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Uncertainties around tackling TB

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THE BBC's report last week apparently disclosing some of the findings of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) which is advising the Government on the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of controlled shooting as a method of culling badgers was clearly a scoop for the corporation. However, like throwing a brick in a pond, it has muddied the waters in a debate that was already confused. According to Defra, the IEP has still to submit its recommendations, so it is not clear what information is available to the BBC, yet already the newspapers and others are discussing its findings as if the matter is settled. Without seeing the IEP's report in its entirety, if indeed it is finished, it is difficult for anyone to comment, but the debate has been skewed. When the full report emerges, what chance is there of it being considered objectively in view of the opinions that have already been formed?

The BBC reported that the IEP's analysis had found that the number of badgers killed in the pilot culling trials in Somerset and Gloucestershire fell ‘well short’ of the target of 70 per cent, with less than 50 per cent of badgers being killed within six weeks in each of the two cull areas. It further reported that ‘up to 18 per cent of culled badgers took longer than five minutes to die, failing the test for humaneness.’

Responding to the BBC's report last week, Robin Hargreaves, the BVA President, pointed out that the culls were pilots ‘precisely because the Government needed to test the humaneness, safety and efficacy of controlled shooting as a method of culling badgers’ and, indeed, that the BVA had called for the method be tested and critically evaluated before it was rolled out. The Association could not comment in detail on the findings until it had seen the IEP's report, but, he said, ‘If these figures are true then they would certainly raise concerns about both the humaneness and efficacy of controlled shooting.

‘We will look at the published report in detail and consider BVA's position in light of the IEP's findings. We have always stated that if the pilots were to fail on humaneness then BVA could not support the wider roll out of the method of controlled shooting.’

According to the BBC, Defra said last week that it did not know when the IEP's report would be submitted or when it would be published, and that no deadline had been set. It quoted a Defra spokesperson as saying, ‘We knew there'd be lessons to be learned from the first year of the pilot culls which is why we're looking forward to receiving the panel's recommendations for improving the way they are carried out, because we need to do all we can to tackle this devastating disease.’

It takes time to analyse results, and the IEP, which was appointed specifically to look at the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of controlled shooting as a culling method, clearly needs to draw its conclusions carefully. However, it must be hoped that it is in a position to submit its findings sometime soon, or the waters in this debate could get muddier still.

The Government has still to decide on whether to roll out the cull more widely, and how and whether it proceeds will partly depend on the IEP's findings. In the meantime, Natural England, the licensing authority for the culls, has advised farmers to start preparing to apply for licences. In doing so, it says it does not want to pre-empt the Government's decision; given the timescale available, it simply wants to ensure an efficient licensing process if the Government decides to go ahead (VR, February 1, 2014, vol 174, p 107).

The Government has made clear that it is committed to tackling TB in wildlife, but at this stage the outcome is far from clear cut. Reports in the farming press suggest that farmers in a number of areas have expressed interest to Natural England in carrying out a cull but, at the same time, indicate that a row could be brewing about who will be expected to pay for it all. Meanwhile, the Government, and particularly Defra, has other issues to deal with in the coming months, not the least of which will be dealing with the aftermath, both political and practical, of the recent floods (VR, February 22, 2014, vol 174, p 180). It is not clear to what extent flooding in the west country may have affected badger populations, but it certainly seems to have resulted in a degree of perturbation among ministers.

Given that badger culling represents only part of the strategy for controlling TB, it is unfortunate that it remains the focus of attention and demands so much energy. With battle lines so clearly drawn, and mistrust on both sides, it is difficult to see how progress can be made, although it may be, as Rosie Woodroffe suggests in an article on p 254 of this issue of Veterinary Record, that practising vets are in a position to help build trust locally. Local practitioners can certainly help farmers in practical terms, but only if a structure exists that enables them to do so. The Government's proposed tendering exercise for the procurement of TB testing and other official veterinary services adds another layer of uncertainty to the TB debate and, as the BVA President warned in a letter to the Treasury last month and in a speech in London last week, the outcome could have far-reaching consequences (see VR, March 1, 2014, vol 174, p 207 and p 236 of this issue). The Government has set out a strategy for eradicating TB but uncertainties remain about its implementation and it is difficult to be sure about when things will become clear.

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