30 Oct 2013, 9:18 AM
To understand bovine TB one must first understand how significantly livestock husbandry practices have changed in recent years. I was on a dairy farm a couple of years ago - a closed herd (one that reared all its own replacement youngstock) - which had had its first bTB breakdown. Two veterinarians had arrived to do the follow-up sixty day retest. Talking to them I asked what they thought was the source of the problem. Their immediate response was that the adjacent dairy farm had purchased imported cattle the previous year, this herd had subsequently developed bTB and passed the infection either directly or via a vector to the neighbouring herd. Whether the imported cattle were themselves carriers of bTB or whether they had no immunity, I do not know and I assumed the vets did not know but the issue of cattle importation is a major concern for both farmers and vets. Ever increasing numbers of dairy cattle are being imported simply because they are cheaper if large enough numbers are purchased. I know of a herd of over two thousand dairy cows where not a single replacement animal is home-reared, every single one arrives on a lorry from mainland Europe.
The traditional nucleated dairy farm with all the cattle managed within walking distance of the buildings, that is a very static population, is increasingly being replaced by much larger herds with a much more mobile population where groups of cattle, especially youngstock, can be kept at a considerable distance from the milking herd and there is continual movement of cattle between two or more sites. They live in an environment and amidst a wildlife population that is alien to them and any immunity of place that that might bestow. There are innumerable stories of cattle being sent from clean land (ie farms where bTB is not present) to infected land and back again with obvious dire consequences. In a recent case one hundred and twenty youngstock were sent away from the home farm for rearing, only thirty returned, the remainder being condemned. Little wonder so many cattle need to be imported.
This is all to the exasperation of neighbouring farmers with stable herds who are powerless to do anything to counteract this obvious threat to their livelihoods from beyond their boundary. It is useless in calling for a static badger population, as so many experts do, whilst having such a mobile cattle population. There is no restriction on how many times a bovine is moved, a current Cattle Passport can be used for reporting six movements. When all these are completed another passport is simply reissued.
The commonly accepted idea that cattle are infected by bTB whilst grazing is very much open to question. Cattle are very choosy eaters, will invariably smell forage before eating it and will not even graze anything that has been flattened by rabbits or hares, never mind fouled by badgers or foxes. That is of course if they are well-fed and managed. Needless to say, not all are. Herds are much larger, stockmen have many more animals to look after and there are simply not enough good stockmen about anymore. The emergence in the last ten years of large dairy herds employing a “New Zealand” system of management is causing much concern. All the cows calve down in early spring, milk until early winter with virtually no buildings for shelter and virtually all feed fed and stored in fields with obvious implications for contamination by wildlife. At certain times of year, and especially in severe weather in the last few years, the cattle literally scour the ground and fodder selection becomes impossible. Hardened farmers, never mind local residents, are appalled at the sight of some of these herds, both the condition of the animals and the state of the fields. Without a doubt some of these herds are well-managed, but some have huge livestock movements with at times hundreds of animals being moved tens of miles from season to season, some have persistent bTB problems, a few are now riddled with salmonella.
Forty years ago, grass silage began to replace hay as a bulk feed for cattle. Subsequent to that, some of this silage began to be replaced by maize silage. Unfortunately, badgers adore ripening and ripened maize and it is often argued that the explosion in the badger population has coincided with the increasing acreage under maize cultivation. As well as feeding cattle, farmers are inadvertently feeding badgers. In many maize crops in autumn, you can see evidence of badgers pulling down cobs. But it is when the crop is ensiled in storage clamps that the real problem begins. As they feed, the badgers inevitably urinate and defecate. The maize et al is placed into mixer wagons which homogenise the ration to the nth degree before being fed to the cattle. The cow is unable to select her food as every mouthful has become identical. The result is rather too obvious, leading to a similar course of transmission as with leptospirosis from rodents to cattle, though fortunately vaccines have been available for many years for leptospirosis.
Some livestock feed specialists observe the poor health status of badgers as a problem to be rectified and advise cattle farmers to feed minerals (usually with molasses as a base) close to setts. The theory is that healthier badgers will be less likely to be infected by bTB. It echoes research in the past where dairy youngstock fed on high energy diets (maize is an unbalanced high energy, low protein feedstuff), although reaching sexual maturity and milk production early had poor health status, poor lifetime production and were often culled prematurely. The theory is however untested and could simply attract more badgers to an area and thus lead to an increase in population. The very idea of feeding supplements to wild animals is problematic and somewhat half-baked.
A huge part of the bTB problem is the present compensation system which is simply sustaining the situation. I know of farmers who get advice on how to reduce the incidence of bTB on their holdings from vets, from neighbouring farmers, from their staff, even from members of their own family, and yet do absolutely nothing. They regard compensation as a divine right and if cattle have to be slaughtered they simply take the money to purchase replacements. The system is rapidly becoming financially unviable both in terms of condemned livestock and compulsory testing and it is inevitable that compensation will reduce and disappear.
Although I farm in a bTB hot spot, in over thirty years to date I have never had an animal fail a test. But I do take sensible precautions: ring-fencing the land to prevent contact with neighbouring livestock, minimising the number of cattle movements on and off the farm, feeding fodder and most certainly corn where it is innaccessible to wildlife, only having drinking water available from clean troughs, and so on. The TV presenter Adam Henson is a typical example of how not to manage livestock and it is no wonder that he is continually talking about the problems he has with bTB testing. Endless livestock movements, feeding fodder adjacent to badger setts (utterly appalling), feeding corn in troughs at ground level, allowing cattle access to the local stream might look cute and idyllic but takes no account of the erosion and fouling, the list goes on. It is simply poor livestock husbandry.
Despite much slaughter of badgers over many years, whether it be by gassing, shooting, poisoning or simply roadkill, the population appears to be increasing. The similarity with what has happened to grey squirrel numbers is striking- individual farming estates with large areas of woodland have trapped and despatched thousands of squirrels annually over many years with no apparent reduction in numbers. And squirrels are also becoming increasingly attracted to maize with many anecdotes last winter of them raiding crops which were unharvestable due to the wet weather. When bTB first became a major problem in this area, I was told by vets how to eradicate badgers from the land without any trace of them being found. Thus far I have not taken any action though the number of badger latrines and pasture digging at certain times of year does become disconcerting. Indeed, until the mid-nineteen eighties I had never seen a badger, live or dead, and most certainly not in mid-winter. Nowadays throughout the year in the hours before dawn I sometimes see them scurrying down country roads or farm tracks. And the amount of fresh roadkill at dusk or daybreak never ceases to amaze. But the remnants of these bodies can still be seen weeks later, an obvious source of disease and infection, any trace of bTB seeping into watercourses or being spread by scavenging birds or mammals. To even begin a bTB eradication policy, the roadkill must first be removed and disposed of correctly. And if badger numbers are to be reduced then much more skilled methods need to be enforced than the haphazard and uncoordinated techniques outlined above.
As a young dairy farmer thirty years ago supplying The Milk Marketing Board of England and Wales I observed and heard from dairy workers how inefficient and wasteful the organisation had become. Above all I listened to farmers who had been to the gilded palace that was the MMB’s headquarters at Thames Ditton and how decadent that edifice had become. The desperate but visionary men who had created the Board fifty years previously had inevitably been replaced by apparatchiks more interested in salaries and honours. Even so every country around the world which still had a fragmented dairy industry was envious of the MMB and the structured, centralised system which it had originally embodied. There were, alas, too few of us who argued that it had to be overhauled, and through the apathy of the members and arrogance of the senior staff, aided somewhat by the EEC and Thatcher, it was dismantled. The industry has been fragmented ever since.
And so it is with bovineTB. There are no visionaries in the fight against the disease and policies are completely disjointed. The recent target from the agricultural ministry of twenty-five years to eradicate bTB in “much” of England is so vague as to be laughable. It is obvious that in certain regions badger populations are excessive. It is equally obvious that the solution lies in intelligent husbandry and in correctly feeding and watering cattle. Beyond that there should be no compensation paid for imported cattle that are condemned, nor for cattle with an excessive number of passport movements. Those farmers who flout movement restrictions should not be eligible for any payments whatsoever. Good farmers and taxpayers are inevitably paying for the misdemeanours of bad farmers. The industry has to reassess how livestock are fed without at the same time feeding wildlife, whether it is mammals such as badgers or birds such as starlings. And so crops like maize should be discouraged by gradually reducing compensation paid for condemned cattle on farms growing this crop. Similarly, farms which have persistent bTB breakdowns should have enforceable advice followed by reducing compensation over several years. These farmers not only affect themselves but all the other farmers in the vicinity.
The official line from successive agricultural ministries has always been that bTB cannot migrate into the human population. Unofficially, the thought that it could has always horrified them. Now, partly as an excuse for a badger cull, there are mutterings that indeed it could. If it did it would devastate cattle farming in Britain, not just the dairy industry. The taxpayer should not have to fund a problem which is predominantly self-inflicted.