While ridding the UK of bovine TB may seem like a pipe-dream when faced with the day to day reality of living and working with the disease, the industry remains confident in the Government’s 25-year strategy.
A recent report assessing the first two years of industry-led badger culling in England on the incidence of bTB in cattle (2013-2015) found a 58 per cent reduction in the number of herd breakdowns after two years in the Gloucestershire cull zone.
This was compared with 10 equivalent areas around the outside of the cull zone.
The study also showed a 21 per cent drop in TB in herds in Somerset, and found all 19 licensed intensive badger control operations achieved the badger population reductions needed to get on top of the disease.
The report, led by the Royal Veterinary College’s Lucy Brunton, (previously department of epidemiological sciences, Animal and Plant Health Agency), drew similar to conclusions to that of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) conducted in England between 1998 and 2005, which showed proactive badger culling was effective in reducing bTB in cattle and convinced Government of the case for culling badgers.
The cull pilots were intended to assess the humaneness, effectiveness and safety of controlled shooting - not the effect on TB in cattle.
The results add weight to those from the Thornbury gassing trial (1975-82) which led to zero cattle TB breakdowns for 10 years in the culled areas.
Industry stakeholders say it is vital the Government ‘listens to the science’ and that badger culling remains a key part of any strategy going forward.
Waning support for the Conservatives and the prospect of another General Election have weighed on the sector in recent months, with the Labour party adamant it would stop the cull if it came to power.
NFU deputy president Minette Batters said:“My greatest fear is that if we lose or downsize the wildlife policy we have walked our farmers into far tighter movement restrictions, disease control, testing and biosecurity, and it is paramount that every part of the scheme is delivered on.”
NFU chief animal health and welfare adviser Catherine McLaughlin said the strategy was based around looking at bTB as ‘one disease with multiple reservoirs’.
“Like with any infectious disease, you cannot look at half of the problem,” she said.
“When we look at the transmission potential of all reservoirs – cattle to cattle, badger to cattle, cattle to badger and badger to badger - and how they interact with each other we can start to control it.
“It is about managing population dynamics.
“There have been various times in the past (2001, for instance) when we stopped culling or reduced our control policies – these times set us back – they threw the balance of power back to the disease. We cannot afford to lose momentum again."
Ms Batters, who has spent time overseas looking at other countries’ approaches to TB, said the UK was in an ‘extremely unique position’ because the badger was classed as a protected species.
“We are the only country in the world that is dealing with wildlife that is protected,” she added.
“New Zealand farmers are given a bullet, they take the possum’s tail into the police station and they get another bullet. In Michigan with the white tail deer, they took out the white tail deer.
“We deal with this very challenging legal situation around the status of the badger and that is what makes our situation so unique.
“And the risk of a legal challenge is always there so scrutiny remains high.”
Veteran Gloucestershire vet Roger Blowey, who spent 50 years TB testing cattle, pointed to Defra assessments on badger densities which showed populations had sharply increased since the species received protected status from both the Badger Act in 1973 and the Badger Protection Act in 1992.
A report led by Johanna Judge and published in Nature in 2014 showed badger social groups since 1985-88 had increased by 88 per cent across England and Wales.
“We were talking about one badger per hectare in 1949 and now we are talking about 20 per hectare,” said Mr Blowey.
“We are still struggling in England at the moment because the TB infected badgers are spreading across the country into the Edge areas and so on.
"Although I think we have done well within the cull areas, until we get a bigger cull area and until we get to grips with things in the Edge area, then overall I doubt if you will see a huge amount of progress.
“If you look at the number of infected herds in the Gloucestershire and Somerset cull areas before the cull started and the number of infected herds after the four years of culling has ended, the visual reduction is absolutely dramatic.”
Mr Blowey said while these results were encouraging, the reduction could not solely be attributed to culling, highlighting improvements in TB testing, additional herd restrictions and the gradual reduction in the number of herds and cattle numbers.
Gloucestershire beef producer David Barton has grappled with the disease on his farm for many years but believes the industry is making ground.
Mr Barton, who farms in the HRA, hit the national news headlines in 2012 when he highlighted the human impact of being forced to cull cows which had tested positive for bTB.
Last year Mr Barton’s farm had its third consecutive clear test and was declared TB-free.
“I think we are in a better position than we have been in for the last 30 years because we have an eradication policy that is working,” he said.
“The issue is deeply politicised but at the moment we have got a Government that is supporting an eradication policy and while we have this opportunity we have to do everything we can to make it work.
“As farmers, it is our responsibility to keep TB out of our farms and deal with it as we do with any other disease.
“If we have done everything we possibly can on farm, then, if a badger cull does take place, we will see results.
“The wrong attitude is to sit and wait or do nothing until we start culling.”
From 1910 to the present day - join us on our timeline of bovine TB in the UK.