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Getting serious about TB

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IT IS unfortunate that debate about controlling bovine TB remains so firmly focused on badgers. Controlling the disease in wildlife represents only part of the comprehensive approach needed to control the disease, and the attention currently being devoted to the pilot badger culls in England tends to detract from the steps also being taken to strengthen the controls applied to cattle. This was in evidence again last week when a Government announcement about new cattle-based measures in England was somewhat eclipsed by news that this year's badger culling operations in Gloucestershire had stopped earlier than intended (see p 535 of this issue).

In a parliamentary statement announcing a number of measures aimed at reducing the risk of transmission between cattle herds on November 28 – including what a Defra press release described as a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to farmers who allow TB tests to become overdue – Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State at Defra, described the late testing of cattle by a minority of farmers as ‘unacceptable’. As a result, he said, from January 1, 2014, anyone who failed to complete their testing by the set deadline, even by one day, would see their CAP scheme payments reduced. The reductions would vary, depending on the seriousness of the case, but the outcome he wanted was no late testing at all.

The secretary of state also announced a six-week consultation on proposals for further tightening cattle controls, including abolishing the premovement testing exemption for movements of cattle to and from common land, and phasing out the practice of lifting bovine TB restrictions on parts of a restricted holding. In the future, he said, the whole of a holding would be either restricted or officially TB-free at any one time.

Another proposal would, in exceptional cases, allow wild or untestable cattle to be culled if their TB status could not be determined. Such a provision already applies in Wales and, although Defra's consultation document makes clear that this provision would only be used as a last resort – in cases where access for testing has been refused or the animals prove impossible to handle – it will be interesting to see whether public opinion is as exercised by the prospect of wild cattle being culled as it is by the culling of badgers.

A fourth proposal is intended to make more information about TB breakdowns available and to encourage risk-based trading of cattle, which forms part of the Government's overall control strategy (VR, May 11, 2013, vol 172, p 488; July 13, 2013, vol 173, p 30; see also Letters, pp 557-558 of this issue). As the consultation document puts it, ‘A common frustration . . . from cattle keepers is that they are not able to access sufficient information on the bovine TB herd status of neighbours or owners of land in the vicinity of any temporary grazing they may want to use. Without such information, their opportunity to properly manage the TB risks to their herds is constrained.’ A voluntary information-sharing scheme is already underway in south Wales, and a risk-based trading scheme was recently piloted at Chelford Market in Cheshire (VR, November 2, 2013, vol 173, p 408). However, in its consultation document, Defra proposes ‘from a time still to be determined, to publish location details of all bovine TB breakdowns as a matter of course’.

The document also notes that Defra plans to consult on further changes to cattle controls next spring. Taken together, and along with enhanced controls already announced for farms in England's ‘edge area’ (VR, November 16, 2013, vol 173, p 462), all this suggests that Defra is getting serious about tackling cattle-to-cattle transmission of bovine TB, as well it might.

It is one thing to have a strategy; it is another to be in a position to implement it. Successful implementation will depend on the industry being fully engaged, and on having a strong veterinary infrastructure to support it. With some of the proposals likely to prove controversial among farmers, and the arrangements under which private veterinary surgeons are contracted to carry out TB testing and other services on behalf of the state about to change significantly, neither of these can be taken as read. Meanwhile, while TB is clearly important, it is by no means the only disease affecting or threatening England's livestock sector, and cannot be viewed in isolation. There is a need to support and develop a more holistic approach to disease control and surveillance, in which veterinary practitioners, working with farmers, are fully involved.

Defra's consultation is at www.gov.uk/government/consultations/bovine-tb-new-control-measures-tackling-transmission-between-cattle-herds. It closes on January 10, 2014. Accessed December 4, 2013

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