TB keeps a tight grip, but DEFRA stays determined

DURING THE past 12 months DEFRA has spent over £16m on compensation and culled over 17,000 cattle yet, despite these measures the incidence of bovine TB continues to increase year on year.

By the end of September this year DEFRA had confirmed 2461 new TB herd incidents, 55 short of 2003’s total. Of those, 1582 or 65% were reported in the west of England.

The continued spread of the disease and the burgeoning cost of compensation led to Conservative MP Owen Paterson tabling nearly 500 parliamentary questions on the subject. In an answer to one of those questions DEFRA revealed that by 2010 compensation alone will have cost the department £2bn.

Many of those affected by the disease are angered by the government”s refusal to issue badger culling licences that would allow them to tackle a wildlife species endemic with bovine TB.

Junior DEFRA minister Ben Bradshaw defended the government’s actions while the randomised badger culling trials are ongoing.

“We recognise there is no quick fix to end this disease, we have put a series of new measures in place to contain it while the work of the Independent Scientific Group on cattle TB continues.”

But Jan Rowe, vice-chairman of the NFU livestock board, is less impressed by DEFRA’s policies.

“DEFRA is unfairly withholding licences from farmers as a means to control the disease,” he said.

This sentiment was echoed by Robert Forster, chief executive of the National Beef Association, who said: “The Act [Badger Protection Act] clearly allows for protection of property and that must include the protection of one’s herd.”

The government’s decision to withhold licences was defended by John Bourne, chairman of the ISG, which oversees the RBCT.

“Culling badgers as a means of reducing TB is concurrent with the thinking of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but evidence now suggests that such a policy does not work,” he said.

While Prof Bourne would be one of the first to acknowledge that badgers do play a role in the transmission of TB to cattle, research carried out by his group in the wake of the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis revealed the disastrous consequences restocking played in introducing different strains of Mycobacterium bovis to new areas of the country.

“F&M provided an invaluable insight in to the epidemiology of how cattle movement can spread the bacteria around the countryside,” he said. “Although badgers are not off the hook, farmers should be more vigilant before moving cattle around the country.”

He points to the stream of new information being produced by the ISG, which has led to a better understanding of the dynamics of the disease from a cattle perspective.

“For instance, we now know that infected animals have the ability to transmit the disease 21-days after infection, but it is still not easy to detect these animals.”

Other groups, such as the National Federation of Badger Groups, praise the efforts of Prof Bourne and DEFRA in tackling the disease.

“The NFBG thinks greater progress has been made on bovine TB in the past 12 months than in the previous five years,” said NFBG chief executive, Elaine King.

“The reason is simple: Policy makers have finally realised the role played by cattle in spreading the disease,” added Dr King.

DEFRA’s recent decision to introduce tougher movement restrictions was broadly welcomed by all sides, but many feel the measures are only short-term and that more decisive action needs to be taken to tackle the disease long-term.

With the RBCT not due to be completed until mid-2006, both government and industry have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the “four areas” trial conducted in the Republic of Ireland. But the publication continues to be delayed.

In the meantime the continued development of the gamma-interferon test coupled with more pre- and post-movement testing appear to be the only real methods available to minimise the risk of infection.

With the tuberculin skin test returning false positives in 35% of cases all groups involved are united in their call for DEFRA to expand the use of the gamma-interferon test.

“The ISG is encouraging DEFRA to put in place better trials, but we are still some way off wide-scale introduction,” said Prof Bourne.

This call is backed by the NFBG, which is confident that a wide introduction of the test would bring the problem of TB in cattle rapidly under control.

“The challenge is for DEFRA to persuade the Treasury that the gamma-interferon test is a worthwhile investment in the future of livestock farming in this country,” said Dr King.