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Put house in order on bovine TB

Readers' letters | Published:

"Among the myths promulgated by the farming industry...” is currently the first line of my husband’s book.

One of the myths I could write about is the vulnerability of the badger to bovine TB and how that fib has misled many intelligent people, including Millie Arden (31/05/2019).

Carrying a disease is very different from being infectious. The RBCT (Randomised Badger Culling Trial) still by far the biggest such study, found less than 1.5 per cent of the already very small number of badgers carrying btb had the potential to be infectious.

We don’t know how many cattle which test positive for btb are actively infectious: stocking density, stress levels on dairy cattle, transfers of infection via slurry, manure, movements and other livestock suggests it’s very high. That’s underlined by APHA returns showing that annually over 91 per cent of btb cases are through cattle to cattle infection, not through any other other vector.

Using a test over 70 years old isn’t helping. Specialist vets who have repeated success in keeping their clients' herds btb free (even in Somerset and Gloucestershire) advocate keeping cattle housed in family groups, zero buying in, high standards of biosecurity, zero co grazing, etc.

It works too – remember that even in the high risk areas, more than 85 per cent of all herds there continue to remain TB free while their neighbours continue to be infected.

Wildlife isn’t the problem there either. Such vets use the more accurate interferon gamma test for bovine TB not just the 1940s test required by law. That and APHA s monitoring is how we know that the old skin test is so unreliable. Slaughterhouse test results from Defra and APHA show that not only are many non-reactors found to be positive [average 15 per cent] some reactors are found to be btb free (their data not mine).

Strains of bacteria can be tracked readily: what that actually shows is that the spoligotype found in specific cattle farms are also the type found in resident wildlife, whereas any carrying wildlife beyond two miles away hosts a different spoligotype, illustrating that in on-farm cases, the infection has passed from cattle to wildlife, not the other way around.

Spoligotype testing proved conclusively that the outbreak in Cumbria was from infected cattle bought from Northern Ireland, no such strain was found anywhere else in the county. Industry own goal.

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Reluctance to buy from high risk herds means that the dominant spoligotypes in those areas don’t alter much there, hence the comparative stability of bacterial populations Millie Arden refers to.

Deer, badger, fox, mice, hedgehog, farm cats, hunting hounds, sheep, camelids, are all documented carriers of btb: yet there are vanishingly few cases of wild species being infectious or being ill. Almost all will live out their full natural lifespan asymptomatic. Badgers cope neither better nor worse than other wild species.

The identifiable historical spikes in btb rates do not show either an association with nor have a causal link to the protection of badgers, another farming myth. The most notable individual causal link was thanks to the then Labour Government, who, in the wake of foot and mouth (an insurable disease the tax payer still paid for) deciding to waive btb testing requirements for farmers restocking their farms. Another own goal by the farming industry which had pressed for the measure.

It is the farming industry (not just ill misled individual farmers) which is culpable for bovine TB. High time it put its own house in order. The tragedy for the badger is the wilful ignorance of those leading the livestock industry and those Ministers keen to curry favour with them.

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Rosie Wood, Bishop’s Castle

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