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Consulting on TB

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PREDICTABLY, of all the matters discussed in the tranche of documents on bovine TB issued by Defra on the Friday before the recent Bank Holiday weekend, it is badger culling that has again attracted the most attention. On August 28, Defra published consultation documents seeking views on strengthening TB controls on cattle, controlling TB in farmed animals other than cattle, and on changing the licensing criteria for future control of badgers in England. At the same time, it announced that licences had been granted to allow culling to continue for the third of four years in Gloucestershire and Somerset, and that culling would also be extended to Dorset (VR, September 5, 2015, vol 177, pp 215-216). On September 3, it confirmed that culling was underway in all three counties.

Badgers are known to contribute to the problem of bovine TB in cattle, but opinion on the effectiveness of badger culling in helping to control the disease has long been divided and will almost certainly continue to be so. As well as the usual well-publicised protests, the past week has seen, among other things, the publication of a letter in The Guardian1 urging the Government to ‘reconsider immediately its decision to continue and extend the culling of badgers’: signatories included John Bourne, former chairman of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB which oversaw the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), and Ranald Monroe, chairman of the Independent Expert Panel which assessed the effectiveness and humaneness of controlled shooting as a culling method in the badger culling pilots. Meanwhile, the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA) and farmers have welcomed the continuation of culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire and its extension to Dorset, and would like to see it rolled out more widely. The BVA, which has argued for a wider roll out of targeted and humane badger culling using cage-trapping and shooting only, has expressed disappointment that controlled shooting will be used as a culling method in the three counties, and reiterated its call that only cage-trapping and shooting should be used.

The consultation document on the criteria for culling licences includes proposals for reducing the minimum area for a licence, as well as for keeping the duration of the culling period under review, rather than specifying this in the licence. In the document, Defra explains that the proposed changes are based on experience gained from the culls so far, as well as an updated statistical analysis of the results of the RBCT, and are intended to introduce more flexibility to enable culling where it will be effective in reducing badger populations. Given the controversy that continues to surround the culls, and the history of the debate so far, such proposals are likely to prove contentious. Nevertheless, they need to be considered coolly and rationally in the light of all the available evidence, particularly as that evidence might not be clear cut. Inevitably, given the complex nature of the problem, science will not be the only consideration, and political, economic and practical considerations will also play a part.

It remains unfortunate that the debate continues to focus so firmly on badgers, as controlling the disease in wildlife represents only part of the comprehensive strategy that is needed to control the disease and this detracts from all the other efforts being made. The controls applied to cattle continue to be developed and refined, as the consultation document on improving cattle controls that was also published at the end of last month makes clear. This includes proposals for a more robust approach to dealing with TB breakdowns in the High Risk Area of England, as well as to introduce statutory postmovement testing of cattle moved from herds in England that are on annual or more frequent testing, and from herds in designated counties in Wales, to all herds in the Low Risk Area of England. It also proposes that Exempt Finishing Units should be phased out, and that the rules applied to Approved Finishing Units should be strengthened. Views are sought on options for reducing TB risks from sales of cattle from herds on four-yearly testing, on whether enhanced surveillance should be rolled out to more counties in the Edge Area, and on situations where private γ-IFN testing might be used to mitigate the risk of infected cattle being brought into or remaining in herds. Some of these proposals will have cost as well as practical implications for farmers, and it will be interesting to see how the industry responds.

The consultation document on farmed animals other than cattle, including deer, goats, pigs, sheep and South American camelids, is the largest of the three consultation documents issued last month, and seeks views on developing an evidence-driven policy for these species that is proportionate to the risk.

Taken together, the documents indicate that the Government remains intent on moving forward with its strategy of eradicating bovine TB from cattle in England by 2038. Whether the strategy proves successful will ultimately depend on the dedication and cooperation of everyone involved. Direct comparison may not be possible, but as described in an article discussing the successful eradication of bovine TB in Australia in last week's Veterinary Record 2, eradication is achievable if all the relevant stakeholders are fully engaged.


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