Badgers and TB:farm frustration

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Trying NOT to bang on again about the weather, George Hosford presents a candid look at the farming community’s battle with TB instead

TB testing at Traveller’s Rest Farm: ‘However calmly we handle them for the rest of the year, the animals know when it’s testing day, they can smell the vet a mile off’
All images: George Hosford

There was an article somewhere recently which blew a big hole in the argument that we Brits are boring because we spend all our time discussing the weather. The discussion of the weather is apparently the very thing that binds us together: it never fails to engender a response whether you share the pleasure of a sunny day, or commiserate about endless gloom. The weather not only affects what you are going to wear, it can dictate the entire shape of the day ahead – especially if you are a farmer – and it is also likely to affect what you will eat. So let’s celebrate it, while I dribble out a few weather stats. This may well feel like the wettest winter in many years, but in fact it is only the third wettest in the last 12 years. Both 2013-14 and 2019-20 were wetter from October to February. That said, the rainfall we have endured in that five month period represents 75 per cent of the 39-year annual average total (1,100 mm). Does that mean we are finally heading for a dry period?

In Dorset, new outbreaks of TB in herds have reduced by more than 50 per cent since the beginning of the campaign to control badger numbers in 2016

The stress test
Last month saw the dreaded annual TB test, which cattle and humans dread in equal measure. On Monday our vet arrived to find all the cattle arranged and waiting for him. He has to trim off some hair, measure the thickness of the skin, and then inject two vaccines into the skin of the neck of the animal. He then returns after three days to ‘read the lumps’.
We have managed to get our herd onto a health pathway that entitles us to annual TB testing, rather than the previous six monthly, unless you are shut down. The outcome of our latest test was that a single animal tested as an Inconclusive Reactor (IR) – which is almost worse than a full reactor.
A full reactor will be taken for destruction by DEFRA, and compensation will be paid, whereas an IR can either be destroyed with no compensation, or kept for a second test at 60 days. If it fails again, it is regarded as a reactor and the whole herd will have to pass two further clear tests at 60 day intervals. If it passes, it can return into the herd and be declared clear. However, its presence will prevent the herd’s return to higher health status and therefore will be denied annual testing, instead having to undergo six-monthly testing, which all points towards the animal taking a short journey to heaven as the least worst option.
The stress of TB testing on man and animal is immense. However well we set up the handling system to gently encourage the animals into the crush, and however calmly we handle them for the rest of the year, the animals know when it’s testing day, they can smell the vet a mile off and know that he or she is going to stick needles into them – and they sting.
Why we are still having to undergo this archaic and inhumane system to manage a disease is quite bewildering. How did we manage to design and build the covid vaccine and stick it in the whole human population in no time at all … and yet still be told that a TB vaccine for cattle is five years away?
A huge amount of effort has gone into reducing the reservoir of TB in wildlife – in Dorset in particular, new outbreaks of TB in herds have reduced by well over 50 per cent since the beginning of the campaign to control badger numbers in 2016. That’s a huge improvement, but the cull is being drawn to a close, with small trials being undertaken to evaluate the effectiveness of vaccinating badgers – it’s hard to see that having a significant benefit, and it will certainly be wildly poor value for money.

It had to be 9am on a Monday morning, on the main A357 at Durweston lights. Someone had left a gate open. The traffic was backed to the village before we caught up with them. Luckily a couple of kind farmer types had blocked the road and turned them back: being tame and partial to toast (which I was carrying), they were soon in safer pastures

Not just badgers
The problem can’t all be laid at the badger’s door however. There is clearly still a reservoir of disease in the cattle population – the testing regime doesn’t seem to be able to root out all animals carrying the disease. And so there they remain, slowly drip feeding it back into their fellow cows. To be honest, until there is an effective bovine vaccine, the near future lies largely in farmers’ hands.
The chances of avoiding TB will only be able to improve if farmers practise the following:
Operate closed herds (no imports of live cattle from other farms anywhere)
Co-operate with APHA (Animal and Plant Health Agency) to use all tests available to clear out the disease from herds
Reduce to zero the opportunities for cattle to interact with wildlife. This is hugely difficult, especially when grazing outdoors.
Keep a close eye on numbers and activity of wildlife
Consider giving up cattle farming
This is an admittedly brutal personal view, with huge implications for many farmers’ business models. But without all of the above, in the absence of an effective vaccine we are simply destined to keep going around and around again.

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