Saturday, September 06, 2008

Time for delivery on Bovine Tb.

Roman Jones sometimes writes letters in the Montgomeryshire County Times, and this week's is about badger culling. This is one area where he and I disagree. Roman doesn't share my support for the National Assembly's decision to conduct a trial badger cull somewhere in Wales to establish whether such action would help control the spread of Bovine Tb. But it has spawned this post, which asks when are we going to hear the timescale for the Assembly's decision to be implemented.

Not many people outside the farming and animal welfare communities are engaged with this debate - which is why I'm blogging about it. Its highly controversial and opinion is deeply opposed. Its what might be called a 'black and white' issue. This week's Farmer's Gaurdian has gone big on how it effects England's farmers. Latest figures show that the number of cattle culled as a result of Bovine Tb in England has increased by 40% to 17,000 in the last year. 9% of English livestock farms are under movement restriction. Thousands of bull calves, not needed as replacements are being shot at birth as a result of an (unofficial) ban imposed by European countries. The food and animal health committee in Brussels (SCoFCAH) is discussing official sanctions on cattle exports because of the disease. There is also reference to the possible re-emergence of a link between Bovine Tb and humans, though personally I disapprove of this sort of talk without hard evidence. And Defra vets are supposedly in a state of deep depression, as they seek to deal with a disease through slaughtering all the cattle effected, while leaving reservoirs of infection in the badger populations.

Any decision to cull badgers will be strongly resisted, and huge amounts of money will be ploughed into legal challenges. It takes a Minister with real 'b****' to sanction a cull. Hilary Benn, responsible Minister for England is not blessed with the necessary equipment and has decided to do nothing except tighten rules on cattle farmers - the equivalent of a householder tackling increases in theft by putting double locks on all the windows while leaving the front door wide open - adorned with a sign saying "Help yourself".

Welsh Minister, Elin Jones took a brave decision in the spring of this year. This blog, along with many others applauded her for it. But its approaching time for delivery. Several months have passed while she has pondered where the 'pilot' area is going to be located. I accept she has to proceed with certainty and care. I also accept that the inevitable legal challenges will have to be properly anticipated. The Assembly is back in session in two weeks time. If I was still an Assembly Member, my first question to the Minister would be "where's the action?"


Rhetoric Innes said...

Where is the biological evidence that Badgers are carriers of TB?

Nowhere... If you want to be an M.P. you cannot ignore tests carried out by independent bodies.

James Cohen said...

I usually find myself nodding along in agreement with many of your posts, and I respect your willingness to publish and discuss your views on this site. However...

There are few things more depressing than hearing politicians talk about 'balls', 'bol***ks', or 'guts' in relation to a policy decision such as this. Elin Jones was not 'brave' when she sanctioned a cull, nor was Hilary Benn cowardly when he decided against one. Both decisions could find support in the published scientific evidence and neither is uniquely virtuous.

But if we are to talk about ministerial decisions as if they were made around King Arthur's table, then in what way did Jones demonstrate bravery, and how did Benn show himself to be a big nancy wussie? Jones certainly p***ed off the RSPCA, but then I don't think Benn's announcement has endeared him to the farming lobby. I make that a score draw. Is it not the case that you simply think that Benn has made the wrong call based on the contradictory science, and you're now just unhelpfully upping the rhetoric by saying that he lacks testicular fortitude?

For various professional reasons, I am familiar with the arguments and most of the science in this debate. The fact is that if, like the the NFU/FUW, you wanted a cull from the start then you can cite David King's recommendations. If, like the RSPCA, you opposed the cull from the beginning then you can highlight the ISG's report. The scientific evidence on this issue is frustratingly inconclusive and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. Ministerial decisions have to be made about how best to tackle the problem, and time will tell which strategy proves to be more effective. However, my point here is not so much to do with bovine tb as with how politicians choose to characterise their own views, their opponents and their opponents' views. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Glyn Davies said...

Rhetoric - I don't think there is much arguement but that badgers are carriers of Bovine Tb. Plenty of arguement about how the infection travels and whether badgers should be culled - but none about them being carriers. I suppose the recent testing of hundreds of roadside dead badgers was evidence.

James - this is a very challenging comment, and difficult to respond to with brevity or certainty. I spent much time considering this issue during my years as Chair of the relevant committee of the National Assembly. I fully accept that the science is uncertain. But I also know that the impact of the disease is increasing at such a rate that we have to try to find a method of controlling it. We know that small scale trials, (if I can refer to Krebs as small scale) did not point to culling badgers as being the answer, largely because by disturbing badger populations, and can make the position worse.
But for many years I believed we needed to test the theory that badgers acted as an infection reservoir - and that the only way to do this was through a large scale cull (and always thought South West Wales to be the most likely location).

But you have forced me to draw back somewhat from my comment about Hilary Benn - mainly because I have always supported one pilot (because the science is so uncertain). It follows that since Elin Jones had already decided to go ahead with one pilot, I was actually content that another one did not go ahead in England. I did think that Elin showed courage though, because I always felt that there was a risk that opponents of her decision will resort to any means to stop it. This comment is getting too long. Best stop.

Anonymous said...

I, Hilary No-B**** Benn, claim:

1. A method of performing a challenging task by a user lacking the necessary b**** to carry out said challenging task, comprising the steps of:
removing or being in the state of lacking real b****;
appearing to respond without actually responding; and
failing to substantially perform said challenging task.

2. The method according to claim 1, wherein said step of appearing to respond without actually responding further comprises the step of: putting double locks on a plurality of windows while leaving a front door open, wherein said front door is adorned with a sign saying: “Help yourself”.

Anonymous said...

I honestly don't believe that a cull of badgers, even a test cull, would have any effect other than decimating the population of a protected species. The evidence from places such as Ireland proves this. Why don't farmers take responsibility for their own actions? Re: bovineTB, BSE, new form scrapie, battery farming etc etc etc

Anonymous said...

I, Glyn Davies, a citizen of Montgomeryshire, claim to be a person you can trust and worthy of your vote, because unlike my opponent, I comprise:
a good helping of common sense;
a willingess to turn up at important meetings and attend Parliamentary debates; and
a genuine desire to listen to, and respond to, the constituents of Montgomeryshire.

Glyn Davies said...

Roman - Fair enough. Many people share your opinion. You may well be correct that it willnot improve control - which is why I support only one pilot area. I really do not agree about this being farmer's fault. Farmer's (and the Government will insist) are willing to do everything possible to control this problem. The disease does not discriminate between closed herds, or extensively farmed herds. It just seems to strike in a random way. Every bovine animal which is suspected of being effected is quickly slaughtered, and if a high percentage are effected, the entire herd is slaughtered. It seems to me entirely possible that if a herd is totally culled, but badgers with Bovine Tb are left untouched, it may have something to do with reinfection when the farm is re-stocked. Personally, I do not think it reasonable to allow this disease to carry on spreading at its current rate, without researching whether a cull over a large area will sort out the problem. At present, my opinion does not carry any weight. But the Welsh Minister and relevant spokesman for every political party in Wales does take the same view.

anon - I cannot possibly comment.

Anonymous said...

I am not an unreasonable man. I accept that a test cull in 'small' area would bring badger-kind to its knees, but how can a test cull be carried out in a localised way. Badgers don't follow human boundaries. There is always going to be some overlap. Even if we accept that a buffer zone can be created, can we rely upon farmers trigger happy attitude not to spread? If we start a cull, neighbouring farmers who have no cull will be clamouring for the test area to be increased. Before we know it, the whole country will be slaughtering badgers. Out of interest, what will happen if it IS proved a badger cull works? Are we planning to exterminate badgers permanently from Britain?

Anonymous said...

TB (human variety)has been with us foe centuries. Pre-war and before the discovery of streptomycin, it was discoverd that by improving public health, the incidence of TB fell. When people lived in cramped, crowded, squalid and damp conditions - this was ideal for the bacterium to spread. Can we not see that by shutting up cattle for more than 6 months of the year, crowded in a damp barn, quite often (as I have witnessed) up to their knees in s**t, that this is a perfect way for bovine TB to spread? It's more likely that cattle spreads TB to badgers than vice versa.

Glyn Davies said...

Roman - You ask a very good question about what happens if badger culling works. We are working at a future theoratical level here. If an area was cleared of badgers, it could be restocked by moving them from an unaffected part of the country. Before too much longer there will not be any unaffected areas. It depends how much worse this disease gets, but in effect we are already clearing cattle from some areas of the country, and reintroducing them. What most of us hope is needed is a strategy to slow things down and keep some sort of control until an effective vaccine comes along.

anon - Problem with your theory is that Bovine Tb is affecting herds that are farmed extesively as well as intensive herds. I think most farmers accept that cattle to cattle contact is probably the main source of spread, but equally there is not much doubt that the infection is passed between cattle and badgers, and that the latter are carriers - in the same way as affected cattle are carriers - that's why cattle are all immediately slaughtered.

Anonymous said...

Some things puzzle me about bovine TB. Why are possums in New Zealand and deer in the USA affected by this disease when they are not bovine animals (neither are badgers). In some parts of the US cattle have been removed from hotspots rather than killing all the deer. Wildlife reservoirs seem to occur wherever cattle are farmed. Secondly, the idea of introducing badgers at a later date after they have all been removed. Where are these badgers going to come from, they can not be bought at markets like cattle? They have to be in family groups. And cannot be summarily lifted from one area and put into another. Would farmers in such areas agree to re-introduction anyway, preferring to not have badgers at all? I have heard many mutterings over the years that badgers are "pests", I can't see farmers wanting them back. Britain is the main stronghold of the badger, like many other species it could be knocked back to being endangered as other species are today already. There are not large populations of badgers where I live in Wales, if anything they have decreased and there are empty setts. Possibly due to years of unofficial control. Badgers in N Ireland have the same level of population as ten years ago according to research at Queens Uni, Belfast.
The idea that humans catch bovine tb from garden soil or badger urine, equally it could be caught from cattle urine and slurry spread about on the fields. Or like other diseases carried on clothing and boots. It is obviously a rare occurence in spite of the fuss made about it without so far without any proof. I don't think enough is known about how long the bacterium can live in soil, or urine of animals.
Sir David King commented that he had not thought through the practicalities or expense of this type of cull.
Legal aspects include local eradication (Bern Convention), compulsory access to all land over several years. Quite expensive I would have thought. And not all landowners wanting to co-operate. Tourism to the cull area may be affected.
And lastly as a vegan of many years I do slightly object to paying through my taxes for it!