29 October 1999

Study to examine role of all wildlife in bovine TB spread

By Johann Tasker

MINISTERS have ordered a new £1m study into bovine tuberculosis amid increasing attacks by animal activists against ongoing attempts to control the disease by culling badgers.

In a widening of MAFF research, scientists from Oxford University will study the TB risk to cattle from all wildlife species, rather than focusing solely on badgers.

The study, which will cost £960,000, will run independently of the governments controversial trial aimed at determining whether badger culling reduces TB.

Scientists involved in the study claim the risk to cattle from TB-infected wildlife other than badgers may have been seriously overlooked. Until now, MAFF has examined more than 20,000 badgers but only 144 rabbits and 23 hedgehogs.

"In contrast to badgers, little is known of the potential role of other wildlife in the spread of TB," said Fiona Matthews of Oxford Universitys department of zoology. "Clearly, if TB is widespread in all wildlife, then the control of badgers may have little impact on the spread of the disease."

The researchers aim to survey eight farms with recent TB breakdowns in the "hot spot" areas of south-west England. They have developed a live test and all animals will be released after being assessed for the disease.

Farmers will be pleased to know that early results from the work should be available by the end of 2001, at least two years before the badger culling trial is due to report. Conservationists will also welcome the study because no animals will be killed.

Activists have stepped up their campaign against the badger cull which resumed just over a week ago in Cornwall. On the day culling started last Thursday (Oct 21), opponents used the internet to publish the phone numbers of the field workers involved.

More than 40 mobile phone numbers were published by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals which claims the badger cull is "insane and unscientific". Visitors to the groups website were urged: "Please politely register your disgust and circulate the numbers as widely as you can."

Supervisors and field staff culling badgers in Cornwall said they have so far received few telephone calls which failed to disrupt the cull.

Commenting on the website, a MAFF spokesman said: "Were investigating how these numbers came to be published. Obviously this action is not helpful, but it did not stop the work taking place."

In a separate development, police are appealing for witnesses after activists targeted MAFF vehicles used by officials engaged in the cull. Tyres were slashed on four vehicles parked in the St Austell area. A further three vehicles parked at Liskeard were also damaged. &#42