Next step is to move to badger vaccination once it is proven

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WHEN we left for France a week ago, the weather was good at home and the combines were rolling. Most of the oilseed was in, a fair percentage of barley, and they had just started on the wheat, although in some areas the wheat was not quite there, and not thrashing as well as it might.

Travelling down through France, harvest was in full flow down through Normandy, and unlike England these days, fields were peppered with bales of straw; thousands of them, as far as the eye could see.

The French still bale their straw, rather than chop it and plough or incorporate it into the soil.

As we got to the Loire, harvest was almost done with many of the straw bales carted in, or in the process of doing so.

A few hundred miles south and here in the Dordogne, only the sunflowers and maize stand in the fields.

The cereals are all done, straw carted and most of the stubble worked down, in preparation for autumn drilling.

The sunflowers are over this year, all hanging their dark, seed laden heads, which is rather ugly to look at compared to the happy and bright look one normally associates with sunflowers.

There will be a break for the farmers in this area, until the sunflowers are ready, and then the maize, thousands of acres of it, will be fit for harvest.

The equipment around here is now very similar to the UK, very few small farmers with small rather ancient bits of kit, struggling along.

These days, the farms are either bigger, working together as co-operatives pooling bigger kit, or using contractors.

The tractors are in the main modern and large, but despite air-conditioning and other modern inventions, the practice of working very early in the morning, and late at night, with a sizeable break during the afternoon continues. The kit might change, the cropping might change, but tradition stays firm.

The last four or five weeks of weather in France have been very mixed, and the roadsides are green, where generally in August they are crisp and brown.

Nevertheless irrigators are still to be seen in the maize fields, as the plants are now putting the finishing touches to the grain.

This column has often referred to the widespread irrigation practices in the Dordogne area, and the concern over falling levels in the rivers.

Further investigation is needed in order to establish current thinking locally, and the power of environmental groups whose influence is certainly growing in France.

Indeed, I was taken aback whilst speaking in Lyons last year, how unpopular French farmers are over issues such as crop pesticide spraying.

The lobby to control and curtail activities in this area is certainly very strong, and is gathering momentum. More locally here in the Dordogne, there is unease about the sheer scale of maize cropping, with some referring to the mono-culture aspect of modern day farming.

Over the years, I have noticed however, that sunflowers are gaining in acreage, with more grown each year.

Environmental groups don’t always get it right, and I notice how much dirtier properties get in France, where cheaper diesel as a deliberate policy has now meant that petrol cars are almost a novelty.

Focusing on C02, has meant that the case was made for diesel power being so much better for the environment than petrol, but there are other things such as nitrous oxide that come out of the exhaust - in this case particulates, those oily, sooty deposits, which show very clearly on paintwork in towns.

One of the pleasures of holidays is to have time to read books and articles of choice, rather than endless NFU policy documents, government papers and every day ‘essential’ reading.

However, I have brought a few things that are connected to work, and I was interested to study the Irish work on bovine TB.

I was particularly interested to see the effect of badger control and the trend in bTB numbers in Ireland. It was in the 1960s that the Irish Minister of agriculture declared the country ‘TB free’; as in the UK, that was a might premature, but understandable, given that the numbers were so low.

Badger control started back in 1989 with the ‘East Offaly Badger research programme’; this was subsequently rolled out into counties Donegal, Cork, Monaghan and Kilkenny from 1997.

The post-mortem tests showed significant levels of TB in all badgers culled, which meant that the badger population suffered high numbers of diseased animals.

The badger population in Ireland is around 100,000 (compared to UK 600,000 in a similar land area), and around 6,000 are captured annually, which show infection rates today from 35 per cent to 50 per cent in the badly infected areas.

However, ten years on, disease levels, generally, are significantly lower than they were. In the last decade, the number of cattle reactors have halved, and the level of bTB incidences are now at the same rate as the mid-sixties; whilst the national herd has increased by 50 per cent from 4 million cattle then to 6 million today. In 2000, there were 40,000 reactors, and last year it had fallen to 20,211, with predictions for this year being 18,000, which maintains a steady year on year decrease. The fall in cases has been most dramatic (as one would expect) in the ‘hot-spot’ areas, with the four counties involved in the initial project down to below national average in terms of reactors per thousand tests. County Donegal and Monaghan for example have fallen from 2.86 and 4.28 reactors per thousand tests, to 1.71 and 2.6 respectively today.

The next stage is to move to badger vaccination as soon as its effectiveness has been proven, with a trial underway in Kilkenny which is expected to be completed this year, with the interim results described as ‘encouraging’. This will mean significant increase in costs, but is seen as the natural progression to eliminating the disease.

I think there are some really interesting lessons for us in the UK from the Irish experience; not least the long term nature of the battle to eradicate the scourge that is bTB. The dramatic drop in reactors and new incidences are extremely encouraging, especially in the hot-spot areas, where the current situation in the UK is out of control. However, as time goes on and the disease is brought under control, I can see that it will have a very long tail, and maintaining total commitment, and determination after many years of work, which will involve vaccination, will be crucial in order to seek eradication which has to be the end goal, benefitting taxpayer, farmer, cows and wildlife.