In 2016, there were 4,499 recorded new outbreaks of Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) throughout Britain, 9.8 million cattle were tested for the disease and in the same year, 29,228 cows were slaughtered, despite tests on some being inconclusive.
In a bid to control the disease the government has spent in excess of £500 million over the past ten years, yet we seem to be no closer to a solution. With research varying on each side of the debate, there are still a multitude of questions to be answered.
Is a mass badger cull the answer?
As an organisation we represent people from many different rural walks of life; farmers, naturalists, wildlife experts and scientists. However, without further scientific evidence and local knowledge, we cannot currently say that culling is the most effective solution.
As a landowner, with tenanted properties across the country, we are fully aware of the implications of farms being put under a bTB restriction. This experience can be financially, as well as emotionally catastrophic for a farmer in an already difficult industry. This is why we would like to see more research carried out surrounding the implications of modern farming systems and their role in the bTB crisis (one area worthy of further research would appear to be the claimed link between the increased growing and feeding of maize to dairy cattle and their being more prone to disease challenge, such as bTB; and indeed intensive farming practices in general, with the emphasis placed on productivity per animal, rather than breeding for resilience) as well as vaccination programmes and their efficacy. Vaccination will only be effective for those badgers which have not already been infected. If we can identify those which are infected in a cost effective way, then a humane method of culling would potentially be a solution rather than relying on mass cull zones, which scientists have shown can exacerbate disease spread via the “perturbation effect”. (http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/274/1626/2769.short)
We are currently in consultation with all of our tenant farmers on the subject.
Does the CRT cull badgers on any of our properties?
The Countryside Restoration Trust does not have a badger control programme across any of its farms. Our tenant farmers have the responsibility to comply with all industry standards and regulations, including the guidelines provided by DEFRA and Natural England surrounding the control of disease, which includes promoting good biosecurity and cattle management practices. CRT tenant farmers are also required to adhere to DEFRA’s policy of Protecting our Water, Soil and Air: A Code of Good Agricultural Practice for farmers, growers and land managers.
Monitoring impacts on wildlife; what’s happening on CRT farms?
Badgers are classified as middle-order predators, or mesocarnivores; others in this order include Fox, Otter, Stoat, Polecat, American Mink and Pine Marten. Some of these species are protected by law, whilst others are identified as ‘vermin’ and can be lethally controlled by certain approved legal methods. The absence of larger carnivores has allowed this group of mesocarnivores to increase, which has had a negative impact on many smaller species.
Dr Vince Lea, the CRT’s Head of Wildlife Monitoring says:
“Despite the presence of foxes, crows and badgers on The Countryside Restoration Trust farms, numbers of many species of declining wildlife have increased, as a result of improved habitat. If food supplies and safe cover are available, ground nesting birds like Grey Partridges and Skylarks can increase in the presence of Badgers, Foxes and Crows. This has not yet been sufficient for Hedgehogs to increase, but other examples of more extreme habitat restoration have shown this to be a possibility. If the predators can find sufficient easy prey they do not seek out the rarer or harder items. If the prey species can find sufficient food quickly and then retreat to safe locations, they can avoid being eaten. A bigger problem in the countryside is the lack of suitable food such as insects and worms. A badger will happily fill up on earthworms if there are plenty of them, each one being an easy morsel of protein. Studies of nest predation have shown increases in badger predation when conditions have been cold, dry and unsuitable for earthworms; wet mild nights meant the badgers filled up on worms and did not spend time looking for nests (Tony Davis [pers comm] – Wood Warblers). It would be beneficial if the current Badger cull zone was properly studied for the impact it has on other wildlife as well as bTB; and for Defra to publish this data before extending it.”
The CRT actively opposes the trend towards intensified farming systems. Could such systems play a part in the spread of bTB?
TB mycobacterium is prevalent throughout the environment, ready to infect vulnerable, susceptible species with weakened immune systems. The huge growth in the cropping of maize as cattle feed (maize silage) and game cover is of concern. Maize is known to be low in key nutrients/trace elements such as selenium, iodine, magnesium and Vitamin E. Often farmers provide Maize-fed cattle with additional minerals to supplement what has been referred to as a diet of ‘cotton wool’. Badgers are opportunistic foragers and will gorge on maize to the exclusion of all else, leaving them also deficient in the aforementioned key nutrients. Unlike dairy cattle, badgers generally aren’t given supplementary minerals to compensate for nutrient deficiencies and are therefore in poorer health and susceptible to disease through exposure. Maize started being grown in the South West in the early 1980s & spread up through the country. The first of the new outbreaks of bTB since the 70s eradication programmes occurred in 1985.
In 2011, farmer Dick Roper came to the forefront of the Maize/bTB debate when he shared that he noticed the cattle on his farm which contracted bTB were maize-fed, on ending that feeding regime he was able to clear bTB infections in his livestock. Knowing that badgers gorged on maize cobs where available (as they were on surrounding land) he decided to provide the badgers on his farm with additional supplements as well as his cattle, to ensure they were as healthy as possible and so reduce their susceptibility to bTB and so passing it onto his cattle. This ‘farmer’s experiment’ was supported and overseen by his vet.
“Everything I read pointed to the trace element selenium being the solution so I decided to make cakes of molasses with the highest dose of selenium permitted. I got Ministry permission and started leaving my cakes outside the setts in the woods. This has worked for nearly a decade in a TB hot spot but I can’t understand why Defra [Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has not done more research into my theory…I don’t believe badgers have to be shot.” (http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/262162/I-give-my-badgers-vitamins-to-stop-TB)
This is an interesting route, pioneered by a practical, commercial farmer that the CRT believes merits more investigation and we would welcome further research. We are not aware of Defra or any other official body following up Dick Roper’s potentially positive alternative approach with any serious research effort.