2017Search | Site Info | Site Map

MENU

HOMEPAGE

Animal Health/
Welfare/Zoonoses

Environment

Land Reform

Social/
Economic/
Political

Food

Science

Fishing

Tourism

Education

Cultybraggan
Farm

Trade

Book Reviews

Light Relief

Links

Glossary

Correspondence

Vacancies

Contact Us

Get Acrobat Reader

 

 

Back to TB Homepage

The "Independent Scientific Group" advises
against badger cull as part of plan
to control TB in cattle.
A sad day for science, and for animal health
that it is supposed to protect.

James Irvine

FRSE, DSc FRCPath FRCPEd FInstBiol

Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Perthshire

Filed 20 Jun 07
©www.land-care.org.uk

The piece I watched on BBC Breakfast TV Monday 18th June, summed up what has become a very sad situation for both UK science and for UK animal health.

The topic was the control of TB in cattle: a disease that has escalated to alarming levels in major parts of England and Wales (1). The logic, clearly articulated as long ago as 1980 by Professor Lord Zuckerman (2, 3) , that it was necessary to control the disease both in cattle and in badgers, has been shelved, by the likes of Professor John Krebs, on the basis that hard scientific evidence - backed by statistical analysis and peer review - has to be gathered to prove the case. So the situation has been allowed to get much worse rather than better.

The reason for this particular item to appear on BBC Breakfast was that at long last the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) has produced its final report. It concluded that culling badgers would not be helpful, and that the disease can be controlled by measures involving cattle alone through continued testing and control of their movements up and down the country (4).

Later in the day, the Minister for the Environment and Rural Affairs, David Miliband, announced that he would not be authorising the culling of badgers in the efforts to control bovine TB in England. Understandably, the livestock farming industry in England is in dismay. Those of us in Scotland fear that uncontrolled disease in wildlife is all too likely to spread north in spite of our best efforts to prevent it.

 

Tuberculin testing intervals for 2006
according to the different parishes throughout GB

(For detailed map Click Here - large pdf file)

In the year 2006 over 2,000 herds of cattle in GB tested positive for bovine TB, and some 20,000 cattle were slaughtered in the attempt to control the spread of the disease. The costs to the taxpayer and to the industry are horrific, but something of an economic life-line to the reducing number of vets who are still interested in large animal practice. While the Government has claimed that there has been some reduction in the incidence of TB reactors recently this may have been due to change in the source of the tuberculin, the UK having run out of its own supply. The figures for 2007 indicate a worsening of the situation rather than any improvement. There can be no doubt that since a preservation order was placed on badgers, the incidence of bovine TB in England and Wales has escalated alarmingly - including during the 10 year watch of the ISG.

There can also be little doubt that lobbying by the Badger Trust was instrumental in getting this endearing looking animal its preservation order (Protection of Badgers Act 1992), although badgers are not classified as an endangered species.

This made killing badgers - except under special licence - illegal. With the endless wildlife programmes filling TV viewing in a manner that often scarcely reflects the realities of nature, it is hardly surprising that the badger lobby is well funded. After all, milk and beef come from supermarkets, don't they? Anyway, what does it matter if the UK no longer has a livestock industry: we can always buy in what we need from some other country, can't we? Anyway, we don't need farmers to look after the environment - Natural England is funded to do that, isn't it?

In practice it is not always easy to prove the self-evident
in so-called strict scientific terms.
Indeed it is not always wise to even try.

A clear example of this was seen in the mismanagement of the UK Foot and Mouth epidemic in 2001. The logical advice from those working with livestock was ignored in preference to that of scientists with no practical experience with livestock. The result was that the strategy that was adopted was based on flawed data. Epidemiological models, with their persuasive but misleading graphics so convincingly displayed by Professor Roy Anderson and his colleagues, ruled the day (5). Millions of livestock were unnecessarily slaughtered. Available science, that could have provided invaluable speed and accuracy in diagnosis, was ignored.

There are plenty of examples where government, its agencies or influential lobby groups have misused science to achieve their political aims (6, 7). It would appear that this may be happening again with regard to the control of bovint TB.

So what went wrong with the procrastinated efforts of the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) on cattle TB?

This group, under the chairmanship of Professor John Bourne of Bristol University, was set up following the Krebs report of 1997: already 17 years after Lord Zuckerman had spelt out the obvious.

The Group is described as "independent", but somebody, or some bodies, would have had to select it. The selection of any group can have an immense effect on what that group eventually decides. One has to wonder how the selection of this group came about. Were they ever likely to achieve their objective, bearing in mind the protracted nature of the disease and the habits and terrain of badgers?

Allegedly, an early mistake was to do random trials in areas that were too small. That wasted years. As time went by, the required areas for an effective cull would get bigger and bigger, and the whole project unmanageable.

My impression is that the conclusions of the ISG were not limited to the application of science, but included the man-made factor of a preservation order on badgers, and an assessment of the public mood towards badgers. In particular I would wonder whether, with the best of individual intentions, the mindset of the combined group was appropriate to try to get answers for this type of problem.

As in the case of FMD UK2001, clear lessons from well-controlled observations on individual farms were apparently ignored in the vain attempt to get statistical evidence on a bigger scale. Anyone who has done clinical research would recognise that to do so is folly. A lot can be learned from the particular as well as from the general.

Jam Rowe, Dairy Farmer
Presenting the farmers' case for the culling of badgers
in the control of bovine TB at a conference in 2006.
(Photo ©Kimpton Graphics)

An example would be the experience of dairy farmer Jan Rowe, who presented his findings at the Scottish Centre for Animal Welfare Studies (SCAWS) conference in Edinburgh in 2006, which I attended. He kindly made his PowerPoint slides available to this website (8). Just how much evidence do you need to establish that badgers are a major factor in the spread of bovine TB?

Another paper at the conference was given by Professor Neville Gregory, who described how the New Zealanders dealt with bovine TB, which in their case was transmitted by possums. New Zealand values its beef industry and has no hang-ups about possums. Their methods were radical - and I daresay not acceptable to in the UK with its rich diversity of wildlife - but very effective. They controlled the TB in both cattle and possums and got on top of the problem. In the UK tuberculous badgers over wide areas need to be eradicated, but using more selective methods.

Instead of spending so much money on the ISG trials would it not have been better to direct it towards better diagnostic techniques, such as are being applied to the major problem of trying to control TB in humans, especially immigrants to this country and to other countries in the western world? Apart from some advance with the gamma interferon test, the age old tuberculin test is still the inadequate diagnostic mainstay for detecting bovine TB.

With poor techniques for detecting tuberculosis in cattle and in badgers, coupled with the protracted nature of the disease and the lifestyle of badgers, it is hardly surprising that the committee failed to get the level of statistical proof that they wanted.

 

Professor John McInerney, a member of ISG, suggested at the conference
that we should just accept that badgers can transmit bovine TB and
stop livestock farming in hotspot areas
(Photo ©Kimpton Graphics)

Ominously at the same conference, an economist and one of the members of the ISG, Emeritus Professor John McInerney of Exeter University, spelt out the huge cost of efforts to control bTB in UK livestock to date. He even suggested that perhaps we should just accept the disease and not farm in these “hotspot” areas - a truly extraordinary thing to say, especially within the precincts of the Moredun Research Institute, where the conference was being held. But, in the event, this is may be what the ISG is advising Government, although not explicitly saying so. Professor McInerney claimed that the ISG trials have been the most detailed ever carried out in the UK. It is just a pity that they have been so fundamentally flawed.

A vet, Dick Sibley, with a large practice in hotspot Devon, tried to make the case that TB in cattle was not an animal welfare issue (excepting of course that vast numbers were slaughtered before they could show symptoms). It seemed outrageous at the time, and still does. Although not a member of the ISG, it is understood that his advice is often sought by Government and other bodies.

So where are we now?

With 27 years of procrastination, 10 of them under the watch of the ISG, there is now a truly deplorable state of animal health in much of the UK's cattle, with TB being high on the list.

The conclusion of the ISG was reported on BBC Breakfast TV with Bill Turnbull interviewing a spokesman from the Badger Trust. According to the Badger Trust the ISG report justified the Trust's claim that TB in cattle was not transmitted by badgers, but by cattle to cattle spread. Endearing pictures of badgers were shown in defence of their supposed innocence. It was the farmers' fault for moving their cattle about so much, etc.

Bill Turnbull tried his best to introduce some balance, but there was no spokesperson to present the other side of this tragic tale. May be it might have happened if my breakfast had been overly prolonged, but I was not aware of any such attempt at a balanced presentation. The Trust spokesman revelled in what "science had proven", substantiated by publication in a "peer reviewed" journal.

But peer review is no guarantee of scientific quality. As any editor of a scientific journal knows, it is all too easy to select reviewers who are likely to be highly biased one way or another. It is a further sad fact about science in the UK, and in some other countries, that the scientist's career is largely dependent upon him or her not antagonising the wishes of the main source of his funding - government agencies or rich lobby groups. It would be easy to get a peer review of an article that was in favour of badgers, rather than cattle. Anyway, what scientist, who is still in harness, is going to stick his neck out to criticise a government approved committee that has been deliberating for 10 years? He would have to live on Mars.

So who decides what is to happen?

The ISG is an advisory group, reporting to the Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs, David Miliband. But the Labour Party have a clear ante-farming agenda. They consider farming to be an uneconomic UK industry, to be used as a pawn to gain political advantage for some other agenda, resulting from the chaotic mess the Blair Government has made of its Rural Development Policy compared to that of other EU member states. Surprise, surprise: David Miliband lost no time in accepting the findings of the ISG final report, and refused to authorise a cull of tuberculous badgers.

The outlook is thoroughly depressing. A sad day indeed for both UK science, and for animal health and welfare that UK science is supposed to be safeguarding.

©www.land-care.org.uk

References

1. DEFRA Animal Health and Welfare. TB statistics
http://www.defra.gov.uk/animal/tb/stats/detailedstats.htm

2. Lord Zuckerman (1980). Badgers, Cattle and Tuberculosis. Report to the Right Honorable Peter Walker, Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London.

3. Irvine, James (2003).TB in Cattle and Badgers: Zuckerman Report (1980) Revisited
See TB Homepage, filed 10 Mar 03, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

4. Bourne et al (2007). Bovine TB: the scientific evidence. A science base for a sustainable policy to control TB in cattle. An epidemiological investigation into bovine tuberculosis. Final report of the Independent Scientific Group on cattle TB.
Click Here to View - large pdf file

5. Kitching, R.P., Thrusfield, M.V. & Taylor, N.M. (2006). Use and abuse of mathematical models: an illustration from the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic in the United Kingdom.
Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 25:293-311.

6. Irvine, James (2003). Conservation and the Misuse of Science
Hedgehogs, Bats and Badgers
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 13 Apr 03, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

7. Irvine, James (2004). Concerns about the validity of statements on the condition of SSSIs in Scotland made by members of Environment LINK
Review and comment on a case study presented by Kirsty Macleod at People TOO conference, Perth
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 17 Nov 04, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

8 . Rowe, Jan (2006). Costs and welfare issues of TB in cattle herds.
Paper presented at SCAWS conference, Edinburgh October 2006
Click here to View PowerPoint Slides - large file

9. Irvine, James (2006). Tuberculosis in cattle and badgers: disease control, ethics and welfare. Review of SCAWS workshop, Moredun Research Institute, Edinburgh 19 October 2006.
See TB Homepage, filed 20 Nov 06, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View