As Defra Secretary Owen Paterson has repeatedly stressed the 25-year ‘Strategy for Achieving Bovine Tuberculosis-Free Status for England’, published on Thursday, is about much more than badger culling.
Which is just as well considering the badger policy that was meant to lie at the centre of the strategy has been shelved, for now at least.
The strategy, Mr Paterson said in its foreword, ‘brings together all the tools we need to address the disease’.
These include new cattle measures like the proposed introduction of compulsory post-movement testing in low risk areas plus a move to end the practice of partially de-restricting herds, an option that is currently a lifeline to many restricted
There will be moves to drive forward the controversial risk-based trading approach and encourage better biosecurity, including through compensation penalties.
There be funding for a new vaccination policy in the ‘Edge Area’ and continued efforts to develop oral badger and cattle vaccines, alongside research to improve TB testing and other aspects of disease control.
The strategy reiterates the aspiration for a strengthened ‘partnership’ approach to TB policy, which extends of course to how the disease is funded as Defra faces up to a gaping shortfall in its TB budget.
Moves to share the costs could cover compensation, testing and vaccination, possibly via some sort of insurance scheme, suggestions that, in the absence of any further commitment to badger culling, will not sit well with many farmers.
Mr Paterson recognises achieving Official Tuberculosis Free status for England ‘will be a long haul’ but insists it is ‘achievable’ if industry and government work together.
“My aim is for England to be free of bTB by 2038 with healthy livestock living alongside healthy badgers. Our livestock industry, our badgers and our countryside deserve no less,” he said.
As flagged up in last year’s draft strategy, England will be divided into the High Risk (HRA), the Edge, and the Low Risk (LRA) Areas.
The Low Risk Area: Covers large parts of the north and east of England, with a low incidence of bTB and no recognised significant reservoir of the disease in wildlife.
The objective is to continue to protect it from disease through cattle movements and the possible resulting infection of wildlife vectors.
The aim is achieve Officially Tuberculosis Free status from the entire LRA by 2025, with some counties achieving it from 2018.
The Edge Area: The buffer zone between the HRA and the LRA. Additional evidence is needed to determine the respective role of cattle and wildlife in the spread of the disease in the Edge Area.
It will be managed to contain and reverse the spread of bTB from the HRA to the LRA,.
The aim is to achieve maintain herd prevalence below 2 per cent overall in the edge area by 2019 and below 1 per cent by 2025, with the lowest prevalence counties achieving OTF status by that date.
The High Risk Area: The South West, West Midlands and East Sussex, where a relatively high proportion of herds are infected by bTB.
There is also a high proportion of repeat cases among herds and a recognised reservoir of infection in badgers. The objective is to halt and then reverse the increasing prevalence of bTB and ultimately achieve OTF status for this geographical area.
The aim is to achieve OTF for this area, and therefore the whole of England, by 2038.
The strategy outlines new cattle measures, in varying degrees of detail, which will apply in the three areas, including some across all areas.
Risk-based trading: Defra and industry stakeholders have already started developing a risk-based trading policy, which involves the provision of information about a herd’s TB status and history to inform potential buyers and reduce the risk of TB spread into new herds.
There have already been sales at markets trialling the system, for example in Cheshire, using data on a herd’s history provided by sellers and Defra has confirmed it is developing an accreditation scheme for assigning a risk status to cattle herds.
But the strategy suggests an added urgency to push the policy forward. Last-year, an industry-led Risk-Based Trading Group strongly recommended a voluntary approach.
Many farmers in the hotspot areas, particularly in the absence of badger controls, remain reluctant, fearing disclosure of data will permanently disadvantage them.
The strategy document stressed, however, that if the voluntary approach was unsuccessful, ‘a mandatory approach must be considered’.
It added that options like linking participation to compensation levels could also be used to encourage farmers to take advantage of risk-based trading.
The Risk-Based Trading Group recommended the development of a ‘comprehensive, accessible database’ to support the scheme but there is no mention of progress on this in the strategy.
Biosecurity: The strategy outlines to improve biosecurity levels on farms, including moves to prevent cattle-to-cattle, cattle-to-badger and badger-to-cattle spread of bTB.
There may be an opportunity for farmers to apply for rural development funds for tools like cattle handling facilities and badger-proof feed troughs.
The Government will undertake an ‘evidence-based review of biosecurity measures both on farm and off farm, and will consider measures that would encourage improved uptake’.
Compensation: Compensation payments will reviewed, partly to reflect the need to make savings from Defra’s TB budget but also to try and incentivise better practice on farm.
The document points out that in some countries with successful control strategies such as New Zealand and Spain, cattle compensation is paid at 65 per cent and 75 per cent of market value respectively.
There is already reduced compensation for reactors in ‘significantly overdue herd tests’ in England. The Government plans to review bTB compensation to take this approach further and ensure for example, ensuring that animal keepers observing defined ‘best practice’ on biosecurity get higher compensation levels than those who do not.
Phasing out partial de-restriction: Defra has proposed phasing out the practice of lifting restrictions on different parts of bTB holdings at different times. Farmers, with the approval of AHVLA vets, have in some cases, particularly in the HRA, been able to isolate lowest risk stock, with a view to getting them tested clear ahead of the rest of the holding.
NFU chief livestock adviser Pete Garbutt said the option has been ‘very important in enabling farms to resume trade while managing the risk of disease spread’.
The NFU is ‘disappointed’ the proposal to stop partial de-restriction and close existing TB Isolation Units has not been accompanied by any information on the likely or benefits to industry or government, he said.
“If partial derestriction is done correctly, it should not pose a significant risk of prolonging the breakdown. Instead of phasing out partial derestriction, the NFU would like to work with Defra to look at how to improve this process,” he said.
Other proposed measures covering all areas include:
Post-movement testing: One of the most eye-catching proposals is the proposal to introduce compulsory post-movement testing into the LRA. There is little other detail attached to the proposal.
For example, it is unclear whether this would apply to both pre-movement tested animals brought in from the higher risk areas and movements within the LRA and what isolation measures would accompany the requirement.
Designed to an add an extra layer of protection when animals are brought onto farms, it would add a significant extra burden in some cases.
The document also stresses plans to encourage improved biosecurity in other finishing units receiving cattle into the LRA.
A swathe of new cattle measures have recently been introduced into the Edge Area, such as annual herd testing, pre-movement testing, testing and surveillance of herds near to breakdown and more use of the gamma interferon test. There is nothing new in the document on cattle controls.
In terms of cattle measures, the document proposes additional use of gamma interferon tests in some herds, for example where the risk of TB infection from badgers is under control.
There will also be moves to improve epidemiological investigation of breakdowns, including use of genetic sequencing.
There has been increasing concern over the lack of controls relating to non-bovine species, notably alpacas and llamas (South American Camelids), of which a number of herds and animals have been affected. Measures in the strategy include:
Injectable badger vaccination: The big announcement was a new injectable badger vaccination programme targeting infection in the edge area, where vaccination can be more effective as the proportion of infected badgers is lower. The aim is for vaccination to act as a ‘buffer’ halting the spread of disease between the HRA and LRA.
Defra will offer grant funding for private badger vaccination projects in the edge areas, match-funding successful applicants.
Mr Paterson said the Government was investing £24.6 million in the development of effective TB vaccines for both cattle and badgers.
Oral badger vaccine: The best case scenario for a cheaper and more effective oral badger vaccine to become available is 2019.
Government scientists have made progress in identifying a candidate edible bait but further progress is dependent on ensuring a consistent immune response to orally administered vaccine.
It is still uncertain when any candidate vaccine which can be taken forward for marketing authorisation.
Cattle vaccination: The Government has awarded a contract for field trial design and is expecting this work to be completed by August 2014, with extensive cattle vaccination field trials expected to start in 2015. The trials will cost tens of millions of pounds.
However, given the time it will take trial and authorise the vaccine and change EU law to permit cattle vaccination, a cattle vaccine is unlikely to be available until 2023 at the earliest.
Mr Paterson again cited his commitment to badger culling, referring to the success of other countries that had successfully tacked the wildlife source to reduce TB levels in cattle.
He said: “Based on first veterinary principles and supported by modelling, one would expect culling to be more effective than a badger vaccination programme; that is why I have decided to continue the policy of badger culling in endemic areas learning lessons from the pilots in 2013.”
However, the reality is, beyond the continuation in Somerset and Gloucestershire, plans to extend the policy even to one new area in Dorset have been shelved. Although the door is not entirely closed - the prospect is there for roll out,once the lessons of the pilots have been put into practice in Somerset and Gloucestershire this year - the future of the policy remains uncertain, despite Mr Paterson’s continued support.
The document listed whole range of research areas, including:
The document promises Government will ‘develop proposals for governance, delivery and funding of the Strategy in partnership with stakeholders’, although it does not take this idea much beyond what was outlined in last year’s draft strategy.
It again cites the New Zealand model where a limited-liability company, TBfree New Zealand, supports regional TB committees to deliver the National bTB Pest Management Plan, co-financed by Government and industry. But it falls short, in the absence of any badger cull roll out, of any formal proposals for England along these lines.
But it does give more detail on the cost-sharing plans. The document states that the current cost of tackling bTB to farmers and taxpayers is ‘not sustainable’.
It euphemistically suggests the Government wants to ‘demonstrate value for money’ in TB spending, in other words it wants to spend less for more results. This, of course, is against a backdrop of huge shortfalls in future TB budgets relative to projected spend.
The strategy lists a number of funding options that would see ‘stakeholders paying more for bTB measures’, such as:
The document says the Government will keep bTB compensation and the funding of bTB testing under review.
It suggests savings to Government could be redistributed to fund preventative measures, such as ‘transitional financial support for measures to reduce the risk of TB from badgers’.
But in the absence of significant progress on addressing the wildlife spread of TB, any moves to pass more costs onto farmers are certain to face resistance.