TB STRATEGY ‘FUTILE WITHOUT NATIONAL BADGER CULL’
13 September 2013 By Alistair Driver
Farmers and vets gathered in Worcester to discuss Defra’s 25-year TB strategy. ALISTAIR DRIVER reports from a vocal meeting.
THE verdict was unequivocal and virtually unanimous when farmers and vets gathered to discuss Defra’s draft 25-year bovine TB strategy for England near Worcester last Friday. There is no point, they told Defra officials again and again, placing more cattle measures and costs onto farmers until they are able to control disease spread in wildlife on a national scale.
Gloucestershire dairy farmer Rob Harrison summed up the mood: “Badger control in endemic areas has to come first. That is absolutely the key. It will unlock the potential of the rest of the TB strategy and will make TB controls work within the UK. That is how you build trust in the farming community.”
In the third in a series of 10 regional meetings across England, about 30 ‘stakeholders’, spread over four tables, were encouraged by moderators to discuss the various elements of the draft strategy, particularly in relation to the High Risk Area (HRA) they are part of. Views were sought at the prospect of more stringent testing procedures such as compulsory post-movement testing, much greater use of the more sensitive gamma interferon blood test and banning the short-interval test as a pre-movement test. The spectre of ‘enhanced use of depopulation and controlled restocking of herds with ongoing and recurring breakdowns’ was raised.
There were mixed views on the introduction of voluntary risk-based trading, which has already been decided. Some welcomed the provision of more cattle health data for buyers and the opportunities it will provide for historically clean herds in the HRA. Other feared non-compliance from farmers.
Defra officials, while denying the strategy was driven by the need to save money, explained how the department’s animal health and welfare budget was due to be cut from £244 million to £199m in 2014/15, with further reductions to come. Farmers will therefore have to contribute more. This could be through, for example, paying more for routine TB testing, which is being tendered out to the private sector to increase competition.
Defra also wants to cut its TB compensation bill. Concern was expressed about the suggestion to link compensation to biosecurity. How would this be measured? And how could it be done fairly where wildlife is a factor in breakdowns? To formalise cost-sharing of TB policy, there will be moves, as the strategy is implemented, to encourage, or force, farmers to contribute through some sort of levy, mutual fund or voluntary subscription. Mr Harrison said a national compulsory levy on all cattle owners was the only sure-fire and practical way to raise funds. Others insisted contributions must be voluntary. Linked to this are moves, based on the New Zealand model, to establish regional farmer-led eradication boards, possibly at county level in hotspot areas, to set and deliver policy appropriate to local conditions.
While there was support for the regional committees should feed into an overarching national industry-Defra TB body, more appeared to be in favour of regional autonomy, citing, in one tongue-in cheek comment, distrust of the ‘idiots in London’. But throughout all the discussions one theme raised its head again and again, however hard the moderators tried to steer away from it – the futility of any TB strategy in the absence of credible means to protect cattle from disease spread by wildlife.
Summing up his table’s views, Shropshire vet Alistair Macpherson said: “There is broad agreement that farmers have basically had enough. They see no end to it if they can’t control badgers.
“A 25-year plan is way too long. We want a five-year plan and even that is too long. Our own clients will pretty much accept any measures Defra put in place if they are given a free run on the badgers. Get away from the cull pilots, just get on with it.”
South Shropshire vet Benno Veestra said tougher cattle measures will simply not work without parallel national badger controls. “Nobody is going to be willing to co-operate unless you control the wildlife reservoir. There is nothing at all in it for the farmer,” he said.
Mr Harrison added: “We have spent the last 20 or 30 years trying to address the disease in the cattle population but made hardly any progress. There is a lack of trust between farmers and Government and by starting on wildlife control and management over the next few years will give farmers more trust in Government and faith in their plans to tackle this terrible disease.”
These sentiments, echoing those voiced at previous stakeholder meetings in heavily infected areas, create a headache for Defra Secretary Owen Paterson and his department.
The draft strategy outlines plans for ‘wider roll out’ of the badger cull to up to 10 new areas from 2014, subject to successful pilots, now underway in Gloucestershire and Somerset. There is also a commitment for research into new longer-term measures to control disease in wildlife. This includes trials of different culling methods, like gassing, development of PCR technology for testing badger setts, further research on an oral badger vaccine and even injectable badger contraception.
Defra Secretary Owen Paterson has described the start of the pilot culls as a ‘turning point’ for how bTB is controlled in England and urged farmers to have faith in his plans to roll out the policy. Mr Paterson stressed 25 years was a ‘realistic’ timetable. Yet, despite his clear commitment to the policy, many farmers and vets in the HRA, in some cases their attitudes shaped by a long-standing lack of trust in any Government to act on this issue, still have no confidence the disease will ever be truly addressed in wildlife on a national scale. They fear the national roll out will take too long, particularly for areas currently at the back of the queue. In many cases, they want farmers to have a much greater say over wildlife management at local level, without the ‘onerous’ conditions attached to the pilot culls, something Defra has argued is neither politically, nor legally possible at the current time at least. “Just let us get on with it,” one farmer said.
It was not all about culling. Alan Hughes, a farmer from near the Welsh border, called for greater support for initiatives like his own ‘TB Busters’ initiative, which, in conjunction with Bicton College, in Devon, and the South West TB Advisory Service, offers biosecurity advice and help to farmers to help them keep badgers away from their cattle. It is currently conducting trials on various pieces of equipment, including feed troughs, water troughs, wire fencing and mineral lick holders, to help farmers ‘badger proof’ their farms. Mr Hughes believes there is scope for some sort of assurance scheme for farmers who achive certain accredited biosecurity standards. There was also discussion around the viability of badger and cattle vaccination and badger contraception.
Summarising his tables’ views, another farmer concluded: “If you start to get on top of it in the wildlife in a science-based approach you would get the confidence of farmers on side and the rest of the industry will follow.”
Defra officials said the comments from the meeting would be made into a report and fed into the ongoing consultation on the strategy.
Those who attended in Worcester were glad to have been given the chance to air their views. “The only question now,” one told me as he left, “is whether they will take a blind bit of notice.”
TB strategy workshops
TB strategy workshops were held in Somerset, Cornwall and Worcestershire last week and East Sussex, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire this week. The last ones are scheduled for:
Norwich, Norfolk, September 16
Kendal, Cumbria, September 18
Thirsk, North Yorkshire, September 19
The consultation on the draft TB strategy for England closes on September 26. To view the document and respond see https://consult.defra.gov.uk/farming/tb/