Alex Black looks at the simple steps farmers can take to minimise the interaction between badgers and cattle on their farm.
Fifth-generation dairy farmer Phil Latham has created what he describes as a ’ring of steel’ around his farm buildings at night, repurposing some unused tin roofing to ensure badgers cannot get into cattle sheds.
“It is a low-tech solution and works in our circumstances,” he said.
“There will be circumstances where it does not work and there is absolutely no way we can stop the indirect interaction between badgers and cattle in fields.
“But I think where we can do something and stop those potentially infectious badgers infecting feed resources, whether it is in the maize silage clamp or the concentrate clamps, then this is something we can do.”
Mr Latham, who farms 500 pedigree Brown Swiss cattle in Cheshire, lost 74 cows in 2012 in the first case of bTB on the farm for 50 years. It took 14 months to go clear.
He then began to look for patterns to understand how his animals had contracted the disease and noticed two groups had been particularly affected, the July and December calvers.
With none of his neighbours having had TB, no market interaction and no wild deer, the farm’s vet put the case down to infected badgers.
“We put it down to the probability we had an infected badger trundling around either affecting the feed while they were out at grass or coming into the buildings during the close to calving period.”
As there was little he could do if the interaction was out in the field, Mr Latham begun to take measures to increase biosecurity in his buildings.
“At night in winter there is a ring of steel about a metre tall,” he said.
“All the gates and ways into the farm have got tin sheets to stop badger ingress. It is the only thing we can do, so we might as well do it.”
However, Mr Latham acknowledged this would not protect the herd in summer when the cows would be out grazing whenever possible.
“But at least in winter I feel I have done the best I can.”
He said the problem of TB in Cheshire badgers was not ‘theoretical’, with the Liverpool roadkill survey of 2014 showing one in five of the hundreds of badgers picked up were infected.
“This is up from 20 years ago, when one in 400 had TB.”
On one of their farms, the nearest infected badger was found only 200 yards away.
“When I was a child growing up there was only one sett on the farm. In fact, I was that keen as a zoologist to look at them we built a badger hide to observe them.
“But now there are nine badger setts around one field, so we have a huge increase in the number of social groups active on-farm.”
Farmers need to make sure they do not let simple mistakes undermine their biosecurity measures.
After putting time, effort and money into biosecurity, farmers and workers need to remember simple steps including closing gates and making sure there was a current in electric fencing, according to AHDB Dairy technical manager David Ball.
Mr Ball advised farmers to start by walking every single boundary to understand where the wildlife lives, feeds and has latrines.
“If you want to put up cameras or put fences up then you have got a bit more knowledge,” he said.
“If you are looking to see about animals coming on to a site, walk the boundary and look for runs. Often they will stick to the same route.”
Setting up cameras could help identify whether a badger was accessing a specific feed store.
“Just because you have not seen a badger does not mean it does not come in,” added Mr Ball.
And it was important not to underestimate a badger’s ability to squeeze into small gaps, dig and climb.
As such, farmers should make sure gates were high enough, they could not dig underneath them and there were no footholds on troughs and barriers.
Electric fencing could be used in the field to restrict cattle from grazing near latrines and setts, as well as being placed around silage clamps. But Mr Ball added farmers needed to remember this was useless if there was not a current running through it.
Maintenance was also vital, with farmers needing to regularly check gaps had not opened up and the security measures were still as effective.
“Do not just put it up and forget about it,” he added.
He also urged farmers to remember a simple mistake, such as leaving a gate open, could jeopardise all the farm buildings.
WALK THE BOUNDARIES