Long-term solution is vital to bring bovine TB under control
As the arguments fly and the countdown starts to trials of badger culling, Devon farmer Richard Haddock appeals for calm – and agreement on a long-term solution to bovine TB.
The debate over the rights and wrongs of killing badgers is likely to wipe all other farming topics off the agenda this autumn. The nearer we move to the state of the pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire, the more heated the tone is likely to become.
However, I detect the signs of a change. I sense that despite the deep-seated differences of opinion which still separate them, both the farming community and the pro-badger lobby now realise that only a comprehensive solution delivered in the long, rather than the short-term, is going to bring bovine TB under control.
The word "vaccination" has been bandied about pretty freely with a number of organisations, including the National Trust, opting for badger vaccination as a method of preventing the animals spreading TB any further.
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If only it were that simple. Even setting aside the practical challenge of trapping every single badger (and there are millions of them) and the fact that badgers already infected with the disease will be resistant to vaccination, there remains the problem that thanks to all the delays in tackling bovine TB head-on, badgers are no longer the only vector. In the wild, TB has spread to deer and wild boar just as inside the fence it is now infecting alpacas, dogs, cats and, reportedly, horses.
Vaccinating and accounting to all the wild infective animals would be an operation well beyond our ability – or the public purse.
If vaccination is to be employed it must, therefore, be on cattle. But it must be an effective one. I am told research has so far developed a vaccine that is 65 per cent effective. That needs to be increased to at least 75 per cent and preferably higher still before farmers will ever consider going to the expense of using it.
There are other issues. We shall need approval for vaccination from the European Commission and the European Parliament so we are still free to trade our cattle: we do not want to end up like the Dutch farmers did during foot-and-mouth.
So we are going to need the support of Defra to take this measure to the EU for approval.
Glibly declaring that vaccination is the only answer to the TB problem is a hopeless over-simplification of the situation and one which ignores the facts.
Then there is the time factor. We are told that a marketable, effective vaccine could be five years away. As with any estimate, whether from a scientist or a builder, it is best to take the information as a starting point rather than a definite.
So let's say five years at the earliest. The problem is British livestock farming has not got five years to wait. We are no longer talking about a disease confined to a few hotspots in the South West. It has moved far beyond that.
TB has now broken out of the region and is moving across the rest of the country on a wider and wider front. And the wider that front becomes the more challenging is the task of combating it. That's why we cannot wait five years.
Farmers have agreed to take part in vaccination trials as long as the Government will buy the stock at market value. They will have no option but to go along with any additional movement controls the Government might impose.
They realise that if and when an effective cattle vaccine is developed there will have to be a compulsory programme to use it. They are also preparing themselves for TB vaccination becoming an annual routine.
But because of the timescale we also need to carry out the trial culling to see if it makes any difference to the pattern of TB spread. If it does, then it is only right that the culling is extended so that diseased badgers are removed.
If it does not, then we may have to look at other interim measures while the vaccine is being developed.
But we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing – and those who oppose the culling have to realise that.
We are already starting to run short of beef because so many animals from suckler herds have been slaughtered: we cannot allow TB to gnaw away at the national herd for another five years.
We have to make a start now on working towards a healthy badger population and a healthy cattle population. The two can – and should – exist side by side.
Let us have an end to the squabbling, accept that the current situation is unsustainable, and agree to use every conceivable method at our disposal to achieve that goal.