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Wildlife enters the frame

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THERE is barely a mention of badgers, but a consultation document published by defra last week on ‘working towards a wildlife health strategy’ still makes fascinating reading.*

The wildlife strategy is being developed as part of the wider Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws), which identified that defra has a responsibility for the identification and management of risks from wildlife to human health and livestock health, and where disease control measures impact on wildlife populations. Beyond this, defra's wider remit includes species conservation, maintenance of biodiversity, climate change and environmental management, all of which, the document points out, could have impacts on the health status of wildlife. ‘Wildlife health is a complex and largely uncharted field,’ it says, adding that ‘ownership’ of responsibilities is currently unclear. The aim of the consultation is to explore the issues associated with the development of a new wildlife health strategy, and determine the extent to which others might become involved. ‘Together, a framework will be produced detailing future action for government and others, in order to assess the significance of wildlife disease and provide clear pathways for appropriate and affordable interventions.’

The document includes a number of themes that may be familiar to those who have followed the development of the ahws, including those of cost and responsibility sharing, and making the most of limited resources. It also builds on some of the ideas developed in the related Veterinary Surveillance Strategy, suggesting, for example, that wildlife surveillance data could be obtained from various sources, and collated and assessed using defra's radar (Rapid Analysis and Detection of Animal-related Risks) surveillance information system (VR, January 27, 2007, vol 160, pp 101, 105-112).

Although the need to work within available resources is emphasised throughout the document, there are signs that the Government does intend to take its responsibilities with regard to wildlife seriously. The priority, it says, is to determine the extent and nature of involvement that government should have in wildlife health issues, based on four key reasons for intervention: protection of human health; protection of domestic animal health; protection of biodiversity or conservation; and to safeguard trade and the wider economy.

The importance of taking the matter seriously is underlined in a section of the document explaining why the Government is interested in wildlife health. This notes that, of 1415 identified human pathogens, 61 per cent are known to be zoonotic, and that 77 per cent of pathogens found in livestock are shared with other host species. It points out that wildlife represent a link in the chain in the emergence of new pathogens and that, in addition to public health concerns, there are clear economic costs associated with emerging infectious diseases. There can also be political ramifications. It might have been possible to think of an example closer to home, but, citing the example of classical swine fever in wild boar in Germany, it explains how some wildlife diseases can ‘spill over’ from domestic animals into wildlife and then ‘spill back again’; when this happens, it says, the issues may become ‘politically charged’ where conservation and commercial interests clash.

Other reasons given for government involvement include its interest in biodiversity and conservation, and climate change, potentially leading to new diseases and changes in the distribution of wildlife, as well as its commitment to sustainable agriculture. The document also draws attention to the public's interest in these areas, as illustrated by concerns about avian influenza. It notes that currently there is no nationally agreed approach to considering the impact of existing or emerging wildlife diseases. ‘The absence of such a mechanism means that managing the problem is resource intensive, slow, comparatively expensive and there are risks of either failing to respond appropriately or duplicating effort.’

Government policies relating to increased biodiversity, farming and public health are not necessarily easily compatible, and the document draws attention to a number of areas where conflicts may arise. It suggests, for example, that by encouraging maintenance and development of wildlife habitats on farmland through agri-environment schemes, contact between wildlife, humans and livestock could be increased, increasing the significance of wildlife reservoirs of disease and the risk of transmission from wildlife to other animals. It argues that with a remit that embraces both farming and the environment, defra is well placed to deal with such issues, which may well be true. However, this is undeniably a complex field, and some of these issues may prove difficult to resolve.

It is clear from the consultation document that development of the wildlife health strategy is still in its early stages and that it could be some time before the strategy itself is agreed and finalised. However, this initiative is long overdue and is welcome. As the document indicates, vets have an obvious role in areas such as surveillance and advising farmers on biosecurity. However, because of their expertise across the species, there is also scope for wider involvement beyond the traditional confines of farming. The strategy must be clarified and taken forward. As always, care must be taken to ensure that it makes sense in practical terms, not just on paper.

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