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Selling a strategy on bovine TB

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THE result might not have been what the Secretary of State himself and many farmers had hoped for. However, Owen Paterson's announcement in the House of Commons last week indicating that the Government would not be extending the culling of badgers beyond the pilot areas in Somerset and Gloucestershire this year was pretty much inevitable in view of the findings of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) which had been asked to look into the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of controlled shooting as a culling method. Given the panel's finding that, although safe, controlled shooting did not meet the required criteria in terms of effectiveness and humaneness – and even ignoring the controversial and politically sensitive nature of the culls – the decision not to roll them out more widely at this stage was about the only one that the Government could have made. Nevertheless, Mr Paterson made clear in his statement that culling, modified to take account of various recommendations made by the IEP, would continue in the two pilot areas over four years as planned, both to improve the culling method and because stopping the trials now would increase the risk of disease. He also made clear that the Government intended to roll out culling further ‘once the technique is perfected’.

A key recommendation in the IEP's report is that ‘If culling is continued in the pilot areas, or in the event of roll out to additional areas, standards of effectiveness and humaneness must be improved.’ Equally important in this context are its recommendations that ‘Continuation of monitoring, of both effectiveness and humaneness, is necessary to demonstrate that improvements have been achieved’ and that such monitoring should be independent. Monitoring can be expensive and also presents practical challenges, as the IEP's report illustrates. Nevertheless, given the controversy, and in some cases scepticism, that has surrounded the trials, it will continue to be essential if the methods being used are to gain credibility.

Four years is a long time in politics, if not necessarily in terms of disease control; this has always been a problem as far as controlling bovine TB is concerned, and it will be interesting to see what the next few years will bring. Meanwhile, debate about culling badgers eclipsed another development last week – publication by Defra of its strategy for achieving Officially Bovine TB-Free (OTF) status for England. Building on the draft strategy that was published last July (VR, July 13, 2013, vol 173, pp 30, 33-34), this reaffirms the Government's commitment to tackling the disease in wildlife, while also making clear that this represents only one part of its overall strategy, which will also include strict cattle-based controls and the development of new vaccines and tests. The strategy makes a strong case for why bovine TB needs to be eliminated, and sets a clear, if ambitious, target of attaining OTF status for England by 2038. This will be achieved by dividing the country into three zones – a high-risk area and a low-risk area, with a buffer zone or edge area in between – and applying control measures tailored to the local circumstances in each area. Control measures will be adapted as the epidemic evolves and new evidence and technologies become available, and an interim goal is to achieve OTF status ‘for large parts of the north and east of England as soon as possible, most likely by 2025’. Vaccination, as well as culling, of cattle and badgers forms part of the long-term strategy, and the document includes ‘tentative timelines’ indicating when vaccines might become available and be deployed.

A redistribution of responsibilities and costs represents an important part of the strategy, which, drawing on experience in New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, advocates moving towards ‘an increasingly farmer-led control and eradication process, with farmers contributing significantly to the costs of implementing the practical decisions they are taking to eradicate the disease’. However, apart from stating that the Government will develop proposals for a sustainable funding model in partnership with stakeholders, and a comment from the Secretary of State that he intends to hold discussions with the industry on how to achieve this new way of working, there is little in the way of specific proposals as to how this will be achieved.

There is much to commend in the Government's strategy. However, whether it succeeds will ultimately depend on the practicalities of delivery and the degree of buy-in from industry. For the time being, important practical and financial details are missing and it continues to be a difficult one to sell.

▪ The IEP's report, Defra's response and Defra's new strategy are available at www.gov.uk/government/news/plans-to-eradicate-bovine-tb-in-england-unveiled. Accessed April 9, 2014

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