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David Heath column: Why I authorised controversial badger cull pilot

By Western Gazette - South Somerset  |  Posted: September 27, 2012

David Heath

David Heath, Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Comments (4)

Bovine tuberculosis is a devastating disease.

With the remorseless spread in the infected areas over the last decade, around 25,000 cattle are slaughtered each year, at a huge cost to the taxpayer.

But the real hurt to the farmer who sees his or her herd destroyed is hugely greater than cash losses, as I have seen in the faces of those farmers who have experienced it. It’s just not acceptable to do nothing, because, far from going away, the problem is just increasing every year.

But what can be done? Well, it is a fact that there isn’t a single country which has managed to turn the tide on TB without addressing the disease in wildlife. In this country, that is the badger, and sadly, the badger population now has endemic infection, a welfare issue in itself.

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I don’t know anyone who relishes the idea of killing that most popular species the badger, despite their decidedly adverse effect on other creatures such as the hedgehog and ground nesting birds. If there was a satisfactory alternative to the small pilot culls which I have now authorised, then believe me I would have taken it, and I still would. But all the advice I have seen says that is not the case.

The easy cry of course is to use vaccination. As if we wouldn’t if it was that easy. We are spending £15.5 million on research on vaccines over the next four years. Vaccines, of course, don’t cure sick animals, but they would stop future spread.

But the vaccine we have for badgers requires each animal to be trapped and injected, and has to be done on a yearly basis. It is not practicable, and it is vastly expensive. An oral vaccine, one which could be used in bait, would be much better. But we haven’t got one yet. Nor do we have an effective vaccine for cattle where we can distinguish between an infected animal and a diseased animal, and there is not the slightest chance of lifting EU bans on the sale of meat or milk from those animals until we can demonstrate that is the case.

Others talk about the perturbation effect, that the consequences of a cull is to disperse infected badgers into new areas. That is why the pilot areas in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset have been chosen to have natural boundaries. Where there is no such boundary, vaccine will be used to provide a buffered zone.

Some talk about wiping out badgers as a species. Nonsense. In West Sussex not a single badger will be harmed, because neither the badgers nor the cattle have TB, and they co-exist perfectly happily. In each of the trial areas, the average number of badgers shot will be between 500 and 800 each year over the four years.

Will it eradicate TB? No, not on its own. But taken with other measures on cattle-to-cattle contact and biosecurity, it will result in a substantial reduction. And I think we owe it to everyone to try. If a real alternative exists, I would be delighted. At the moment, it doesn’t.

David Heath is Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome. His column can be read in the Western Gazette every Thursday.

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4 comments

  • Dartnall  |  September 24 2013, 12:05PM

    The badger cull is about as scientific as book burning, is being carried out in the dark by persons unknown, is being policed by thugs and will not solve the problem of Bovine TB. No political party was given a mandate by the people of this country to slaughter wildlife based on dodgy theories while at the same time rejecting the received opinion of the government's own scientists. I have voted LibDem all my life and Tessa Munt is my MP, but she will not get my vote again until the LibDems stand against this policy. The cull's purpose is to kill 70 percent of all badgers in a cull zone, (see DEFRA) - and this is whether they are healthy or infected. Those that remain will not be tested. It is like bobbing for apples - there is no science to this and no safety. There has been no count of how many badgers actually exist in any given cull zone and this makes even protecting the 30 percent who survive almost impossible. The cull zones will be 'rolled out across the country' as DEFRA and the NFU see fit therefore one of our indignous species is being put at risk by a speculative policy which is nothing more than a gamble. The cull is a disgrace and should be stopped - I am boycotting all dairy products until it is because dairy is now stained with the death of an indigenous protected species.

    |   3
  • twigcat  |  September 23 2013, 4:38PM

    Just realised this is an old article - oops. Ah well, still applies. Heath is still churning out the same old stuff and he is still so wrong.

    |   5
  • Swardi  |  September 23 2013, 4:26PM

    If DEFRA/David Heath are so sure that eating the flesh from cattle slaughtered after testing positive for bTB is safe for the British public, why do the EU have such a problem with it?

    |   5
  • twigcat  |  September 23 2013, 3:30PM

    I am sick of hearing the same old tripe from this man. Better biosecurity on farms, properly enforced restrictions on cattle movement and, yes, vaccination is the way forward. You have an army of volunteers who will trap and vaccinate badgers. It is not necessary to do this to every animal, every year. You build up herd immunity - that is how it works, that is what happens with vaccines for people. It is your shambles of a cull that is ''vastly expensive''. Oh, and it will NOT sort out your bTB problem either.

    |   10
  • Charlespk  |  October 05 2012, 9:19AM

    Veterinary you need to go back to school. . You obviously have no idea of the history of the control of the disease, or a proper understanding of the genus.(and frankly I don't believe you are a veterinery.) I wouldn't let you near any of my animals. DEFRA and its TB Vaccine for Badgers and Cattle. Quote:- "The vaccine is called BCG which stands for Bacille CalmetteGuérin. This strain of bovine TB bacteria was found 88 years ago and has been the main one reproduced for vaccination ever since. It is common practice to cultivate virus and bacteria for a long time for after some 10 to 20 generations they tend to lose their power to infect but still may produce specific antibodies. BCG is rather an uncommon type of vaccine. In most infections the infected body copes with production of a large amount of specific antibodies within a few days which protect against an infection becoming serious trouble and these antibodies can be traced for diagnosis. This is not so with Tuberculosis for 2 reasons: 1. TB bacteria need 12 to 18 hours to multiply ( E. Coli takes 20 minutes only). 2. TB bacteria have a waxy coat - quite unusual in microbes - to which antibodies cannot attach themselves. Therefore the body' s defence against TB has to work by making an allergic type of reaction instead of antibodies, a reaction which is made use of when humans and cattle are skin tested for TB. In the past BCG was used for millions of doses for healthy young babies and in some countries it is still administered to a certain extent. It does not prevent an infection but minimizes the risk of it turning into a serious generalised form. BCG' s efficiency was never over 80% and new scientific papers say it is dubious to rely on it. The way BCG should work in already diseased badgers (and cattle) is highly questionable, meaning it is much more likely to produce adverse reactions such as awaking existing "silent" or low scale Tuberculosis. The Merck Veterinary Manual covering all aspects of Vet Medicine worldwide comments: "The BCG vaccine, sometimes used to control TB in man, has proved to be poor at protecting most animal species, and inoculation often provokes a severe local granulomatous reaction." This is likely to be a quite hurtful process and the vaccination site itself might well end up as an abscess. As seen in trials, one cannot trap more than 60% of all badgers roaming around. Therefore if 60 out of 100 badgers are vaccinated with a vaccine which is only efficient to a maximum of 50 - 80% ( in healthy animals! ) you end up with far less than 50 badgers with a rather dubious protection. . It is well known and common practice that if you do not succeed to vaccinate up to 95% of all animals of a target species, the long term positive effects in an area are likely to be pretty close to zero. If BCG is used as planned by DEFRA there will be huge perturbation and stress for all badgers, high costs and risk that the whole project will backfire. . In the hot spots some 50 % or more of all badgers might carry the TB infection already increasing the risk of TB spreading when being vaccinated and according DEFRAs plans all badgers should get a booster vaccination every 12 months making things even worse. Who will be liable when it all goes wrong?" Dr Ueli Zellweger MRCVS GST TVL Somerset The Badger Trust and people like you; that's who!

    |   -9
  • MJones  |  October 05 2012, 8:19AM

    I'm a veterinary surgeon with a postgraduate degree in wild animal health, and I'm afraid Mr Heath is just plain wrong. The science does NOT support the assertion that culling badgers will result in a 'substantial reduction' in bovine TB as he claims. Has Mr Heath not read the report of the Independent Scientific Group that oversaw the 10-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial, the only credible source of scientific data on this issue? I would like to refer him to a summary of their findings, and the opinions of a host of other scientists and organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, at http://tinyurl.com/9c7p367 It is also disgraceful for a government minister to talk about badgers in terms of their supposed 'decidedly adverse effect' on other wildlife in the context of the proposed cull - ecological relationships are highly complex, and the impacts of massively reducing or even wiping out badgers over large areas of our countryside are at best very poorly understood. Ministers CANNOT go around part-justifying this disastrous and non-scientific policy because of the impacts it might or might not have on other animals. Mr Heath should use his opportunity as a new minister to abandon this policy immediately, and get on with initiating programmes that WILL benefit cattle and farmers - then he might have a better chance of staying longer in his job...

    |   10
  • Charlespk  |  September 28 2012, 10:40AM

    email received December 16 2009 "Sir, During my long career as a country veterinary surgeon, nature taught me time and time again that if there is trouble with animals you have to find and eliminate the source. If it is an infection then the species of bacteria, virus or mycosis needs to be treated adequately. If you fail to get rid of these sources of infection then sooner or later there will be more trouble and misery. It is exactly the same as toothache.With tuberculosis an infected animal or herd is a focus. If you do not manage to eliminate that focus or if you do not even try to do it, the problem will get worse. Vaccinating before the herd is clean will definitely make things worse. If politicians continue to ignore the advice of experienced veterinary surgeons about how to get rid of bovine TB, nature will hit back and teach them a lesson or two. Nature does not look back, does not care how much money is spent, she just keeps going her own way. Vast amounts are being spent both on compensation and on future schemes. This money will be totally wasted unless the government is brave enough to accept the fact that huge reservoirs of bovine TB lie in the overcrowded badger population. Some 40,000 head of cattle are being culled every year due to TB and this figure is rising by 10% per annum. It is unclear how many ten thousands of badgers are infected and are further spreading this disease. DEFRA seems to ignore or tries to vaccinate even diseased badgers which could well induce further spreading. Maybe the government also needs to consider the welfare of the whole badger population. Death by TB is extremely slow, miserable and painful. Finally bovine TB can also be infectious to humans and some domestic animals ……" Dr Ueli Zellweger MRCVS GST TVL Somerset

    |   -10
  • noumenal  |  September 28 2012, 10:06AM

    We simply dare not stop drinking cows' milk. We really don't want to have to choose healthier, more ecologically-friendly, cruelty-free alternatives. We really must insist on the use of rape-racks to impregnate cows, so we can steal the milk meant for their calf. We really must separate distressed calves from their distressed mothers and shoot dead, each year, more than 100,000 of them immediately after birth, simply for being male and therefore 'surplus' to the dairy industry's requirements.. (Far better instead, particularly for those who crave the taste of young flesh, to cut the throats of the remaining male calves six months down the line, after shipping them off to a dark, miserable, malnourished existence confined in a continental veal crate.) We really must insist that vast quantities of the planet's grain harvest is diverted to the meat and dairy industries, so they can accomplish all of the above AND pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all of the world's transport systems combined. We would much rather pass the same grain through a cow's digestive system than have it directly reach the bellies of the children wasting away in regions of the world struggling to feed themselves. We really mustn't blame the 'poor' farmers for spreading TB through their herds as a result of over-intensive production methods which compromise the immune systems of the cows - sorry - milk-machines, in their charge; nor, given the choice, would we wish to prevent the moment from happening when, aged five rather than 25 and broken down as a result of repeated pregnancies, those same dairy cows, with or without TB, are thanklessly carted off to the slaughterhouse to be rendered into low-grade meat products. No, we absolutely mustn't point the finger of blame at the intrinsic failings of the meat and dairy industry itself, for TB down on the factory farm, when it happens to be far more convenient, politically and economically, to misdirect the blame towards badgers, and cull - sorry - massacre them - a protected species - in their tens of thousands, instead. We most certainly wouldn't, couldn't blame our own mothers and fathers, who didn't know how to wean us properly; nor inform the squeamish that a typical pint of milk contains millions of residual blood and puss cells (as permitted by EU regulations), because mastitis in over-exploited cows is now endemic in herds across Europe; nor scare people with talk about all the naturally-occurring hormones in milk meant to turn small calves into fully-grown cows as quickly as possible, which play havoc over time with the human digestive and endocrine systems and have been implicated in a range of chronic and degenerative diseases, including breast and prostate cancer; and while we're at it, best to avoid mentioning the cocktail of antibiotics and other chemicals in every drop, but blithely carry on drinking the 'white stuff' like naive little children because 'that's what our mummies and daddies always told us to do'. Excuse me while I go pour myself a glass of something else instead – oat milk, soya milk, rice milk, almond milk, hazelnut milk anyone?

    |   7
  • Charlespk  |  September 27 2012, 3:54PM

    email received December 16 2009 "Sir, During my long career as a country veterinary surgeon, nature taught me time and time again that if there is trouble with animals you have to find and eliminate the source. If it is an infection then the species of bacteria, virus or mycosis needs to be treated adequately. If you fail to get rid of these sources of infection then sooner or later there will be more trouble and misery. It is exactly the same as toothache.With tuberculosis an infected animal or herd is a focus. If you do not manage to eliminate that focus or if you do not even try to do it, the problem will get worse. Vaccinating before the herd is clean will definitely make things worse. If politicians continue to ignore the advice of experienced veterinary surgeons about how to get rid of bovine TB, nature will hit back and teach them a lesson or two. Nature does not look back, does not care how much money is spent, she just keeps going her own way. Vast amounts are being spent both on compensation and on future schemes. This money will be totally wasted unless the government is brave enough to accept the fact that huge reservoirs of bovine TB lie in the overcrowded badger population. Some 40,000 head of cattle are being culled every year due to TB and this figure is rising by 10% per annum. It is unclear how many ten thousands of badgers are infected and are further spreading this disease. DEFRA seems to ignore or tries to vaccinate even diseased badgers which could well induce further spreading. Maybe the government also needs to consider the welfare of the whole badger population. Death by TB is extremely slow, miserable and painful. Finally bovine TB can also be infectious to humans and some domestic animals ……" Dr Ueli Zellweger MRCVS GST TVL Somerset

    |   -7
  • Charlespk  |  September 27 2012, 3:48PM

    As none of the previous posters have even the first clue what they are talking about, their hot air serves only to warm the planet. DEFRA and its TB Vaccine for Badgers and Cattle. . Dr. Ueli Zellweger. "The vaccine is called BCG which stands for Bacille CalmetteGuérin. This strain of bovine TB bacteria was found 88 years ago and has been the main one reproduced for vaccination ever since. It is common practice to cultivate virus and bacteria for a long time for after some 10 to 20 generations they tend to lose their power to infect, but still may produce specific antibodies. BCG is rather an uncommon type of vaccine. In most infections the infected body copes with production of a large amount of specific antibodies within a few days which protect against an infection becoming serious trouble and these antibodies can be traced for diagnosis. This is not so with Tuberculosis for 2 reasons: 1. TB bacteria need 12 to 18 hours to multiply ( E. Coli takes 20 minutes only). 2. TB bacteria have a waxy coat - quite unusual in microbes - to which antibodies cannot attach themselves. Therefore the body' s defence against TB has to work by making an allergic type of reaction instead of antibodies, a reaction which is made use of when humans and cattle are skin tested for TB. In the past BCG was used for millions of doses for healthy young babies and in some countries it is still administered to a certain extent. It does not prevent an infection but minimizes the risk of it turning into a serious generalised form. BCG' s efficiency was never over 80% and new scientific papers say it is dubious to rely on it. The way BCG should work in already diseased badgers (and cattle) is highly questionable, meaning it is much more likely to produce adverse reactions such as awaking existing "silent" or low scale Tuberculosis. The Merck Veterinary Manual covering all aspects of Vet Medicine worldwide comments: "The BCG vaccine, sometimes used to control TB in man, has proved to be poor at protecting most animal species, and inoculation often provokes a severe local granulomatous reaction." This is likely to be a quite hurtful process and the vaccination site itself might well end up as an abscess. As seen in trials, one cannot trap more than 60% of all badgers roaming around. Therefore if 60 out of 100 badgers are vaccinated with a vaccine which is only efficient to a maximum of 50 - 80% ( in healthy animals! ) you end up with far less than 50 badgers with a rather dubious protection. It is well known and common practice that if you do not succeed to vaccinate up to 95% of all animals of a target species, the long term positive effects in an area are likely to be pretty close to zero. If BCG is used as planned by DEFRA there will be huge perturbation and stress for all badgers, high costs and risk that the whole project will backfire. . In the hot spots some 50 % or more of all badgers might carry the TB infection already increasing the risk of TB spreading when being vaccinated and according DEFRAs plans all badgers should get a booster vaccination every 12 months making things even worse. Who will be liable when it all goes wrong?" Dr Ueli Zellweger MRCVS GST TVL Somerset

    |   -6

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