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Bovine TB and the government's proposed slaughter of badgers: TIME FOR THE CATTLE INDUSTRY TO CLEAN UP ITS ACT
Posted 1 February 2006
THE DEFRA CONSULATION
On December 15 2005, DEFRA announced new measures to tackle bovine TB in cattle in England (1). These included the pre-movement testing of cattle and a revised compensation scheme for farmers whose infected animals are destroyed. DEFRA simultaneously announced a 12-week consultation on whether - and by what method - large numbers of badgers should be killed in areas where there is a high incidence of the disease in cattle.
COST OF THE DISEASE
In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of TB-infected cattle killed. In 1986, 638 animals were compulsorily slaughtered. By 2004, this had risen to 22,571(1). Bovine TB - in common with foot and mouth disease - is itself rarely fatal in cattle and many infected animals show no outward signs of being ill. This is because of the condition's slow development coupled with the fact that most cattle have already been killed for meat by the age of 15 months to two years, while breeding animals are 'spent' by the age of five.
The main problem that the disease presents is economic - milk yields are reduced and trading in the meat of infected animals is prohibited. Far more serious in terms of both animal welfare and economic impact is that, each year, 170,000 calves die in their first month of life (2) and at least 250,000 adult cattle die or are killed annually (3) because of conditions associated with neglect, filth and intensification. These include mastitis, diarrhoea, infertility and lameness.
Cattle farmers are handsomely cushioned against these losses through a compensation and subsidy package that amounts to more than 40 per cent of their annual income (4). Included in this package is a pay-out for every animal destroyed because of bovine TB. In 2004/5, the disease cost the taxpayer £90.5m - with £35 million of that sum paid out in compensation (1). A National Audit Office investigation found that the scheme was widely exploited, with farmers in England and Wales receiving as much as double their entitlement (5).
While the farming industry has long resisted the idea that its own intensive rearing, breeding and transport practices are at the heart of the bovine TB problem, the weight of evidence has now forced it to concede some ground. Its revised position seems to be that, while movements of infected cattle have contributed to the spread of the disease, the industry has now got its house in order and the only way to eradicate bovine TB is to deal with the 'reservoir of disease' in wildlife. This means, principally, a large-scale slaughter of badgers from whom cattle are said to contract the infection.
NO CASE AGAINST BADGERS
In fact, while exhaustive research demonstrates that cattle movements 'substantially and consistently outweigh' all other factors in spreading bovine TB (6), no clear evidence has been presented linking badgers to the bovine TB epidemic. Says Martin Hancox, zoologist and former member of the Badgers and Bovine TB Panel: 'TB is appearing in areas that have been TB-free for ten years, sometimes longer. The badgers were there all the time: are they supposed to have sat around for a decade and then one day decided to infect cows (7).' The key new factor, he points out, was the unregulated countrywide movements of cattle who - because of the BSE and then the foot and mouth crises - were not tested for TB infectivity before being transported.
Since 1975, more than 30,000 badgers have been killed in an attempt to curb TB in cattle. Tests revealed that 80% of the slaughtered animals were free of TB (8). And despite virtually exterminating badgers from four counties in the republic of Ireland, a massive TB problem remains in each of those areas (9).
PROBLEMS WITH THE BADGERS-TO-CATTLE TRANSMISSION THEORY
While it cannot be disputed that some badgers - as well as deer, rats, foxes and other mammals - harbour the pathogen that causes TB, it does not follow that they are responsible for transmitting it to cattle and that this results in the cattle becoming ill. Transmission from badgers to cattle is itself problematical, given that the disease is invariably passed on via the respiratory route. While cattle have a habit of going nose to nose with each other - and also breathe the same air in sheds and milking parlours - such intimate contact between cattle and badgers is difficult to envisage.
Transmission via ingestion can take place but the infective dose needs to be up to a million times greater than by inhalation (10). Cattle are therefore at little risk from pasture contaminated with faeces from badgers.
That badgers should become infected by cattle, however, is far more likely because of the former's habit of seeking worms (their staple diet) from under infected cowpats (10).
CATTLE AS THE SOURCE
The mere transfer of a disease organism from one individual to another does not, in any case, necessarily result in disease. The outcome depends on the virulence of the infective agent and the susceptibility of the recipient. In people, TB strikes more often in those who are malnourished, already sick and who are using drugs or drink to excess. Add into this mix, poor, badly ventilated housing, and the circumstances for illness could not be better arranged. Other than high alcohol consumption, the above is an accurate description of the circumstances in which modern cattle are reared.
Even in bovine TB hotspots, cattle continue to be confined in filthy, unhygienic conditions - sometimes up to their knees in mud and their own waste; their feed similarly contaminated and troughs containing stagnant, murky water.
A FARMER WRITES...
The argument that bovine TB arises from the conditions in which the cattle are kept was made with perfect clarity by a farmer in the pages of Farmers Weekly:
'Those of us involved in dairy farming in the south-west have noticed over the past decades that dairy cows spend longer periods all year round cooped up in dark buildings which are often overcrowded and poorly ventilated, often dripping with condensation. Those are ideal conditions for the spread of TB aerosols.
'It would be unsurprising if this dark, crowded, ill-ventilated environment, affecting larger herds managed by fewer staff, combined with the physiological stress to highly bred cows being pushed for maximum yields, were major factors in the increase of TB in dairy herds. There is little TB to be found in the woodchip corrals in Scotland, where cattle are exposed to pelting rain, wind and sunlight. Cattle TB was wiped out in Britain. Many aspects of large-sale indoor dairy farming are encouraging its resurgence. It was wiped out by hard culling and getting cows out into the fresh air. That lesson has been learned and forgotten again. It needs to be relearned.
'Dairy farms should learn from pig farmers. If you insist on overcrowding animals in dark, damp buildings you must provide them with forced ventilation or suffer respiratory problems such as TB (11).'
THE OVERWORKED MODERN COW
Cattle confined in the circumstances described above are already prone to physical breakdown because of the increasing burden placed upon them. Through artificial insemination and embryo transfer technology, cows are kept pregnant ten months of the year so that the milk flow stays constant. For around seven of these months they are simultaneously pregnant and giving milk - an enormous physical burden.
A hard working Friesian - who will feed on a combination of pasture and high protein products - produces a formidable 35-40 litres of milk every day. But 60 litres daily (105 pints) is extracted from the 'high genetic merit' Holstein (12).
Increasingly, these animals are subjected to 'zero grazing' regimes, whereby hundreds are packed together in sheds with concrete floors and move about outside only in 'loafing yards'. Around 10% of cows in the UK are zero grazed but they already produce some 30% of the total milk yield (13).
'According to the three most important indices of fitness - fertility, mastitis and lameness - dairy cows are getting worse,' notes John Webster, emeritus professor of animal husbandry at the University of Bristol (12).
Says Webster: 'Years ago, an average cow might expect a productive life of six lactations. In many of the highest yielding herds of barn-fed cows, average life expectancy has become two lactations or less and the cows are being culled because they have broken down. In many cases, this breakdown involves real suffering. Currently, some 20% of dairy cows are lame at any one time and 50% may expect to go lame in any one year.'
HOW BSE AND FOOT AND MOUTH POLICY FAILURES MADE TB INTO A CRISIS
While such stresses provide an ideal breeding ground for infectious diseases such as bovine TB, the pattern of cattle movements in recent years has ensured that the problem has been widely dispersed.
At the height of the BSE crisis in 1992-3, the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food was so overstretched that fewer cattle were tested for TB and the intervals between such tests were extended. Yet, despite the risk, there were massive 'stock' movements around the country (10).
'South West herds with TB nearly doubled from 121 to 232', says Martin Hancox, 'and there were new outbreaks on Exmoor and in Worcestershire. By 1999, over 50% of new breakdowns were in areas TB-free for ten years, including Avon, Cornwall, Devon and even in "frontier" counties such as Derbyshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire (10).'
DISEASED CATTLE TRANSPORTED ALL OVER BRITAIN
The policy failures over TB that occurred when the BSE-panic was at its height, were repeated during the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001. With most TB testing suspended and cattle kept indoors during the winter months, bovine TB took a firmer grip. Then, when the foot and mouth crisis was officially at an end, DEFRA - pressed by the National Farmers' Union and against the advice of the government's own Independent Scientific Group - sanctioned the countrywide movement of animals who were long overdue a TB test (14).
HOW BADGERS WILL BE KILLED
Defra acknowledges in its consultation document that 'there is uncertainty about the relative benefits of particular badger culling options'. This is a reference to the puzzle as to who would do the killing, by what method and over how big an area.
Looming over the whole project is recent evidence demonstrating that, when hunted down, some badgers will escape their would-be killers and disperse over a wider area. If the badgers concerned are infected with TB, the effect is to spread the disease into new territory. This panic-escape effect is grandly called 'perturbation'. With this in mind, Defra is agonising about in whose hands and under what gameplan the killing should take place - having apparently made up its mind that the job is too complicated and expensive for the government itself to carry out.
Instead, it is looking to licence farmers and landowners, either as individuals or as co-ordinated groups. Thereafter, comes the question of in how big an area should the killing take place, not least in order to avoid perturbation. One option is 'general culls' covering large, high incidence areas and not linked to specific farms or landholdings. Another option is 'targeted culling', focused on smaller areas in which there are affected farms. A third is to grant 'individual licences' for non-strategic killing of badgers.
GAS, GUNS, SNARES AND TRAPS
The actual killing methods under consideration include gassing animals in their setts, shooting free running badgers, snaring them, or trapping and shooting.
Gassing would be by carbon monoxide but there are problems in ensuring that enough gas is delivered to kill rather than simply leave the animals damaged and ailing. Politically speaking, shooting is a difficult policy to endorse given that the countryside lobby - when championing hunting - argued that it is difficult to achieve a clean kill of a fox using a gun. And snaring is increasingly controversial. Snares, says Defra, are intended to 'catch badgers round the body so that they can be held for a short period, without injury, until they could be humanely killed'. This, however, is something of a fantasy scenario. Apart from being indiscriminate with respect to the animals they capture, snares catch animals by the head, neck or leg, causing them traumatic injuries as they struggle to escape. And rather than being held for a short period, there is sufficient evidence from groups like the League Against Cruel Sports demonstrating that requirements to check snares at specified intervals are often ignored. The result is that the animal's death is slow and agonising.
Incredibly, Defra asks in its consultation whether respondents believe that those licensed to gas and snare badgers should undertake any training. With regard to shooting, it doesn't even pose the training question.
On the issue of cage-trapping and shooting, the consultation document acknowledges this to be expensive and inefficient, even though the government has itself commissioned the killing of thousands of badgers by this method in recent years.
KILLED BADGERS WON'T BE TB TESTED
Among the most cynical aspects of the entire badger slaughter proposal is the declaration by Defra that it does not intend to test the badgers it orders killed to see if they do indeed have TB. Such testing, it states, would be too expensive and would not, in any case, provide enough useful information.
The problem of bovine TB arises from the often filthy conditions in which cattle are kept and the increasing physiological burden placed upon them by farmers greedy for more milk, meat and profits. Compounding this reality are the policy failures that, in the wake of BSE and then foot and mouth disease, allowed TB-infected cattle to be transported across the UK. Thousands of badgers have already been killed since the 1970s in a hopeless attempt to eliminate bovine TB. Licensing farmers and landowners to kill more of these animals will be a vicious and cynical exercise in scapegoating. The slaughter will also fail in its declared purpose of bearing down upon the disease.
- 'Controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle in high incidence areas in England: Badger culling', A consultation document issued by the department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, December 15, 2005
- Report on the welfare of dairy cattle', Farm Animal Welfare Council, 1997
- 'Rethink health strategies, Sibley, R, Farmers Weekly, February 28, 2003
- Agriculture In The United Kingdom 2004, p68, DEFRA, 2005
- 'Identifying and Tracking Livestock in England, National Audit Office, November 2003
- 'Cattle movements and bovine tuberculosis in Great Britain, Gilbert et al. Nature 435, 491-496; 2005, May 26, 2005
- 'Do badgers spread TB in cattle?', Home & Country, Women's Institute, October 2002
- 'Update on Bovine Statistics', TB Forum Paper TBF 87, points 13-15, 2003
- 'Response to the Government decision to end badger culling in reactive areas of the "Kreb's Trial", submitted to the EFRA Select Committee.' National Federation of Badger Groups, December 6, 2003
- 'Confusion over bovine tuberculosis in badgers, cattle and humans?', Microbiology Today, Society for General Microbiology, Vol 29, August 2002
- 'Put a stop to overcrowding', Stuart Pattison, Farmers Weekly, November 8, 2002
- 'Churned out', John Webster, The Guardian, September 7, 2005
- 'Milked Dry', Martin Hickman, The Independent, November 7, 2005
- 'Bovine TB breakfast briefing: 1 July 2005, National Federation of Badger Groups