Bovine TB is a potential apocalypse that can hit a farm with devastating consequences. These are made all the worse by the potential of having movements of livestock frozen and the ability to move milk suspended. The financial and emotional toll on the farmer, plus the impact on his current and future livestock, is immense and devastating.
It has to be understood that cattle farming, and especially dairy, are run at relatively low margins. The requirements to fund working capital, let alone the need to re-invest into the business can be high. On top of this many farmers develop a working relationship with their animals, this possibly being closest for dairy farmers that handle their animals daily. Likewise, pedigree and rare breed cattle farmers have a similarly close relationship. All competent cattle farmers care and respect their animals and have a high regard for their welfare that they often value greater than their own welfare.
All this means that a positive TB test and the subsequent destruction and disposal of an animal is so much more personal than just the financial and business consequences it has. It is with this in mind that I write the following based upon what I have seen and heard. In particular I will look at three areas of controversy: Badgers and Deer; Cattle Farmers and Traders; Government and Policy Makers. All these, in different ways have contributed to the problem.
However the reader should consider this:
“It is the duty of the public authorities commencing with the Government, to see that the public are given every opportunity to procure at reasonable cost, safe, good, milk….”
Since Lord Rothschild spoke these words in April 1946 we have seen the British dairy farmers caught in a race to the bottom on the price of milk whilst still needing to provide safe, good, milk. This means that as I write today I can buy milk at a Supermarket for less than 38p a pint whilst the local Dairy within two miles of my house sells it at a more realistic £1 per pint. We seem to have lost the difference between reasonable cost to the public and as cheap as possible. The later does little to ensure UK dairy farmers can afford to function and thus ensure the “opportunity to procure” is maintained. Equally preserving that “opportunity to procure” requires a vast stepping up of resources and will to resolve the TB issue and reduce the risk to the industry as a whole throughout the UK for the benefit of us all.
Wildlife Vectors of TB -Badgers and Deer
In 1951 The Ministry of Agriculture published a pamphlet “ Wild Mammals and the Land” and in it stated: “…..in many parts of the country it is again subject to the unjust persecution that had been its lot for centuries.” The pamphlet then admits that no more than half-a-dozen people have made prolonged studies of badgers it states, “It can be strongly reaffirmed that the assertion that the badger is an enemy of the farmer will not stand up to impartial investigation, and that on the contrary the animal is his friend.”
This conclusion is clear despite the fact that TB in badgers was found in the UK as early as 1935. In December 2022 the Ministry’s ”Bovine tuberculosis in Great Britain 2021 Explanatory supplement to annual reports” states that one of the risk factors for bovine TB is “Exposure to wildlife that are common carriers such as badgers and deer.”
Poor old Tommy Broc the Badger is left carrying the can for TB and thus has opened one of the most divisive issues in the British countryside – the culling of badgers. To stick simply to the facts: It is proven that badgers catch TB, they rarely die from it, but are able to carry the disease and pass on to other badgers. They have the ability to pass on bovine TB and the most likely means is via their urine on pasture, feed or water.
Let us be honest, we do not like to vilify badgers and find them adorable. I have been conditioned to like and trust badgers since childhood. Rupert Bear’s friend was Bill Badger; Tufty the road safety squirrel showed me how to cross the road aided by a badger policeman; I’ve read a Nick Butterworth story to my children where badger shows hedgehog somewhere to shelter. In both literature and TV Henry Williamson, Phillip Ware and Phil Drabble have all been advocates for the badger. It was a much-persecuted animal with perhaps the worst of man’s behavior towards this creature being the act of badger baiting, setting dogs upon them was made illegal as early as 1835 possibly influenced by John Clare’s poem of that era:
When midnight comes a host of dogs and men,
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole, and lie
Til the old grunting badger passes by.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him into town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray;
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with the dogs for hours and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away,
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold,
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and draws the crowd again,
Till Kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles, groans and dies.
The relevance of this is to understand how emotional responses shape public policy. John Clare was a very popular poet of his day and it is largely considered that his poem about badger baiting moved public disgust in the sport, and sympathies for the badger, so greatly that it enables one of the earliest Acts of animal welfare to be passed outlawing it. This has direct relevance to any argument today, for instead of poetry reaching people’s hearts and sensibilities we have social media. This means that any solution supporting a cull of badgers is unpopular and unacceptable to a vast majority who have no direct involvement in the losses and effects caused by bovine TB.
Most farmers that I have spoken to that have badgers on their land enjoy seeing them and do not wish to have them culled. Indeed, in my experience, there is an anecdotal consensus that if badgers are left undisturbed they tend not to mix, stay in certain localities and thus reduce the risk of transmission. I will describe this later under “Cattle Farmers and Traders”. However, it does need to be considered that during my lifetime the badger has recovered well in numbers and is seen in geographical areas and rural habitats that I would not have seen them in a few decades ago. Indeed, a simple, but unfortunate, measure of their success is the increased numbers seen as road kill especially in the Eastern counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. In my youth I only saw this in Wales, the West Country or the Midlands, and even then it was uncommon to me, compared to it now being possible to see this daily.
We are in a world where people tend to argue for or against one solution largely due to the polar nature of social media – note I say “argue” when what is really needed is considered debate backed up by scientific research and reasoning. The other hazard is that considering the vastly different habitats and circumstances that farmers find themselves in with regard to the spread of bovine TB a single solution for the whole country in terms of wildlife management is unlikely to be successful, that includes inaction.
Before writing this I considered over 30 articles and papers over a period of about 80 years and I came to the following conclusion: Badgers are a vector of Bovine TB. The precise nature of transmission has been disputed, but the science points to urine on feed, pasture and water being the most likely factor. Keeping badgers separate from cattle is a good idea. Studies of the problem and solutions have been somewhat spasmodic, regionalized and in the last two decades caught up in emotive disputes, especially culling.
BUT – the focus on badgers is so great that in my informed opinion we have missed a larger hazard that has been just as successful in its numbers and spread throughout the country – deer.
I first came across the idea of deer being a vector for bovine TB in 2008 when I was talking to a mixed arable and livestock farmer in Lincolnshire. His son was training to become a vet. The area that he farmed had seen massive increases in deer population to such an extent that some farmers were starting to put deer fences around arable fields where it was practical to do so. His son had returned from Veterinary College advising his father to consider deer as vectors of bovine TB and to avoid sourcing silage from areas grazed by deer and even consider deer-fencing grazing areas. Now the practicalities of this were limiting, but his concern was convincing and re-enforced the following year with a discussion with another vet and dairy farmer in Lincolnshire.
In 2012 I was visiting a small dairy farmer and agreed to help him and the vet help turn an ill cow – not an easy process and quite an unexpected activity for a Bank manager to participate in! After our attempts to help this cow, which later died, I got to talking to the farmer and the vet about bovine TB. The vet was South African and had practiced in many parts of the world. His words I wrote in my notes at the time, “The problem is you have all become so obsessed with badgers spreading TB that you have over-looked the real culprits – deer.” He then went on to explain that badgers, provided they don’t become locally over-populated, tend to have a limited range whereas deer wander all over. He said it was generally accepted in the African continent and America that deer were a vector of TB. However, deer , like badgers could live with the disease with little obvious effect and autopsies required experience to spot the disease. Certainly, in the USA the white-tailed deer is known to be a primary vector of bovine TB. In the UK I have found very little studies on this subject although this is acknowledged in both government websites and the TB advisory service, but the focus remains on badgers as the primary vector.
At the Dairy and Livestock in 2010 I found myself talking about this to a vet who had been a ministry advisor and asked him why the deer as a vector of TB had not been made a larger issue. He put his finger to his lip and said, “Shhhh! The politicians have got badgers around their necks without blaming Bambi.” He then took me to one side and explained that it had been identified as a significant issue from the early1980’s but the furore from all sorts of people from “landed estates to the bunny huggers” had made it a hot potato that they were not prepared to address especially as the risk of transmission from a deer carcass to a human was relatively low.
Looking at the reaction of the Deer Society comments from 1989 in response to an outbreak of TB in farmed deer herds in southern Scotland with badgers and cattle blamed for potential spread to deer! “To our knowledge, during this decade evidence of infection with bovine tuberculosis has been found in only seven wild deer in Britain, despite official examination of many animals culled in the areas where deer were believed to be at high risk from infected cattle and badgers. In these isolated cases further examination of many carcasses has revealed no evidence that the infected animals had spread the disease to other deer. Nevertheless we feel strongly that this TB outbreak among farmed deer should be taken seriously and we do not underestimate the threat to deer farmers and their stock. The major problem is that no test exists which can identify the disease reliably in live deer. Without a reliable test, scientific control of the disease officially or voluntarily by deer farmers themselves is nearly impossible. We would therefore expect Government, as a first priority, to allocate immediate financial support to necessary research to develop such a test.”[i]
December 1988 saw TV’s Phil Drabble wade into the discussion, regarding deer being a vector. It has to be understood that in the late 1980’s deer farming had boomed often being undertaken by people with no experience in managing deer, or worse still by people with little or no experience in farming. In the Fens of South Lincolnshire there even appeared deer farms in various sites often unsuitable in size, location or type for red deer. Some of this was fueled by those that had made themselves rich in the City buying a country pile and sticking deer in it with the view that they would be easy to maintain. This demand was met in some areas by imports of deer from the Continent and allegedly infected deer got past Ministry vets. Looking at the overpopulation of Red Deer in some areas of Scotland today to allow imports of live deer appears madness. Of the farmed deer many escaped and some were even deliberately released. But, as ever, when deer were being identified as a potential vector for TB there was inadequate science in the debate and too much emotion.
In many sectors the discussions around dealing with the Bovine TB matter descended into deer vs. badger vs. cattle – and thus around and round the merry-go-round the issue travelled with no progress. My impression is that in 2023 the merry-go-round is still travelling as fast, if not faster as cattle are increasing vilified by the “green” agenda despite many land managers and conservationists using them as a key component in nature conservation.
The simple fact is that in the UK the balance between keeping cattle in the environment alongside wild animals that are a vector of disease is a delicate one and whatever is decided in one environment within the UK is not necessarily appropriate to another. For UK cattle and dairy to thrive and to be used in traditional grazing regimes a degree of appropriate separation from wildlife must be recognized in the absence of a policy of TB inoculation of cattle. Equally such separation may require concessions from farmers. In my experience, most farmers do what is reasonable for both their farm business and the environment in an ever-delicate balancing act. As such in most cases I trust local farmers and land managers to make appropriate local decisions on a small scale and, provided it was overseen by an appropriate authority, consider culling of badgers, deer or any other animal an entirely pragmatic solution.
However, this is not the only solution.
Farmers and Cattle Traders responsibility in the Spreading of TB
The farmer should be under no illusion about how he and his livestock are under-rated in value. In terms of compensation for a TB positive animal the maximum compensation a farmer might get for a pedigree bull is £6500, a pedigree cow £2500 and most payments of compensation are below £1000 per animal. In the UK a pedigree cow can bring in income in excess of £40,000 during its life time, although less than 10% of that is likely to be gross profit (with net profits marginal). Contrast this with the unlimited fine for killing a badger and a £5000 fine for disturbing a badger’s sett. The farmer can be under no illusion which is valued more.
Of course, such a comparison of worth is unhelpful, but it is important that a degree of empathy towards the farmer and his position is given especially in the current environment where so many fools and idiots seem to be declaring ruminants as public enemy number one in the destruction of the environment and the farmers caring for them as akin to Satan. The simple fact is that too often we see the cuddly badger set against the evil cow and all logic about farming, business, meat and dairy supply, and countryside management fly out of the window in favour of a rural idyll and a plant-eating Utopia. Such views, fueled by a social media that loves binary arguments do not bode well for the farmer whose health, sanity, welfare, living and home are in jeopardy.
I have previously stated I trust most farmers, but note not all. I have helped voluntarily in three TB education programs and that combined with what I have seen first-hand convinces me that too many farmers and cattle traders do not take TB risk seriously enough, or worse still, do not care.
In my experience the farmers that are most diligent in managing TB risk are mostly dairy farmers and those with long established herds, often rare breed.
Farmers can act in three areas to try and reduce the risk of TB:
Separation of wildlife from livestock where appropriate and practical;
Use records to assess the risk of livestock being exposed to TB before allowing access to your own farm and livestock alongside maintenance of their own records;
Calling out and challenging bad practices.
Perhaps the worst examples I have seen have been talking to farmers at a national show in 2010 where an Oxfordshire farmer was bragging that he made more money out of TB compensation than he did out of his livestock – I strongly suspect this was untrue, but sadly idiocy does not exclude a farmer from keeping livestock. What I found disappointing was that despite this being said openly as such an event he was not challenged.
I have had three different cattle traders explain their business of accumulating cattle at different farms, usually close to arterial roads like the A1 or M1 but not recording the movement on and off those sites as “…some buyers don’t like to see too many movements on the passport.”
Similarly I have visited supposed cattle farms that claim to have bullocks on their accounts, but when asked about the animals on site am told they belong to three different farmers! Indeed the ear tags showed origins from several regions meanwhile his own livestock appear to be ghosts.
One farmer grazed cattle on a nature reserve, when I asked him where the ear tags where he told me they had fallen off! Another farm off the beaten track had no financial accounts so I asked to see the online cattle register – it bore no relation to the cattle they held.
That this can happen is possibly a consequence of under-resourced trading standards, rural locations and an “air of intimidation” may also aid avoidance of scrutiny. Sometimes the wrong person is doing the job. One officer admitted to me he did not like the job and avoided going near livestock by taking the farmer at their word. Similarly the veterinary inspections can be prone to a certain awkwardness.
When talking to farmers about monitoring the source of cattle using https://tbhub.co.uk/ I had positive responses from the majority, but had some terrible responses from some who viewed their getting TB as inevitable, or worse still did not care. The simple fact is that if you source cattle from farms or areas that have had high incidents of positive reactors or culling you increase your chances of becoming a victim yourself. The sad factor behind this is that it risks people and their livelihoods being blighted. The most annoying response is the blasé, “It’s not a problem.”
Those that tend to view TB with complacency also tend to be the most vociferous in stating that reactor tests do not work and regard it as a veterinary con. The statistics are conclusive in that 99.97% of positive reactor skin tests show a result that is accurate. However, statistically one in five TB positive animals will show no sensitivity. This does rely on the test being performed accurately. This too is disputed, usually by the complacent farmer, but also by some more diligent ones.
Keeping wildlife away from livestock is a challenge but is made all the more important, and difficult when you realize the TB bacteria can survive 60 days in water, three months in soil and six months in slurry. This means you need to understand where the wildlife is and the source of slurry, with a mind to where you use it and what access livestock have to that site. Equally consider where feed, hay and silage are sourced.
Working with other organizations such as wildlife trusts or the use of such services as the TB badger survey can help you understand this and plan land use appropriately.
The farmer can do practical things such as fencing to prevent wildlife access to certain areas. Feed troughs can be designed to deny badger access. Water troughs and salt licks can be elevated to at least one meter to be out of reach of a badger. Also passive actions to discourage deer and badgers such as human hair and urine may encourage separation from your livestock.
It is with considerable despair that I visited a dairy farmer with award winning valuable cows and a wall full of rosettes that attested their success to have them state they enjoyed watching the badgers feed with the cows at night on their CCTV. When I asked them about this they stated that they knew their badgers. Now I do believe local knowledge should be relied upon, but it would not be a risk I would be comfortable with in view of the high value of the livestock concerned.
I have to state that in each of the three “TB education” campaigns I have been involved with I was always treated well, or at worst with indifference by those farmers I communicated with. However, I have seen very nasty reactions towards vets and other farmers involved in such activity with them being treated as some sort of scammers.
This touches on one other significant area – that is vets. There is a nationwide shortage of vets and the fault for this lies firmly with successive governments, however, the viability of providing farm veterinary services has been undermined by a reluctance of farmers to pay promptly or in full. Repeatedly in the last thirty years I have seen this as the reason for practices moving away from farm animal services.
Government and its policy makers – have continually failed to effectively deal with the TB issue often just kicking the ball down the road from one study to the next. As a result if this we see the disease endemic in much of the countryside. Indeed there is a pecking order to the problem. Human death, cuddly wildlife death, cow death. These are the order of priority as dictated by voter popularity. The bill for not dealing with this issue proficiently is currently about £100million a year picked up by the tax payer. According to WHO figures the cost of developing a vaccine is between 50 million US$ and 700 million US$ depending upon the resources needed and an element of luck in developing an effective vaccine. Now considering this is a problem that has run for decades and our recent experience in the past few years with Covid vaccine, I would consider it either a profound lack of will or just downright negligence that prevents government funding and finding a solution. But I have to concede it is not easy.
Since 1987 I can see various government statements given that a vaccine for cattle is being developed in press articles and speeches. There have been trials with culling badgers and giving badgers vaccine. There are press articles from both 2001 and 2012 stating that a vaccine for cattle will be developed with ten years. There is little wonder that badger campaigner and Queen guitarist declared that vaccination of cattle was a viable solution prompting the following statement from DEFRA in October 2012:
“Myth bust: vaccinating cattle against bovine TB.
The myth: In an article in the Mail on Sunday 21st October Brian May claims that the UK can already vaccinate cattle against TB if it wants to.
The truth: Cattle vaccination is not currently permitted in the UK. If cattle were vaccinated using a vaccine that is not licensed by the EU, Britain would no longer be able to export beef or dairy products at an estimated cost to the industry of £2.2billion.
Before a vaccine can be used , we must be able to demonstrate we have a test which can tell the difference between an animal that is infected with TB or one that has been vaccinated. We’re working on this test (known as the DIVA test) as quickly as possible but it is still some way off being ready to use.”
As it stands today in June 2023 it appears that there are currently trials of both vaccination of cattle and an effective DIVA test and it is hoped to be able to be introduced in 2025 – but we will see. I have the firm view that this might have been sooner with the correct political will and desire.
Even putting the vaccine solution to one side there is a clear problem with bovine TB management and policing of the regulations. This is clear in some of the frustrations felt by farmers and a lack of confidence many have in the tests and measures. The whole issue has been a political football with the courting of political popularity a too significant factor, or rather an avoidance of unpopularity in what should be a cross-party issue that rises above political differences.
One of the key problems dealing with animal health and TB is the lack of investment in the veterinary profession resulting in chronic vet shortages across the food industry. Add to this the large Veterinary groups that buy up practices, strip out the large animal parts of the business to retain the highly lucrative pet market that can be run easily with high returns on capital invested. Rather than invest in the Veterinary profession to make it adequate for the nations needs and the security of the livestock industries we have relied almost totally on imported expertise to service this need. This is almost a British disease that repeatedly throughout all areas of farming, animal husbandry and food processing in the last fifty years we have reduced and then failed to invest in people within the UK. This may have been cheap, but cheap solutions are seldom durable ones. Even as Brexit approached, and despite its delay, we continued to follow this route with global shortage now adding to this problem post Covid. This lack of vets threatens food security and public health.
It has to be considered (and as a Unionist it pains me to say this) but Scotland may be an example of “small is beautiful” in that they have not had the same decline in vets as the rest of the country. Mind you, they do punch above their weight as a ration to the population and they enjoy being home to two of Britain’s eleven veterinary schools. According to the Scottish Government website Scotland has been deemed bovine TB free since 2009.
Another country to look to is Germany where there has been massive corporate investment in veterinary services and medicine with 2017 to 2022 seeing a growth in the number of vets by 2.4 % (despite Covid) and a similar increase in veterinary profits as a sector. The ironic factor is that when you chase the money of some of the large UK veterinary groups you can see some of these ultimately owned or financed by these same German Companies. This ties in with a German structuring of all its industries that many do not realize and has its conception in 1930’s Germany and its realization as Germany unified. To lift the standard of the current unified Germany there was massive investment in training and upskilling in all German owned business, at the same time they aggressively procured factories, businesses and sectors throughout the expanding Eurozone. The higher paid training and resultant jobs are centered on Germany the lower paid ones go out to the rest of Europe, especially, but not exclusively, eastward. This developed an increasing reliance on the labours of German origin. Veterinary medicine, farming and drugs are part of this process and we failed to protect our interests. [i] Within the EEC the only way we could have protected our interests would have been to invest in veterinary training – we failed, Germany didn’t. Is it any surprise to therefore see Germany considered bovine TB free since 1997? [ii]
So we have seen government fail by:
Not procuring a workable vaccine in a shortened time scale (surely Covid proved this possible?)
Avoidance of the issue by not considering all wildlife, especially deer.
Inadequate funding of the animal health monitoring system to enable the removal of bad operators.
Not making enough unpopular local decisions where required whether it be cattle free zones or wild life culls.
Woefully inadequate investment in the veterinary profession to the point of permitting its decline.
Overall government has consistently become hung up in trying to please those that love badgers, livestock farmers and every “single issue” lobby going rather than just getting on with the problem and resolving it.
That the responsibility lies with many but ultimately with government is summed up by Lord Rothschild’s words that I make no apology for repeating:
“It is the duty of the public authorities commencing with the Government, to see that the public are given every opportunity to procure at reasonable cost, safe, good, milk….”
Does any fool seriously think that a country the size of the UK will be able to fall back on imports to fulfill this?
[i] To further understand this I recommend the reader looks up the Japanese economist Noriko Hama. Farmers will see this in the dominance of German machinery, chemicals, seed and drugs that the industry relies upon. [ii] The Freidrich Loeffler Institute