If farmers and vets arriving at the NFU bovine TB (bTB) conference had expected answers or a clear road map towards eradicating the disease, many would have left feeling disappointed.
The conference was a positive initiative in a subject area where communication is often lacking. It was, at times, informative and gave policy makers, scientists, vets and farmers a rare chance to exchange views on key components of TB policy.
But, ultimately, it served to highlight why progress in tackling bTB is so proving to be painfully slow - hampered by uncertainty over how disease is transmitted, the complexity of the science behind it, the cost of possible solutions and, of course, political sensitivities, particularly over wildlife control.
By the end of the day-long conference, many in the audience were voicing frustration and, in some cases, ‘despondency’ at the main messages to emerge.
The tone was best summed up by Malla Hovi, head of veterinary advice at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), who warned farmers to prepare for ‘short-term pain for long-term gain’ as she unveiled Defra’s plans to further ratchet up cattle controls over the next year.
There was confusion as Ms Hovi announced routine six-monthly TB testing is to be introduced in the edge area of Cheshire in January as one of a number of measures to ramp up cattle TB controls.
Ms Hovi said the change, which would help pick up infection more clearly, was being made because the radial system of testing farms around breakdowns was ‘proving too difficult to do’.
She said Defra and APHA had ‘taken the [Cheshire] TB eradication board with us’, which she said had been pushing for it as well as they were prepared for ‘short-term pain for long-term gain’.
But one of the members of the group, Cheshire farmer Bill Mellor, called for better communication, claiming he was unaware of the change, at which point Ms Hovi said it ‘has not been decided yet’.
Later, however, Defra confirmed six-month testing was being introduced in the edge area only of Cheshire.
Ms Hovi also outlined other changes to cattle controls being considered in England, including:
While Ms Hovi and Defra’s chief scientist Prof Ian Boyd both stressed badger controls remained a key part of Defra’s 25-year TB eradication strategy, they left little doubt about where they believed the main focus needed to be.
Prof Boyd began his talk by suggesting it was unrealistic to expect to eradicate bTB in England.
“Getting rid of it is probably not possible, but we can get it down to levels where, essentially, we have TB-free status if we all work together,” he said, adding that it would take ‘many decades’ to get to that position.
To the exasperation of many in the room, he said there was ‘overwhelming evidence’ most of the risk to farms ‘lies from cattle-to-cattle infection’ within herds and from the wider cattle population.
Most of the risk of TB spread comes from cattle, according to Defra’s chief scientist
While there is no question badger populations infect cattle, Defra ‘does not think it happens very often’, although it can be ‘very significant’ when it does as it sparks the internal route of infection within herds, he said.
He said it was ‘possible only 6 per cent of infection can be traced back to badgers’, although later, challenged by farmers – including Nick
Adams, of Derbyshire, and David Horton, of Devon – to justify this, he acknowledged ‘very high levels of uncertainty over the extent to which badgers are involved in the disease cycle’.
He said the proportion varies significantly between areas where badgers are present and quoted a previous speaker’s assertion that the overall estimated proportion of badger transmission lies ‘between 6 and 100 per cent with 50 per cent in the middle’,
“We do not know in any specific circumstance. What we do know is there is a big range of possibilities. The reality is that a lot of the evidence from a lot of the model that have been fitted suggests it is towards the lower end of that, that the primary cause of disease in badgers is present. It is probably less than 50 per cent.”
His comments highlighted a surprising lack of knowledge within Defra about how the disease is transmitted and prompted calls, supported by NFU deputy president Minette Batters, who chaired the event and Welsh Chief Veterinary Officer Christianne Glossop, for more testing of badgers to try and improve the knowledge base.
But Prof Boyd warned if, as suspected, disease was sustained in badgers without spread from cattle, eradication of TB would be ‘enormously difficult’, adding that ‘we have to face up to dealing with badgers’.
“The policy challenge is to provide effective disease control which is proportionate to the objectives of maintaining a viable cattle population and a viable badger population because this is what we have to do by law,” he said.
He said TB was more of a sociological problem than an epidemiological one. “It is about how we farm in this country. We need to think carefully about how we get this disease under control.”
Delegates at the conference also heard updates on research into improving TB diagnostics and the development of cattle and badger vaccines.
While there were many hurdles to be overcome before a cattle vaccine became available and an uncertain timescale, APHA’s Mark Chambers said progress was being made on an oral badger vaccine and, even though challenges remain, it should be available by 2020.
With Government funds currently promoting increased uptake of injectable badger vaccination in England’s edge area, farmers and vets voiced serious doubts over the costs, practicalities and likely benefits of the policy. Some suggested badger vaccination could have a detrimental effect on cattle disease.
Dr Chambers acknowledged the limitations of the BCG vaccine and the fact studies done so far have not been of the scale needed to provide answers about its ‘efficacy in the field’ or the impact on cattle disease.
As farmers and vets questioned speakers, answers were sought about the next steps for the badger cull.
Few answers were forthcoming from the panel, although Prof Boyd and Ms Hovi said the department was investing a lot of time and energy into addressing spread by badgers, including plans to roll out the cull and biosecurity improvements to reduce the risk to farms.
But farmers and vets repeatedly made the case that, where the disease was being spread in two species, a much greater commitment was needed to dealing with it in both species.
Farmers said they would readily accept tighter controls if equivalent wildlife controls were in place but while the risk of infection from badgers remained, cattle controls were often of little value.
Referring to Ms Hovi’s earlier comments, one farmer noted he had ‘already suffered a lot of pain for very little gain’ in the absence of a badger cull.
While the conference succeeded in providing information on developments in policy and science to those on the front line, it brutally exposed the gulf between what farmers and vets expect from TB policy and what policymakers and scientists think they can deliver.
At the end of it, Mrs Batters acknowledged the frustration felt by those in the room over the lack of answers.
“Welcome to my world,” she said. “It is incredibly frustrating for farmers and I have found it incredibly frustrating. I am determined the farmer voice is heard.
“Farmers are prepared to pick up some of the cost and want to be partners, but they have got to have more control going forwards.”
Mrs Batters used the conference to call for the establishment of a new independent body to drive bovine TB policy in England in a bid to ‘de-politicise’ the issue.
Mrs Batters wants the TB Eradication Advisory Group, which currently advises Defra on policy via the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England, to be upgraded to full board status with autonomy over implementing Defra’s 25-year TB Eradication strategy.
Mrs Batters accepted Ministers would have to retain decision-making powers on whether, and the extent to which, badger culling should play a part in the strategy.
She said: “We want a specific board which is dealing directly with Ministers.
“Ultimately, this board needs to be able to deal with everything, working with Ministers in a partnership structure on policy then delivery, be it cattle measures, vaccination or culling, as they do in other countries, including Wales, with TB eradication policies.
“It has got to be de-politicised as much as we can.”
The board would also take on responsibility for raising funding from industry to deliver TB policy.
“We have got to look at a new governance model and a new way of funding. It is very clear we are going to need massive investment.
This will have to be part of what the eradication board does.”
She said the priority was to get the board in place before the next election so a future Secretary of State would ‘have to work with it or at least justify why they would not want it’.
Welsh Chief Veterinary Officer Christianne Glossop urged farmers to make best use of the information available to them to reduce the risks when buying-in cattle.
Dr Glossop said the Government would prefer farmers to ‘grasp that voluntarily’, working with vets, rather than having to impose new rules on the industry.
She said farmers themselves had a big part to play in keeping bovine TB and other diseases out of their herds, but warned against simply using TB testing frequency as a guide to risk.
The ‘steady reduction’ in bTB levels in Wales had been driven by a move to blanket annual testing in 2009, but Dr Glossop said the annual testing status was deterring some buyers.
She cited a recent dispersal sale from the north west of England which resulted in 15 breakdowns in Wales as evidence four-year testing areas should not be seen as a ‘proxy for low risk’.
She welcomed the steady decline in TB levels in Wales, but said the 5 per cent incidence rate was still ‘nowhere near where we want it to be’.
Wales would continue to ‘ramp up’ its package of measures as it sought to ‘eradicate TB once and for all’ – something she described as an ‘ambitious, achievable, long-term objective’.