The average cost of an outbreak of bovine TB on a farm is £34,000

The colours are lovely as the quite miserable weather generally with the odd day of sunshine has seen the clay gradually soften at Crouchlands and we have now housed the in-calf heifers following an escape into the woods which was the last straw.

They had been misbehaving, and much too fussy about their pasture, walking around and not settling, even when moved to a fresh field. I have replaced them with some younger animals from Tillington, and we will see how they get on with grazing the fields, where there is plenty of grass providing they eat it and not trample around on it.

All the cows are on full winter ration which now includes maize silage, and the milk is going up slowly; long may that continue.

I have just bought a new Aberdeen Angus bull. Due to our vaccination programme and higher health status, I was advised by my vet to buy a bull from a high health status farm, and that is what I have done (despite the cost!).

We take health and disease seriously these days, and our herd is now closed, with no animals bought in. We certainly saw new problems emerge in the days when we used to buy heifers from other farms and from abroad due to the shortage of dairy heifers in the UK. Getting rid of these problems takes a very long time and considerable expense, and we are now very careful not to bring any animal on to the farm which could compromise our health status.

Animal health and welfare are very much in the arena of debate, and the pressure is certainly on the industry to improve both. Although they are two different topics, there is overlap where disease can compromise welfare in some instances. There is also great pressure on the use of medicines in agriculture, and much talk of anti-biotic resistance caused by farming practices; little evidence of this, but in order to protect ourselves we do need to be extra careful. We also need to point out that farmers very rarely, if ever, pressure vets to prescribe, taking advice and following the instructions is the norm. Pet owners apply far more pressure (understandably) on vets and money is not the same barrier very often when a family member (as most pets are these days) is in need of treatment. Anti-biotic use in human is a different matter altogether, where pressure on doctors, failure to follow prescription instruction and so on is legendary. This is beginning to emerge and is a huge issue which will inevitably need to be tackled.

More than half the human diseases in existence have animal co-hosts, and 75 per cent of all disease originated in animals; it is little wonder therefore that there is so much interest in this subject, as population of both animals and human are increasing rapidly across the globe.

It is also true that the sapping endemic disease in livestock has a much bigger effect on food production than the headline diseases which break out in countries from time to time. Farmers are on the front line of disease surveillance, and are often the ‘owners’ of disease, and the responsibility to treat the affected animal lies with them, but when it comes to the worldwide problems, the biggest being ‘Campylobacter’; who owns it? International surveillance is far from perfect, African surveillance for ‘bird-flu’ for example; I am reliably informed is a complete waste of time and money.

When it comes to vaccines, it is not clear always who should pay, but it is generally agreed amongst experts that regulatory burden is now driving us backwards in many cases, and governments across the world are under financial pressure, pulling back from financing these areas. Foot and Mouth disease vaccine is the biggest seller in the world, and other diseases such as Rabies fall into the same category of ‘public good’ and are paid for out of tax-payers money. One thing is clear, regulators and academics must work more closely with industry in order to maintain a common sense approach (especially in terms of finance) and a feet firmly on the ground approach to these problems.

This leads me again to Bovine TB. At the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham last week, the new Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson gave his unwavering support to the badger cull trials taking place, adding that his conviction has been reinforced by visits to other countries where the disease had been addressed in wildlife.

Prime Minister David Cameron also gave his backing to the policy which is dominating the rural agenda; commenting that he was convinced that it was the right thing to do and was about ensuring healthy badgers and healthy cows.

Meanwhile a minority are doing their damnest to intimidate and bully farmers in the cull areas, twisting facts and mis-representing the science in subtle ways which makes them seem plausible to the general public who are in the main very supportive in getting this terrible disease under control.

When Bovine TB has cost £500 million in the last 10 years and is set to cost the taxpayer £1 billion in the next decade if nothing is done, it is clearly in everyone’s interest to tackle this disease from all angles.

The wildlife reservoir which re-infects cattle, and causes new outbreaks on farms where no cattle have been introduced from outside for decades, demonstrates the part played by infected badgers, and we will see as the culling takes place, a reduction over time in bTB outbreaks.

The average cost of a bTB breakdown on farm is £34,000, with the government paying £22,000 and the farmer picking up the remaining £12,000; some farms have had several breakdowns despite measures to protect themselves and simply cannot go on. 23.6 per cent of cattle farms in the South West were under cattle movement restrictions in 2011 (Defra figures).

The badger population was surveyed in the 1980s and again in the 1990s; the badger population increased by 77 per cent in that time, despite 50,000 being killed on the roads each year. What is the number of badgers on this small island today? 300,000 was the estimate over ten years ago, and it is likely that it is nearer 500,000 today if numbers have continued to increase in the way we believe they have. Not exactly a rare animal! In fact the badger has never been threatened; as a top predator it has no enemies other than traffic, and the badger protection act was passed to outlaw ‘badger-baiting’, an abhorrent practice, but an illegal activity which carries on today regardless of the law.

Given that we are talking of culling 1,500 badgers over 4 years, and that Defra figures estimate that between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of breakdowns are due to badgers, this cull is the start of addressing a serious problem, which is long overdue.

Defra has also spent £43.7m on vaccine research and plans to spend £15.5 million on vaccine work over the next 4 years; effective vaccination has always been at least 10 years away for the last twenty or thirty years.

Now that the pressure is on, those who have expertise in this area are stating that not only is it years away, they cannot put a timescale on it.

TB vaccination is not a viable alternative to a cull (contrary to the article in the Independent newspaper last week), and it is generally agreed that the Labour Party Vaccination policy in Wales is impractical and will do little if anything to alleviate the problems in Wales.

A cull of badgers, however unpopular with some, is the only way to start eradicating this terrible disease.

l What do YOU think? Do you agree with Gwyn?

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Gwyn Jones