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Balancing movement and risk

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IT’s one of life’s ironies that, the more governments try to reduce bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy they seem to create. A consultation document from Defra on simplifying England’s livestock movement rules provides a good example of this.

Movement controls are essential to disease control and the aim is straightforward: to reduce the risk of diseases being spread and allow any disease outbreaks to be dealt with quickly and effectively. Moving animals around is an integral part of the UK livestock industry, but any movement of animals risks spreading disease, so the trick, from an administrator’s point of view, is to come up with a system that minimises the risk of disease spread without placing undue burdens on the industry.

The current movement control regime dates back partly to the late 1990s, when measures were put in place for cattle to help control BSE, and partly to 2003, when new rules were applied to sheep and goats, to help control the kind of sheep movements that had contributed so spectacularly to the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001. In England and Wales, any movement of cattle or sheep on to a holding triggers a six-day standstill period, during which no cattle or sheep can be moved off the holding, except in certain specific circumstances. Different rules apply in Scotland, where the standstill period for cattle and sheep is 13 days. For pigs, a 20-day standstill period is required, and has been for many years.

Movement controls may be relatively straightforward in theory, but in practice things are much more complicated. Just how much more complicated was clearly set out in a report produced at Defra’s request in 2006 by Bill Madders, a Somerset dairy farmer, which, among other things, explained how the complexity of the rules could undermine their purpose and made a number of recommendations aimed at simplifying them (VR, August 12, 2006, vol 159, p 189). It also suggested ways in which the holdings between which animals are moved might be identified more accurately. Now, nearly four years later, Defra is seeking views on how best to proceed.

The consultation document proposes changing the County Parish Holding numbering system by which farms are identified. As a result of these changes, it proposes abolishing the current arrangement under which cattle movements between linked holdings do not have to be reported centrally to the Cattle Tracing System database, as well as ‘Sole Occupancy Authorities’ which were introduced to help keepers of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs to manage standstills arising from movements within their businesses. It also proposes revising existing rules on the use of isolation facilities as an alternative to a standstill on the whole herd. The proposals do not apply to premovement testing for bovine TB, which will be the subject of a separate consultation. Defra is also canvassing opinion on sheep recording and reporting arrangements to replace the interim arrangements introduced at the beginning of this year.

Part of the problem with the existing arrangements stems from attempts to adapt the basic rules to fit the needs of the industry, and the numerous exemptions that result. These allow businesses to operate, but add complexity to the rules. However, numerous other factors contribute, including confusion about what is meant by ‘premises’ and ‘holdings’, different requirements for cattle and sheep, changes that have been made to sheep identification rules and differences in the way movements have to be reported. The difficulties are compounded on mixed cattle and sheep holdings, in cases where holdings are linked or where animals under different ownership share common ground. The sheer complexity of the arrangements can lead to misunderstandings, rules being circumvented and movements going unrecorded. This undermines the purpose of the controls and is dangerous in itself.

Whether the proposals set out in the consultation document will actually solve all these problems is open to debate, although one must applaud the fact that the effort is being made. As described, the proposed new rules themselves sound fairly complicated and, while this should not be allowed to hinder progress, changing the rules could cause problems in itself. Both the Madders’ report and Defra’s consultation document consider how movement controls can be tailored to fit the livestock industry as things stand but, looking to the future, thought might usefully be given to how the livestock industry and its activities might be restructured to minimise the risk of disease spread. In the meantime, the consultation document should serve to emphasise that biosecurity starts on the farm, and that veterinary farm health planning can help farmers to meet the rules, increase profitability and safeguard their stock.

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