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Bovine TB: EFRACom calls for a multifaceted approach using all available methods

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‘THE Government's current method of controlling cattle tb, that of surveillance, testing and slaughter, is not working effectively.’

That is the main conclusion reached by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efracom) following its recent inquiry into badgers and bovine tuberculosis (tb) and the final report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle tb (isg).

The committee began its inquiry last year, following the publication of the isg's final report on the results and conclusions from the randomised badger culling trial (see VR, June 23, 2007, vol 160, pp 854-856). The isg concluded that badger culling could not meaningfully contribute to the control of bovine tb in Britain. As part of its inquiry, the efracom took evidence from members of the isg, and also from the Government's former chief scientist, Sir David King. In October 2007, Sir David and a group of other experts published a review of the isg's conclusions, and made the contrary suggestion that badger culling could contribute to controlling the disease (see VR, October 27, 2007, vol 161, p 574).

The report of the efracom inquiry was published on February 27. In it, the committee concludes that there will be no simple solution that will control bovine tb. It points out that the disease is currently one of the most serious animal health problems in Great Britain, and that the cost to the taxpayer and to the farming industry is unsustainable.

‘In “hot spot” areas where the prevalence of the disease is highest, the farming industry has reached a breaking point as the disruption to business in both human and economic terms has become unacceptable,’ it says.

It says that the Government should adopt a multifaceted approach to tackling the disease, using all the methods currently available. These should include:

  • More frequent cattle testing, with more frequent and targeted combined use of the tuberculin skin test and interferon-γ test;

  • The evaluation of postmovement cattle testing;

  • Greater communication with farmers on the benefits of biosecurity measures;

  • The deployment of badger and cattle vaccines when they become available in the future; and

  • Continued work on the epidemiology of the disease.

Badger culling

Commenting on the different conclusions reached by the isg and Sir David King, the efracom suggests that ‘It appears the main conclusions of the two reports differ mainly because the isg concluded that it was not practically or economically feasible to carry out culling on the scale necessary to gain beneficial effects. Sir David's report did not include the practicalities or costs of culling in its considerations.’

The efracom concludes that, under certain well defined circumstances, it is possible that badger culling might contribute to reducing the incidence of disease in hot-spot areas. It warns that a patchy, disorganised or short-term cull could make the situation worse, and recommends that licensed culling of badgers under section 10 of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 should take place only ‘if the applicants can demonstrate that culling would be carried out in accordance with the conditions agreed between the isg and Sir David King, which indicated that there might be an overall beneficial effect’.

The conditions recommended by the committee are that culling:

  • Should be done competently, efficiently and in a coordinated manner;

  • Should cover as large an area as possible, with at least 265 km2 being the minimum needed to be 95 per cent confident of an overall beneficial effect;

  • Should be sustained for at least four years; and

  • Should be in areas that have ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ boundaries where possible.

The committee recognises that culling alone will not provide a universal solution to the problem of bovine tb, and that it is unlikely that culling will be sanctioned in more than a limited number of areas. Any cull would also have to be monitored by defra, it says.

Cost and responsibility sharing

The efracom says that it is important that cattle-based control measures are strengthened, along with biosecurity on farms. It suggests that defra discusses with the farming industry, veterinary experts and Animal Health the introduction of postmovement testing with regard to cattle moved from high-risk to low-risk areas.

The committee says that it is right for farmers to be asked to increase their commitment to pre- and postmovement testing and on-farm biosecurity measures to match government commitment to fighting the disease. ‘We acknowledge that this could mean an additional financial burden for farmers, as well as an unwelcome increase in the time and effort already spent by farmers and vets on the administrative burden demanded by the testing regime. The farming industry is already suffering from the financial and emotional consequences of the steady increase in the number of cattle tb breakdowns, but it must work together with the Government, veterinarians and scientists to monitor the outcome of measures taken to tackle the disease if we are to plug the fundamental gaps in our understanding of how cattle tb is transmitted.’

The efracom says that defra should continue to research the impact of animal husbandry measures on the control of bovine tb, but that it has a right to expect a commitment from farmers to improve both animal husbandry and biosecurity on farms. The committee says that current means of distributing advice from defra do not seem to be getting the message across, and that a more proactive approach in the form of ‘biosecurity partnerships’ between farmers and local veterinary surgeons might be more effective. It suggests that defra should also look at the measures taken in Wales in its biosecurity intensive treatment areas, with a view to introducing such farm visits by vets in high-risk areas of England.

The efracom notes that the measures it is recommending will require increased financial support from defra at a time when the department is under budgetary pressure. ‘However, simply saying that more money cannot be found for spending on measures to control cattle tb is not a solution,’ it says.

It points out that the costs of bovine tb could total as much as £1 billion between 2008 and 2013. ‘Ministerial assertions, driven by defra's budgetary control problems, that the budget for cattle tb will be reduced are unrealistic,’ it says. ‘defra has a continuing responsibility to seek to end the incidence of this disease just as it does with bse. defra is now justified in making a case to hm Treasury for a “spend to save” policy. But in so doing it will once and for all have to commit itself to a strategy with clear goals against which progress can be measured.’

The committee concludes that the Government must now make a decision about what its strategic objectives in relation to bovine tb are. ‘The impact of the disease has reached a stage where further procrastination is unacceptable. defra's first strategic goal should be to ensure that the impact of the disease diminishes every year. It must make clear that, even if it is feasible, total eradication of the disease is still a very distant goal.’

‘The impact of the disease has reached a stage where further procrastination is unacceptable. defra's first strategic goal should be to ensure that the impact of the disease diminishes every year’

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