15 Sep 2013, 1:54 PM
After many months of deliberations the Government has finally forced through yet another flag ship policy. This does not only affect the general public but also the countryside and the rural fabric that binds it together.
For many years the beef and dairy industry have been under extreme pressure from the price restraint leveled upon them by supermarkets and milk and meat processors. This has been so intense that from the 1980ís when we had 52,000 dairy farms we are now down to just 10,600 and still in free fall.
This has been overseen by a succession of Governments but latterly by the coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. There is no doubt that we need an overhaul of certain policies that have led us down the path of austerity in which we find ourselves as a nation.
The cattle industry is long overdue for reform. It is being indelibly driven into a downward spiral that is resulting in increased intensification and escalating poverty for those in no position to diversify or to become amalgamated into more viable units; which usually involves getting ever bigger and more efficient.
The result of this intensification is more stress on the system and more stress on the animals within that system.
We can measure this stress by the way in which our livestock performs. In the dairy industry we have 22% lameness of our cattle, when it should be no more than 1%. We have increasing levels of mastitis (a disease that attacks the mammary system); High levels of infertility and ever increasing levels of lung diseases, especially in youngstock. These production problems are exacerbated by antibiotic resistance realised after years of abuse and overuse in an attempt to become more efficient.
All of this culminates into the damming statistic that we are culling our dairy cows at the age of 5 years, long before they reach their full productive capacity. Of these problems mentioned bovine tuberculosis is but another one of those highly preventable production problems.
The National Farmers Union, who only represents 18% of farmers, has long been promoting a badger cull in order to reduce the spread of bovine tb. They argue that badger numbers have increased significantly; despite there being no scientific evidence to support this claim.
They say that badgers are responsible for the demise of ground nesting birds and hedgehogs; yet the State of Nature Report, backed by the Hedgehog Society and the RSPB, point to a change in agricultural techniques and increasing intensification methods as being the major cause of species loss.
They say that badgers are riddled with bovine tb, yet only 1.7% of badgers carry the disease.
They also say that bovine tb is decimating our cattle herds; yet another untruth. To decimate means that 10% of cattle are culled. The actual 0.5% of the National herd slaughtered for the disease is nowhere near to that figure.
This low percentage is not a total loss to the industry for there is compensation paid to the farmer and the animal still goes into the food chain. Further illuminating the hypocrisy that bovine tb is a significant risk to human health.
The cost of bovine tb is miniscule in comparison to the major causes of slaughter within our cattle industry; those being mastitis, lameness and infertility. These losses can be so significant that even a breeding nucleus canít even keep a pace with it and animals need to be bought in. This is cited as being one of the main reasons for increasing the spread of bovine tb into other areas.
The UK has the highest cattle movements in Europe, an estimated 13 million movements per year Ė a never ceasing bovine tb roundabout!
Yet another myth is that other countries have succeeded in their attempt to eradicate bovine tb through culling wildlife. Southern Ireland is cited as a success when in actual fact they struggle to keep bovine tb levels down even while reducing badger numbers by 10% per annum. If not for badgers in the North, where they have a vaccination policy, it is likely that the species would soon be extinct on the island. There are bovine tb outbreaks in areas where no badgers occur and can only be attributed to cattle movements and production stresses.
New Zealand is held high in regard too, yet significant differences exist between the the UK and that country.
The brush tailed possum, which was an imported species, only became a problem when introduced into the cattle rich country of New Zealand. It was not a significant tb reservoir where it originated from in Australia.
The brush tailed possum also carried a range of other diseases including EPM, a neurological disease in horses; it also carried rabies. Biosecurity was high on the management agenda as feed stores were contained and water troughs regularly washed and limed before rinsing and replenished with fresh water. The driving down of bovine tb rates went hand in hand with stringent bovine tb testing and cattle movements. New Zealand farmers are held financially responsible for the cost of the programme and do not receive the financial buffer that UK farmers are given.
One of the main reasons that the cowís in New Zealand reacted better to disease control is the fact that they are a cross breed. The Kiwi cross is an amalgamation of three dairy breeds. The result of this is called highbred vigour that allows them to be more disease resistant and live longer, which is precisely what they do for they have a greater longevity than their British sisters.
Badgers are accused of being excreters of bovine tb. A cow that passes through the bovine tb trawl net and many do; excrete at the rate of 60lts of slurry per day and produce as much saliva in order to digest vast amounts of roughage. A cow that has bovine tb has the capacity to infect other herd members through these exudates and through infectious aerosols, especially during the winter time when cows are in close contact.
They say that badgers directly infect cows.
40% of farms in highly infected bovine tb hotspot areas do not fall to the disease. The bovine tb bacterium does exist in slurry and if this includes infected milk and is then spread on the land, a direct link with wildlife infection can result. Infected land can stay that way for months giving the bacteria plenty of time to infiltrate water courses and soil organisms such as earth worms. The link with badger infection is easily realised when you consider that the badgerís main diet is earth worms coated in humus rich soil.
The National Farmers Union says that vaccination of badgers is a waste of time. Wales is trialling a vaccination programme. It is into the second year and at the end of five years any infected badgers will naturally die out, leaving a healthy population. Vaccination is cheaper than shooting and especially so when coupled with the inclusion of volunteer vaccinators who are willing to supply their time at a minimal cost. There is no perturbation effect, when badgers become so perturbed at being persecuted that they relocate due to fear and stress; thus making themselves more disease susceptible. This has been cited as being a significant reason for an increase in bovine tb on the periphery of cull zones. There are also no safety issues, as there most defiantly are with shooting in the dark in a highly publicised and contentious cull scenario.
If the NFU were serious about bovine tb then they would have lobbied Government to allow cattle vaccination. A vaccine was ten years away twenty years ago; and it is still ten years away today. Their argument is that because it is a zoonosis (which means that we can catch tuberculosis through drinking infected milk and eating contaminated meat) itís best to remove from the food chain at source. The truth is that infected cows that fail to test positive still get milked and that milk is drunk at farm level as raw milk. I myself have drunk thousands of gallons of raw milk during my life time and much of that was in other countries. As I mentioned before the meat from bovine tb positive cattle go into the food chain too. This isnít regarded as a threat to human health otherwise it would carry a health warning to cook thoroughly.
These pilot culls do not discriminate between healthy or unhealthy badgers. Many badger setts are free of bovine tb and will remain to be so if left to their own natural devices. If these disease resistant badgers are disturbed then it can only result in a diminishing of disease resistance in our wildlife reservoir.
Badgers do not deserve to carry the cross of an industry in crisis and I donít believe that the British consumer will sanction an industry that uses a bullet instead of sound animal husbandry and basic biosecurity.
Steve Jones @DairyBoys