgers for favourable territory. In most cases this takes the super excreter badgers close to farm livestock, grassland, water and other livestock food supplies, thereby infecting the cattle which will subsequently graze in the same area. Super excreter badgers can be best located by terriers (in the same way that drugs at airports can be best located by trained dogs) under the control of game keepers or farmers, who would then humanely put down the badger in question. Such work does not contravene existing badger protection legislation, since diseased badgers are exempted from protection. However Defra policy at an earlier stage, when led by Elliot Morley prior to his imprisonment, discouraged the use of dogs for any form of management of wildlife.

9. Perturbation Effect

There have been concerns that perturbation, the act of disturbing something or someone, might cause adverse effects following a cull of badgers. The theory put forward is that if the badgers are removed from one area, then it could be recolonized by diseased badgers from another area. In order to avoid such a perturbation effect the trial areas have been chosen so as to have hard boundaries such as rivers or motorways. However the ultimate aim should be removal of all diseased badgers, leaving only a healthy population of badgers.

10.  Road Killed Badgers

Approximately 50,000 badgers are killed on the roads by motor vehicles each year. This number is higher than in earlier years, reflecting the overall increase in badger population in recent years. Post mortem results of road killed badgers in the West Country in 2009/2010 showed 29% to be infected with bTB.

11.  Control of Vermin

For generations farmers and gamekeepers in the rural areas managed wildlife in such a way as to maintain healthy populations of the different species of wildlife. Countrymen are still allowed to kill rats and mice that would be a threat to humans or to other wildlife species, providing the traps used are humane. The badger population has now increased to the extent of threatening other species, such as hedgehogs, lapwings, partridges, larks, willow warblers and bumble bees, and yet the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 prevents countrymen from managing the badger population in a sensible and balanced manner.

12.  Government Compulsory Powers

In times of national emergency, Government legislates for compulsory powers in order that resources can be managed best for the common good. The writer considers that bTB has become a national emergency, and that Government should instigate compulsory powers for entry to land by authorised persons for the purpose of control of diseased badgers.

13.  RSPCA

The Farmers Guardian weekly paper reports on its front page of the 5th October 2012 issue of the conduct of the RSPCA, described as being “despicable”, in intimidating farmers and landowners in the Gloucestershire Area. Apparently the RSPCA has advised consumers to stop drinking milk produced on those farms that comply with Defra recommendations for the proposed trial cull of badgers in bTB hotspot areas. The writer cannot understand the actions of the RSPCA, and questions whether the RSPCA should be allowed to retain its charitable status in view of its proved links with animal rights extremist organisations, its newspaper campaign against a cull of diseased badgers containing allegations which the Advertising Standards Agency found in 2006 to be untrue and unsubstantiated, and its failure to take into account the welfare of other species when opposing the control of badgers.

14.  Farm Crisis Network

Emotional media coverage of the proposed trial cull of badgers in hot spot areas has been centred on the badgers. Farmers cannot understand why the cattle and baby calves are not also considered from an emotional perspective, and why no fuss was made about the 34,183 cattle which were killed on Government order due to TB in 2011. The Farm Crisis Network attempts to support farmers suffering from the distress of bTB outbreaks in their cattle, in some cases destroying their livelihood. Comments from farming families suffering breakdown, such as from the two farmers quoted below, are heard frequently by Farm Crisis Network Counsellors:- 

“The worst thing was that cows very close to calving had to be shot on farm. We could see the calves kicking inside as they died”. 

“I feel there is a constant dark cloud of uncertainty over me, causing stress, anxiety and fear. I feel weary, mentally and physically” 

Bryan K Edgley MBE FRSA 10th October 2012

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