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Bovine TB control in Great Britain lacks resilience.

First published 03Dec2015.

A 5-year plan to wipe out bovine TB is badly needed by TB-hit farmers. Many farmers will agree with what Mr Cock said in his article published in the Western Morning News on 21st November. Indeed what Mr Cock has said should happen. However it won't. Ministers can only act if they have the backing of MPs. An MP's job is to represent their electorate and that electorate is subjected to a never-ending stream of media hype which intensifies whenever there is a badger cull. The upshot of this is that MP support for a minister's motion will always fall short.

Even if circumstances dramatically changed and the minister was able to sanction a concerted effort to reduce TB, like NZ did in 1995, it is extremely unlikely that GB would reach where NZ is now in 20 years time. This is largely because of the much higher level of TB in GB in relation to what it was in NZ when they started. These relative positions are illustrated in the graphs shown below. Click them to view them in a pop-up.

In order to see where we need to go to control TB, we need to understand how the system works. Effort can only be spent in those areas which are funded. The more a party contributes to this funding, the more a party can say how things are done. The importance of funding is clearly illustrated by ex-Welsh minister Alun Davies's U-turn on his support for badger culling and subsequent comments made by Welsh Chief Veterinary Officer Christianne Glossop. An example of where the system is broken is in the allocation of the £56m of levy which farmers pay to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) each year. This fund is paid by farmers and as such this fund should be allocated to reflect farmer interests. In that levy, only £36k goes into developing the ability to deal with TB and that £36k is spent studying genetics to breed animals for increased TB resistance!

It is very unlikely that TB control will ever be achieved in the future in GB using the current minister-led setup. In fact, a board needs to be set up with a remit to control TB rather than protect a minister's career prospects. On approaching the AHDB regarding channeling farmer levy into supporting a board, the response was that TB is a highly political issue best handled by "trade associations". In view of the constitution of a trade association, how can a trade association be held to account for managing TB control - in particular badger culling? Such a task will involve meeting a diverse range of challenges which are best handled by full-time, dedicated and salaried staff. This board needs to be fully accountable and subject to annual review by an independent, outside organisation. In view of farmers' other commitments and the constitution of the National Farmers Union (NFU) applying such a process to those currently assigned the crucial task of badger culling is out of the question.

Many farmers involved in the badger cull are very dedicated, face horrendous intimidation, have excellent management skills, and, via the cull companies, are removing a large number of badgers. Indeed culling is being carried out by free shooting as well as cage trapping. Activists can smash cages but are more limited in what they can can do to stop free shooting especially when these culls are carried out over large areas. However there are already indications that farmer-coordinated cull operations in the Gloucestershire and Somerset pilots are hitting problems. This is illustrated in the following extracts.

In the Request For Information RFI 2911, Natural England said that in 2014 the proportion of 1km squares where there was no record of a badger being culled was as follows:

West Gloucestershire- 0.25

West Somerset - 0.13.

In fact, in Gloucestershire, no badgers were officially removed from a quarter of the land area which was fully accessible to cullers.

In September 2014 the following correspondence was received from one of the cullers involved.

The goodwill in Som and Glos is rapidly running out. The work is costing individual contractors time and money and they are starting to resent being treated like they are doing the cull companies and the NFU a favour.

In January 2015 this culler also sent the following message.

2 of the main players at Gloscon sat on huge acreages of land for their own reasons and denied access by other contractors.

Dr Paul Livingstone who is the TB Eradication and Research Manager for Tbfree New Zealand in email correspondence dated 11th June 2013 said the following ...

We also manage and contract all wildlife control - we found that if farmers were responsible for possum control it was not efficient and tended to leave holes where some farmers didn't undertake good control. You cannot leave gaps in control when you have an objective to reduce infected herd numbers or to eradicate TB from possums within a defined area of land...

Farmers are currently financing the cull companies on zero income. In view of this one could firstly ask how can farmers pay more for TB, and secondly, why should farmers pay at all for TB when today's TB situation is largely due to a succession of government policy failures. However is any of this relevant?

The RELEVANT question which should be asked is "Is it better to let things continue as they are now or to start funding aspects of TB which are crucial to achieving TB control?"

Without fundamental change, TB is likely to persist in High Risk Areas and get established in large cattle dense counties like Lancashire, Cumbria and North Yorkshire. The only way the current minister-led system will achieve anything significant is if Joe Public starts being significantly and tangibly affected by TB. Will this ever happen? Farmers have a choice between either being proactive or letting the government pile the costs onto them. This will happen anyway. In trying to achieve DEFRA spending cuts (see the Farmers Guardian article titled "Defra spending cuts - where the axe could fall" by ALISTAIR DRIVER published on 30 OCT 2015), the government is already looking at how the AHDB levy is being spent to help balance their books in the way they want. Farmers should be making it clear that a greater proportion of money supplied by them should go into building a resilient TB control system. There is total silence from the NFU regarding diverting farmer levy into TB control. Prospects for TB control will be very poor if badger culling remains a small part of the overall strategy as Nigel Gibbens insisted was the case in a special briefing to rural reporters in 2014.
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