BCVA responds to Badger Trust report on bovine TB

The UK’s leading body of cattle vets has welcomed calls for closer collaboration with the Badger Trust on bovine TB, but insists future policy must be based on science, not political agendas.

The Badger Trust has released a new report, Tackling bovine TB together: Towards sustainable, scientific and effective bTB solutions.

Alongside the report, Prof David MacDonald, an eminent wildlife biologist from Oxford University, has published commentary which looks at the arguments for and against badger culling as part of efforts to tackle TB, and concludes it is equivocal at best.

See also: Bovine TB in England at 15-year low, but what more can be done?

Responding to the report, Sarah Tomlinson, a farm vet and board member of the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA), said the organisation was reviewing its own TB policy.

But Ms Tomlinson, who is also technical director of the TB Advisory Service (TBAS), told Farmers Weekly the Badger Trust would struggle to attract the support of farmers and farming organisations if it remains in denial that badgers can play a role in the transmission of TB between cattle.

‘Use appropriate tools’

“I absolutely agree that we need to look at TB in cattle and the role of the private vet. We support many things that the Badger Trust talks about,” she said.

“But farm vets also say we do need appropriate tools where they are necessary, and wildlife controls, including badger culling, is part of that. People who come to the table have to be willing to have conversations about all the tools that are available to tackle bovine TB.”

Although she does not support badger culling in all areas, Ms Tomlinson says it must be considered as an option in regions where TB is endemic in wildlife, such as the South West.

“I’m not condoning wildlife control in every area of England, Scotland and Wales. It needs to be targeted in areas where we know badgers are part of the introduction and recycling of TB in cattle herds.

“For example, nearly 80% of land in the South West region has been involved in reducing badger numbers over the past decade. TB levels in cattle herds are at their lowest level in 20 years.”

Regional differences

Ms Tomlinson said she took issue with some of the statements included within the report, including claims that Wales and Scotland are both reducing TB in cattle and neither country is culling badgers.

“To look at England, Scotland and Wales in the same way is not comparable,” she said.

“In Scotland, there is no evidence of TB in its badgers, nor is TB endemic in the cattle population as Scotland is officially TB-free. And the latest figures from Apha [Animal and Plant Health Agency] show the disease is actually increasing in cattle herds in three out of the five TB regions in Wales.”

The Badger Trust say in its own report, “drawing a definitive conclusion that culling badgers alone has any beneficial effect on disease reduction in cattle from any of the available data is currently made impossible, given the complexity of factors involved”.

However, TB control is not about culling badgers alone, but using it as a tool appropriate to disease risk, alongside other tools such as enhanced cattle testing and TB biosecurity, Ms Tomlinson added.

Farmer experience

Chris Addison, a mixed dairy, beef and sheep farmer from Cumbria, said his herd went down with TB in 2017.

Badger culling was introduced in 2018 and the number of TB herd incidents in his area has since reduced from more than 30 cases to zero at the moment.

“I think the Badger Trust is ignoring the facts of the benefits of wildlife control which were used alongside cattle controls and biosecurity measures and then continuing with badger vaccination,” said Mr Addison.

“No one wants to cull badgers, but doing so has allowed us to reduce TB disease levels to almost nil. But we still have to be vigilant, which is why we are now using badger vaccination alongside enhanced farm biosecurity knowledge to try to eradicate it from our area.

“The local vets have been under tremendous pressure, but they have done a fantastic job helping and mentoring farmers to get through.”