What next for Northern Ireland’s bovine TB strategy?

As Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) considers the fallout from the recent court judgement quashing their plan to shoot badgers in Northern Ireland, what does the future now hold for their bovine TB strategy?

DAERA’s current policy carried forward the main elements of the strategy proposed in 2016 by the government-appointed TB Strategy Partnership Group (TBSPG). The TBSPG was a government-industry partnership which included senior industry figures and former civil servants. Notably, no member of the group had any expertise or background in badgers or wildlife.

Soon after its appointment, the TBSPG met with stakeholders to ‘seek their views’. Even at that early stage, the TBSPG made it clear that they thought a badger cull was necessary. There was a clear impression that they had already decided on a badger cull before any evidence-gathering or engagement, meaningful or otherwise, had taken place.

The TBSPG was succeeded in 2018 by another industry-led group, the TB Eradication Partnership (TBEP), under the same TBSPG Chairman. Similarly, the TBEP exhibited equal enthusiasm for a badger cull, with apparent little regard for the views of the badger/wildlife side. You can read about the TBEP membership in this Protect the Wild blog.

Following the recent successful Judicial Review taken by Wild Justice and the Northern Ireland Badger Group, any further attempt by DAERA to progress a badger intervention will require a new public consultation. Given the shambolic nature of the last consultation, any new proposal will require root and branch revision to have any chance of succeeding.

Meanwhile, two major pieces of significant and highly relevant new research have emerged.

Firstly, a comprehensive analysis of bovine TB data by Langton et al. failed to identify a meaningful effect of badger culling on bovine TB in English cattle herds. Instead, reductions in cattle TB incidence and prevalence showed a strong correlation with the introduction of cattle-based disease control measures.

Secondly, a study carried out by scientists at the Northern Ireland Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) found that cattle-to-cattle transmission was by far the most common form of disease spread. Cattle-to-badger transmission was considerably more common than badger-to-cattle transmission, and no badger-to-badger transmission was detected.

The science makes it increasingly clear that ineffective herd testing and the two million cattle movements annually are driving the persistence and spread of bovine TB in Northern Ireland, not badgers. As the body of evidence exonerating badgers builds, DAERA will surely struggle to justify any new badger removal proposal.

As it turned out, DAERA’s (now defeated) decision to implement an indiscriminate and cruellest possible badger cull was a spectacular own goal and a decisive setback to their bovine TB strategy. The responsibility for this debacle lies squarely with the architects of the strategy and those in the industry who supported and enabled it.

Perhaps predictably, the decision to inflict unacceptable suffering on large numbers of healthy badgers served to galvanise the conservation and animal protection sectors in opposition to the plan.

For its part, the badger side has seen its good faith and willingness to engage thrown back in its face. Confidence and trust in the process have been seriously undermined. The government has squandered yet another opportunity to make meaningful progress.

This is a watershed moment for DAERA and the industry. They can choose to embrace the science and tackle the reservoir of undetected infection in cattle, or they can continue to scapegoat badgers and face further legal challenges and delays.

APHA, evidence and distortion – the badger blame game continues

A new analysis of Bovine TB data by the Animal and Plant Health Agency

“Difference in Differences analysis evaluates the effects of the Badger Control Policy on Bovine Tuberculosis in England”, by Colin P.D. Birch, Mayur Bakrania, Alison Prosser, Dan Brown, Susan M. Withenshaw, and Sara H. Downs.

This new analysis was posted as a pre-print on 6th September, on the ‘bioRXive server. You can view it here, although there is no access to the data to check it.

With the current programme of intensive badger culling winding down and coming to an end in 2025, up to a quarter of a million largely healthy badgers have now been killed. A new consultation on Defra’s intentions going forward under the 2020 “Next Steps policy is expected on or after 16th November. This new scientific paper has therefore been constructed at an important moment for the future direction of new bovine TB policy.

Both Therese Coffey (Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) and Lord Richard Benyon (Minister of State for Biosecurity, Marine and Rural Affairs) have said in public and in correspondence that badger culling should continue. Mark Spencer, (Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries), has been using the Birch et al pre-print in parliament to claim large disease reductions from badger culling.

But how certain is the science behind these claims of disease reductions, and the stated intentions to carry on culling badgers?

In a 30 minute presentation available to view on YouTube here, Tom Langton talks through recent scientific pre-prints and publications that have analysed bovine TB in cattle herds and badger culling. Inevitably it is a technical presentation as the issues and the statistics involved are complex. But at this critical moment, as bTB policy is further revised, the controversy and uncertainty surrounding the science of bovine TB control needs even closer scrutiny.

Rescheduled! Friday 24th November Badger Cull Protest – 10 Years On


Originally scheduled for 20th October, the ’10 Years On Badger Cull Protest’ had to be cancelled due to Storm Babet. But we are ready to go again on Friday 24th November.

The early years of the badger cull from 2013 saw over 50 protest demonstrations and walks in towns and cities around England. Badger lovers, nature conservationists and members of the public were incredulous and angry that the government was sanctioning a slaughter of tens of thousands of healthy iconic badgers on the basis of a weak scientific theory that badgers were significantly involved in the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle. Many famous names from the world of animal protection and wildlife TV programming turned up to add their voices to the public opinion strongly against the government policy promoted by then Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.

But those in charge of policy ignored the protestors. They were listening to more powerful lobbying voices in the farming industry and to land-owning politicians who spoke out strongly in favour of badger culling and through neglect, the continuing trade in infected livestock.

Ten years on, and despite suggestions that badger culling would be phased out, it has never been more intense. A new consultation on further, more intensive (100%) badger culling is promised before the end of the year. With an election coming up next year it is time to protest again. We need to make sure those who make horrific decisions about our treasured wildlife know that despite all the other critical issues affecting the UK today, we are still shocked and angry about this brutal, unscientific and immoral policy, wasting public funds for vested interest gain – and it will affect how we vote at the next election.

Dominic Dyer will with us on the day, with further speakers to be announced.

IF YOU CARE, PLEASE BE THERE!

Belfast Court Rules Northern Ireland Badger Cull Plans Were Flawed

Mr Justice Scoffield has quashed the NI government attempt to introduce controversial  badger culling to Northern Ireland. Granting a judicial review brought by wildlife NGO’s funded by public donation, he said that  consultees were not told enough – and in sufficiently clear terms – to enable them to make an intelligent response in the consultation exercise. The ruling concludes:

“The court was unimpressed by the respondent’s argument that disclosure of the business case would be too complicated or distracting for would-be consultees,”

“The fact that consultees did their best to respond on the basis of the more limited set of information which had been disclosed to them does not alter the respondent’s obligation to act fairly.”

In September 2022 year Legal Campaigners Wild Justice with Northern Ireland Badger Group (NIBG)  were granted a High Court hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in  Belfast to challenge a cull of badgers in Northern Ireland HERE and HERE.

This legal claim contested a decision announced in March 2022 by the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), Edwin Poots, to allow killing of up to 4,000 badgers a year along the lines that DEFRA has been mass killing healthy badgers in England since 2013. The primary target was a decision of 24 March 2022 – set out in a statement made by the Minister that day and in a ‘Bovine Tuberculosis Strategy for Northern Ireland’ published by the Department shortly afterwards.

The claim brought was that consultation on the policy was incorrect and did not reach the requirements of lawful consultation. So, the decision to choose to control the badger population by allowing farmer-led groups to shoot free-roaming badgers was unlawful. The judge agreed.

The claim argued that Mr Poots’ decision is unlawful because he issued the Article 13 (power to destroy wildlife) order under the Diseases of Animals 1981 Order, but that he had not made sure that there was no reasonably practicable alternative way of dealing with bovine TB in Northern Ireland.

Finally, the consultation had proposed shooting badgers as a preferred option, based on a “business case” which was not disclosed as part of the consultation documents. Because of this the consultation was not a fair procedure as those consulted were prevented from having a properly informed response without seeing it. Comparisons with Test Vaccinate Remove (TVR) approaches had not been fairly made and an APHA position that firmly place TVR approaches “on a par with proactive culling with respect to impact on cattle herd breakdowns”  was not properly addressed.

As previously reported, with the help of the Northern Ireland farming industry press, the farming sector was being hoodwinked into thinking that badger culling could somehow help them. DAERA had been busy promoting badger culling with ‘roadshows’ making exaggerated claims, disseminating misinformation and use other propaganda tricks to try to garner cooperation.

All the lessons from England including the question marks over government badger culling science, going back to the 1990s are relevant too.  It was barely possible to believe, after year-on-year failure in England and the Republic of Ireland, that DAERA wished to ignore their inadequate cattle controls and cull badgers over the next 10 years across Northern Ireland.

Also proposed was an element of experimental badger vaccination after the mass slaughter, a policy that government appointed experts in England in 2018 said was an unproven approach to the control of bTB in cattle.

DAERA may decide to appeal the decision or more likely to reconsult with a business plan that they have held secret, and will no doubt need to rewrite. Will they now go down the TVR route or cull and TVR – this too would be a huge mistake? With the present absence of an Executive and sitting Assembly at Stormont, it is unlikely that authorisation could be given in any case, even with a new consulted plan. What DAERA should do is think again. Even more new science has emerged since the claim began, showing why badger culling policy science has gone so badly wrong and culling badgers in any way is unnecessary.

Huge congratulations to Northern Ireland Badger Group and Wild Justice for bringing the case and to all those supporting the case and opposing the flawed consultation process.

Defra’s last stand?

APHA show a little bit of their hand at last

In March 2022, a peer-reviewed analysis of badger culling data was published in a top veterinary journal. It used all publicly available data.  It showed no detectable difference in bovine TB breakdown between badger culled areas and unculled areas since 2013 (1). Now, after a government information black-out following their look at the data up to 2017, the Defra’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) have at long last posted a pre-print of their own creation looking at their secretly held data up to 2021.

It is not clear why it has taken so long to release this new analysis, a draft of which was presented at a conference in August 2022 (2).

Cynics might say there has been a search for obscure statistical methods to get the results needed to try to show a badger culling has not been a 100% failure. And of course, it supported the pro-cull rationale to hold data secret and keep quiet about any weakness in policy. This served to enable the 2022 and 2023 killings of over 50,000 mostly healthy badgers, planned and executed by the willing and obedient hands of Natural England (3).

The new pre-print, posted 6th September in ‘bioarchive’ (bioRxiv), is by six members of APHA staff. It tries to use an obscure technique: “Difference in Differences analysis evaluates the effects of the Badger Control Policy on Bovine Tuberculosis in England” to look at Bovine TB breakdown incidence (Withdrawn herds: OTFW) between 2009 and 2020 (4). There are many aspects of this new analysis which are problematic, but here are a few of the more obvious.

A new statistical method of analysis – ‘Difference in differences’ (DID)

This is the first time the DID approach has been used in badger cull analyses and it is simply inappropriate. DID compares the changes in outcomes over time between a population that is enrolled in a programme (a group subject to an intervention) and a population that is not (the control group).

The attempt here is to use the same areas in a ‘before and after’ way. There is no clearly defined control group, it is just the fragmented cull areas before they are licensed to cull. The 52 cull areas are surrounded by and influencing each other during a wide range of tightening testing interventions. They are, therefore, not adequately discrete in space and time, breaking a fundamental DID requirement. So not only is this (DID) an unorthodox approach, but it does not follow the basic rules of the unorthodox approach. It is looking a bit desperate already.

Notably, in the period 2016- 2020, pre-cull and cull areas closely juxta position. Pre-cull and cull cattle testing interventions of course influence changes in adjacent pre-cull and cull areas in an irregular and unpredictable manner, via the constant movement of cattle with different testing and control histories. It’s a mess, and surprising that this has been presented as an appropriate statistical method, considering the subject and the epidemiology involved.

Analysis does not distinguish between different causes of disease decline.

Does the analysis decisively link badger culling to decline in bovine TB in cattle? Not at all. Any possible effect of badger culling is confounded with the continuous multi-faceted and complex tightening of cattle testing that took place in an uneven manner over different and irregular time periods. Some of the very important bTB testing controls used, and the timing of their introduction, are incorrectly described and some of the most important ones are not even mentioned.


The Badger Culling Policy invention

There are places in the manuscript where a claim is made for a link to badger culling, ‘The effect of badger culling…’, but then later this is adjusted to ‘However, this data analysis cannot explicitly distinguish…….’ APHA have stated more than once in their recent epidemiology reports that the cattle breakdown data alone are insufficient to show an effect of culling.

Frankly there is no such thing as the ‘Badger Culling Policy’ (BCP) as framed by this report, beyond just killing badgers. It is an invention trying to characterize extensive cattle testing and movement control measures as just a part of the badger culling bolt-on, rolled out six years after testing control measures had been continuously tightened year on year. To pretend the extensive suite of testing and movement control measures is somehow a part of a whole is just a repeat of the ‘all tools in a box’ nonsense and it deceives. True, some of the more essential measures were increased from the first year of badger culling, but most of them were independent of it and ramped up gradually. So trying to pull them apart in a post-facto try-on will not impress the independent scientist, even if an obliging journal prints it, and industry and Defra promote it with their coterie of academic cheerleaders. Badger culling has just been a pointless distraction to cattle surveillance and control measures to address rampant cattle-to-cattle transmission.

So again, no, the analysis is not able to show causation by badger culling of any change in disease, and Defra and APHA’s judgement could be seen ill-judged by trying to convince anyone that this is credible. It is as clumsy as the Chief Vet’s apologies and efforts on Radio 4’s Farming Today in 2022. Defra boss Richard Benyon has been claiming big figures for badger cull benefits for years, but this does not provide any evidence for them.

What is the ‘true burden of disease’?

The new analysis has a surprising and unconventional interpretation of the ‘true burden of the disease’ or disease ‘prevalence’ in a population. It suggests that ‘incidence’ is the better indicator of true burden, which they must surely understand flies against first principles. It is ‘old thinking’ based on the out-dated views of farm vets who claimed that only visibly lesioned cows are infectious.  Yes, incidence  has been one unit of disease measurement, and it was the unit used by the RBCT to claim a benefit for badger culling. But science has moved on, and this is a strange attempt to live in the past.

The interpretation contrasts with APHA’s reports and understanding of disease controls if you look closely. It contrasts with the conclusions drawn from better comprehension of the SICCT (skin) test sensitivity and specificity, which has been clarified in recent years. Gamma IFyN testing has revealed a very significant reservoir of undetected reactors (diseased animals) in bTB infected herds, pointing towards undisclosed infection in undetected herds too. This ‘hidden’ reservoir in cattle that remains is what really matters for disease understanding and control. The true burden is bigger than the known breakdowns and identified reactors, why else would the disease persist? Both here and in Republic of Ireland where badgers have been relentlessly persecuted and SICCT and Gamma testing has failed for decades.

So why exactly did APHA attempt this clumsy redefinition of the ‘true burden of disease’. Perhaps because it needs to try to defend the original RBCT analysis which by controversial statistical modelling (5), managed to suggest a relationship between incidence and badger culling, having failed to find a relationship with disease prevalence. The effort applied to carry on killing badgers is deeply disturbing.

But wasn’t bovine TB already reducing before badger culling began?

Levels of Bovine TB were falling in many areas soon after annual SICCT testing was introduced in 2010. And well before culling started in most areas. However, the new APHA analysis reduces the analysis of pre-cull data to one data point. This conveniently helps to conceal the significant pre-cull decline and masks the true disease trajectory and results. A logarithmic scale is also used to distort visual effect. Not unlike methods used in the earlier Brunton and Downs reports.

Recent Edge Area data added into the analysis for what purposes?

The new analysis mixes data from 46 High Risk Area study areas with 6 from the Edge Area. These have very different epidemiological and disease control history profiles and the reason for mixing them is not explained. It looks like a deliberate attempt to manipulate the data. Pre-cull gamma testing was intense in the Edge Area. While the manuscript mentions additional gamma testing from 2017, gamma testing was erratic between areas and over time. There were considerable numbers of gamma reactors in many of the cull areas in cull years 1 and 2 of culling with similar disclosures levels to years 3 and 4, but pre-cull use in the HRA was generally low. Mixing them may give you a result you like, but it can be seen through for what it is.

In both HRA and Edge areas, bTB incidence was declining when many of the additional disease control rules were intensified, and badger culling introduced. The addition of this extra data makes it even more impossible to distinguish effects of badger culling and disease control measures that are known to drive down bTB.

Attempt to dismiss peer-reviewed 2022 study published without mentioning it

A comment in the text of the new pre-print says that it is not possible to match badger culled and control areas. This is not only incorrect but unevidenced, with unsubstantiated claims. The 2022 published and peer reviewed study that used this methodology effectively has not been cited. There is no mention of the even more obvious alternative to their complex DID approach, which would be to simply match a series of individual farms in culled and unculled areas. This approach is only available to APHA, which holds all individual farm records confidentially. Such simple monitoring could and should have been an expected outcome of a High Court ruling that required the government to ‘adapt and learn’ from badger culling. Why has it not been done? Perhaps it has been done but gave the wrong results?

Distinct lack of clarity

There is a definite need for clarity in the analysis presented, including the Appendix. This does not seem to be the output from the constrained DID analysis, but something else that is not fully described in the methodology. Analysis uses the lesser known system called STATA (nearly all analysts use R-code).  The data is not supplied, and the Stata code is not supplied, so no one can replicate what has been done here. An author, when contacted, said these would be available following publication of the paper. Too late for others to comment on?

Does this draft show that badger culling has reduced bovine TB In cattle?

No, it doesn’t. Because the methods are inappropriate, the results are flawed, and so the conclusions are wrong. There is no way to distinguish between different interventions and change in herd breakdowns since 2013 with the approach taken. Might these results be misleading and deceive if published? Yes. Why has such a flawed analysis been produced now? Is it a try-on to justify Natural England’s new autumn badger blood-fest? Will Defra contractors, grant recipients and a friendly journal whisk it through peer review with recommended friendly reviewers? Probably.

A consultation on culling all badgers over wide areas is being cooked up despite previous policy promises. One could speculate that APHA have been told both by bosses and lawyers that they need to produce evidence that the culling policy has not been a complete waste of life, public funds, and other resources including masses of police time. They are desperate to do this, and get it out right in front of the move to ‘carry on culling’. This preprint aims to be the new truth about badger culling, but it’s all smoke and mirrors.

References

  1. Langton TES, Jones MW, McGill I. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020. Vet Rec 2022; doi:10.1002/vetr.1384
  2. DEFRA called out over flawed bovine TB claims at international vet conference
  3. Bovine TB and Badgers: a weakened link
  4. PREPRINT: Colin P.D. Birch, Mayur Bakrania, Alison Prosser, Dan Brown, Susan M. Withenshaw, Sara H. Downs Difference in Differences analysis evaluates the effects of the Badger Control Policy on Bovine Tuberculosis in England.  bioRxiv 2023.09.04.556191; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2023.09.04.556191
  5. PREPRINT: Paul Torgerson, Sonja Hartnack, Philipp Rasmusen et al. Absence of effects of widespread badger culling on tuberculosis in cattle, 13 December 2022, (Version 2) available at Research Square [https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-2362912/v2]

The Failed Badger Culls – a brief history and why the fight is not yet over.

Episodic and patchy badger culling has been taking place in England over the last 50 years in an attempt to influence the bovine TB epidemic in cattle herds. And there have also been several ‘experimental’ badger cull trials over that time, the largest of which was the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (1998-2005). The current ‘proactive’ intensive badger culls, where a guesstimated 70-95% of the badger population is killed, began in 2013. We have now had 10 full years of intensive badger culling across the High Risk Area, with over 210,000 badgers reported killed. There have also been experimental badger culls in TB hotspots in at least two places in the ‘Low Risk Area’, where the aim is to kill 100% of the badgers. Killing is now done largely by free-shooting, which is deemed inhumane by the British Veterinary Association because of the cruelty involved.

How is disease control going?

With variations between areas, the general trend for the bovine TB burden in cattle has been downward. However, this decline in bTB cannot be linked to badger culling as in almost all areas bTB rates levelled off and began falling in response to the move to annual cattle testing in 2010, before badger culling began.

Importantly, there has been a further increase in the frequency of cattle testing for bTB over the same period as culling has been taking place, which has begun to remove infected cows slightly more efficiently. Cattle are now tested every 6 months using the tuberculin skin (SICCT) test, and additional testing using Gamma Interferon tests have been introduced to  help remove more of undetected but infected cattle. It is this increase in frequency and efficacy of testing that has been reducing the rate of infection, not badger culling.

Analysis shows no difference in disease decline between culled and unculled areas

The most recent peer-reviewed and pubished analysis of the efficacy of badger culling has shown that there was no detectable difference in disease reduction between culled and unculled areas between 2013 and 2020. All that DEFRA has done is make a crude claim that badger culling works, based on reports  and data that it has  refused to publish or make available for many years and for spurious reasons.

What’s happening now?

Despite the near-complete government news blackout on badger culling, it is still very much government policy. It continues in 60 zones this year, reducing in number by around a third each year until 2025 when the final 23 culls will fizzle out. Natural England have once again authorised badger culling licences for autumn 2023 (announced September 7th). This will mean that up to 26,000 largely completely healthy badgers will be shot dead this year under their watch.

What are Defra’s plans for badger culling in the future?

New report on ‘epidemiological culling’

Despite headlines back in 2020 suggesting that badger culling was to be phased out, the likelihood is that Defra is being cajouled by industry to introduce a new badger culling policy. We understand that a consultation this autumn might seek views on a ‘reactive’, or so-called ‘epidemiological’ culling policy, a method with the core approach banned by government in 2003..

If implemented, this policy would seek to kill 100% of badgers in what are being called bTB ‘cluster’ areas. Although such culls are described in new policy as for ‘exceptional use’ only, it is possible or even likely that they will be implemented wherever bTB is found in cattle and where farmers want to kill badgers. Minette Batters, President of the NFU, has made no secret of her wish to remove badgers from livestock farmland completely, and Defra listen to the wishes of the NFU. The policy does indicate vaccination for any badgers that remain following culling, but this is a policy that clearly continues to attribute significant cattle infection to badgers. This, despite consistently growing scientific evidence for this being extremely unlikely, with weak, equivocal or even manufactured evidence keeping that sentiment alive.

Disease breakdowns continued in Cumbria despite 100% of badgers culled

A trial of this new ‘epi-culling’ approach has been taking place in Cumbria since 2018. Despite eliminating the entire badger population over an area of around 90 sq.km. or more, herd incidents with persistent infections remain unresolved. Bovine TB infection is persistent because it comes from within the herd and from traded stock. There is no credible epidemiological route for infection from badgers. This is useful as a model of why government policy is badly flawed and misguided.

What can we do to stop this?

Years of campaigning by numerous organisations and individuals has so far;

  • Led to legal challenges in the High Court of aspects of the welfare consequences of, scientific justification for, and potential ecological effects of badger culling
  • Challenged the certainty of the science being used to justify badger culling with peer-reviewed analyses
  • Lobbied MP’s repeatedly
  • Organised over 50 rally’s and marches
  • Produced many petitions of up to 300,000 signatories
Protesting outside High Court London

But Defra have not listened or even significantly engaged with those  opposing badger culling. They are listening to the NFU, the big landowners with a powerful voice, and vets who put their own interests and industry before environment, biodiversity & animal welfare. 

The increasing public awareness of climate change impacts and the immediate threat they pose have led to urgent calls to reduce meat and dairy consumption. This in turn should make government take a radical look at the farming industry in the UK, and the policies it is supporting that damage our natural environment. It looks like an impossible task with a government that has no qualms about supporting and subsidising the fossil fuel industry and counts many large land-owners with vested interests amongst its MPs.

Will an election in a little over a years’ time make any difference? Politician’s convictions seem to be increasingly fragile approaching a election, where the importance of green issues to the electorate may be unclear or even antagonize a proportion of it. Whilst polls show that voters rank the environment among the concerns of greatest importance to them, the Uxbridge byelection showed that these issues require careful handling.

Effective caps are needed to block wastefulness and overexploitation of limited resources for trivial activities and inefficient processes.  If candidates want your vote at the next election, the political parties & their candidates need to commit to a comprehensive overhaul of farming and environment policies. It is vital to make it crystal clear to them how important these issues are, or they will not commit to addressing them urgently. We may be stuck with badger culling and policies that continue to deplete our natural resources until it is too late to prevent catastrophic damage. Badger culling is just one more symptom of everything that is wrong in environmental protection in England in recent decades. Strong action is needed right now to change the way government thinks and acts. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that those in power, and those seeking power, know how important environmental issues are, and how their response to them will affect the way we vote. 

 

 

 

 

What is going on with bovine TB in north Wales?

Some observers may have noticed bovine TB breakdowns figures for Wales have levelled-off in recent years. For the first time in a long while they are showing a divergence away from the progress of herd breakdown trends that until recently was largely parallel with England.
See the data here

And here:

Since 2021, north Wales has experienced an uptick of bovine TB breakdowns in two areas in north Wales, which is causing a levelling of national decline. Looking at the genomic (spoligotype) data indicates that this upsurgence of disease originates from cattle movements from the English border counties of Shropshire and Cheshire, dating back to 2017. Radiating local movement of disease (local trading) within the ‘Low’ and ‘Intermediate’ TB Areas North, in Wales, has pulled down the overall progress compared with England.  Wales introduced enhanced measures and increased testing sensitivity several years before England, resulting in its downward trend. But this has now been held back and it has nothing to do with badger culling.

While bTB control has been compromised in two areas of Wales, in 2022  England saw a welcome steeper decline in 0TF-W  breakdowns as the use of 6-monthly SICCT testing and gamma interferon to better identify infected cattle began to take effect. Gamma testing raises herd testing sensitivity from around 80% (of the SICCT test) to perhaps  90% or more, halving the numbers the tuberculin test misses but has around 4% false positives. This is one reason why 6-monthly SICCT testing has been preferred as it also detects more than a single annual SICCT test. The additional 6-monthly SICCT tests were introduced in Shropshire and Staffordshire from March 2021 and in the rest of the HRA from January 2022. Defra have had issues updating their data recently, but it now appears that  in the HRA cattle tests increased from around 4.61 million 2021 to 5,44 million in 2022 an increase of approaching 20%. 

However, APHA data shows how, alongside, gamma testing bit into the main  driver of disease – persistent herds, often with large numbers of cows and cow sales each year and infecting many new herds each year through local and auction sales. The big breakthrough came in 2019 with over a quarter of a million gamma tests across the HRA and Edge with a 30% drop in persistent herds across the HRA and Edge. 

Further, for 2019, Defra followed the example of the Welsh Government and applied a 50% reduction in compensation for animals moved into a TB breakdown herd that were subsequently removed as TB reactors or direct contacts before the herd regained OTF status. Gamma testing was used in England at considerable levels from 2018-2022 in the HRA, and the disparity became more visible from 2020 as Wales became infected from the English Edge Area.

Peer-reviewed analyses show that in England  there is no sign of benefit in the HRA from badger culling. The rate of decline of bovien TB disease prevalence in England’s High Risk Area (HRA) now matches the level of fall of 20% per year seen in the 1960’s, when the disease was quickly brought under control using cattle based measures. Had gamma testing been introduced earlier as in Wales and the Republic of Ireland, the English epidemic would have been well under control by now.

Six-monthly SICCT testing and use of Gamma testing will disclose more infected cows that escape the testing system and bring bovine TB down, but may not finish the job. A more sensitive and specific  blood test such as Actiphage will be needed to do that. Cattle vaccination may also play a role too but with a disciplined approach to testing, may be avoided.

BBC misleading again on badger culling?

10 years on and the BBC repeats acknowledged errors, misleading the public on badger culling

On 13th May 2013, the BBC posted an article entitled “How did the Irish badger cull play out?”.

On 1st June 2013, this report was produced on the impact of the badger cull in Ireland.

Both of these pieces were by BBC Journalist David Gregory-Kumar (DGK). Both these stories, and others beside support the controversial government view that badgers play a significant role in bovine TB control in cattle. Complaints to the BBC by ecologist Tom Langton eventually led to the following BBC ruling:

Given that both the statistics and scientific studies about the link between badger culling and bovine TB levels were inconclusive, the Committee examined whether the article had used clear and precise language to make this apparent to the audience. In doing so, it observed that the badger cull had become a highly divisive issue with those for and against the cull using the findings of different trials to bolster their respective causes and so it was essential that the BBC provided the greatest clarity possible on the subject.

In this context, the Committee believed that the language used in the article had not been sufficiently precise as it suggested that the badger cull might be a factor in helping control the disease when this was scientifically unproven. It considered that, while the data did show a decline in the number of cattle infected with TB in Ireland, there was no conclusive evidence to show that the badger cull had been categorically responsible for any of this decline and so it was inaccurate to say that, along with other measures, it can help control the disease.

Exactly the same error was repeated by the same journalist in a piece on BBC’s Farming Today on July 4th 2023, 10 years later, this time regarding the English culls.  DGK plays a clip in which farmer James Griffiths says “badger culling has undoubtedly made a difference, no one can deny it” DGK follows this by saying “the latest data seems to support this.” The latest data does not support this. The latest data shows bTB falling generally because of cattle measures but the role of badger culling, if any, is not known. Why is DGK doing this we wonder?

DGK forgot to mention that there were more bTB breakdowns in Gloucetreshire pilot 1 area in 2022 than in 2013 when badger culling began.

And again, in ‘Has a decade of badger culling worked?’ published on the same day, the bias continues.

There is no mention of the peer-reviewed paper published last year by Vet Record, “Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020” by Tom Langton, Mark W. Jones, and Iain McGill. This examination of government data obtained over a wide area and a long time period failed to identify a meaningful effect of badger culling on bTB in English cattle herds.

Defra has failed to publish any analysis that shows that badger culling has produced any disease benefits since its much caveated publication in 2017, which was based on limited data over a limited period of time.  DGK says that to show that badger culling is working you would need to “compare areas with a cull to those without and we can’t do that because the culls are now everywhere.” This is not the case. Defra holds all the data for all farms, culled and unculled, and it would be a relatively simple job to extract data from culled farms and compare them with unculled farms using a range of available techniques. They may have already done this. If not why not? 

Overall, the bTB disease figures from Wales (where there is virtually no culling) and England (where 210,555+ badgers have been culled) have been very closely aligned. This is, perhaps, the best evidence that badger culling plays no role in bTB control.

Incidentally, Jeff Sim at Staffs Wildlife Trust who was interviewed said that he was vaccinating badgers to reduce bTB in cattle. But in fact such a relationship is not known and is purely speculative. Wales gave up on vaccinating badgers a long time ago.

Finally DGK’s idea that badger cull benefit lasts 4 years is not solid science. The confidence intervals on that old data indicate nothing scientifically significant. The late statistician David Cox who was involved with the RBCT is reported to have said at a conference later that he wished they had presented it as trends rather than as significant as the RBCT confidence intervals were also mostly very large.

The real story is that 6-monthly cattle testing in the High Risk  and Edge Area are now starting to work.

Out & about in Oxford this week

Badgers have been speaking up for themselves in Oxford this week. They  have been making their presence felt, raising awareness of the current government badger cull policy, and explaining what the future of badger culling could look like in Oxfordshire. Now that Minister Therese Coffey has thrown doubt over government previously stated intentions to stop culling in 2025, everyone needs to be alert to a possible U-turn on getting rid of badger culling for good.

The Oxforshire Badger Coalition (OBC) is a growing network of people and organisations from Oxfordshire and beyond who are concerned about the continuing, and potentially accelerating government badger cull policy.  This is a policy that is based on the Randomised Badger Cull Trials (RBCT) and what Lord John Krebs described recently in the House of Lords as ‘unsettled science’.

Badger culling has been happening in Oxfordshire since 2020, firstly on the periphery as overspill from adjoining counties, then with a full cull area added each subsequent year. An estimated 50% or more of the county now has culling, with 5000 or more badgers shot so far, and plans for thousands more this year and next.

The situation for Oxfordshire’s badgers is moving to a point where there is a serious risk that culling is running out of control. The NFU has been setting up large ‘cluster area’ projects that may include future 100% culling, perhaps starting next year and even though bovine TB breakdowns have reduced greatly in recent years with better testing.

The risk is a change from the existing proactive policy, to a new reactive culling policy, a move that it is thought will be subject to consultation later this year. No culling, even in exceptional circumstances, is warranted. Reactive culling threatens to become the ‘new normal’, but it is not based on sound or impartial epidemiological evidence (1).  The result could be 15 more years of 100% localized badger culling, and another 200,000 or more largely healthy badgers killed.

This is justified in part by Minster (Spencer) claiming in Parliament that badger culling is working, with a 45% benefit after three years and 50% after four years, but these numbers have no peer-reviewed or even published basis, and appear to be misinformation. Alternative peer-reviewed analyses (2) show that badger culling has produced no benefit in disease reduction. Despite a lot of claims and accusations by government, this work has not been effectively challenged.

The Oxfordshire Badger Coalition is determined to raise the profile of these issues in Oxfordshire over the coming months, so you may be seeing more badgers in Oxford in the very near future. Please say hello, and if you can, join in and spread the word. Most members of the public who stopped to say hello this week were supportive and said that they were not aware that the government is still killing badgers. This is because both badger culling and the results are being being kept secret from the public from reasons that remain unclear.

Is APHA’s approach to bTB control negligent?

The annual bovine TB epidemiology reports (1) for England and Wales, both compiled at APHA Weybridge, have historically had authors in common. More recently however, the reports no longer publish the identity of the authors. Why might this be? What we see now is a definite disparity in approach, presentation and implication.

The emphasis on wildlife and Risk Pathways Analysis (RPA) in the England reports is noticeable, compared to the Welsh versions (Table 1) which barely mention them. So whilst bTB is clearly the same disease in both countries, the attribution to wildlife, cattle movements and residual infection differs very markedly as you cross Offa’s Dyke.

*Wales not yet reported

Table 1. Mentions of the risk pathways approach and badgers and wildlife as a source of  bovine TB infection in APHA reports for Wales and England 2016-2021. Note near absence of mention for Wales, while England has a growing obsession over wildlife involvement.  Will attempts be made to force Wales to follow England’s scientifically unreferenced pathway?

These differences have occurred due to the use in England of un-evidenced data to support a policy that culls badgers in England, whereas in Wales no such policy exists (2).  RPA was introduced in 2015 by APHA on a trial basis by vets using the newly updated Disease Report Form (DRF), and with the stated aim of identifying the source of bTB breakdowns, defined as ‘hazards’. In this trial, the pathway by which disease entered the bTB infected herd was to be decided by the investigating vet. The DRF provided a list of epidemiological hazard options to select; the option of attributing disease to wildlife was the default where attribution to a cattle source was not immediately obvious. The trial was quickly hailed as a success and expanded in 2016 with a few changes. In 2017 it was adopted by APHA as a standard recognised procedure for identifying the source of an infection, training vets to routinely misdiagnose.  

Risk Pathways; a process hijacked by pro-badger cull advocates

APHA have not been able to provide scientific citation to validate the use of RPA protocol. Despite claiming since 2019 that they have a supporting paper in preparation for peer review and publication in a scientific journal, over three years later this has not appeared. It could perhaps be argued that RPA has all the hallmarks of being constructed by APHA to facilitate and support widespread badger culling, because that in effect is what it has done.

Since 2017 RPA has become the primary tool to implicate badgers as the source of the majority of incidents in England (2,3). Wales, in contrast, cites cattle movements, residual cattle herd infection and poor cattle purchasing decisions as the primary sources of bTB herd infection.

A trawl through recent APHA English County bTB reports reveals a plethora of statements about badgers which are not supported by qualifying scientific evidence. Many of these are stated as if they are settled science (they are not), or with descriminatory language. Below are a few examples from the Executive Summary of the APHA England 2021 epidemiological report (4) :-

“Eradication of bovine TB requires control of infection in both cattle and the main wildlife reservoir (badgers).”

“In 2021, as in previous years, herds located in the HRA (where there is high infection pressure from cattle and badgers),…….”

“For England, the source of infection with the highest weighted contribution was badgers (49%), followed by ‘Other or Unknown’ sources (17%). The most frequently considered sources of infection in the HRA were badgers (52%) and ‘Other or Unknown’ sources (16%). In the Edge Area, badgers constituted 52% of the considered source, followed by cattle movements (17%).

The existence of local reservoirs of M. bovis shared by cattle, badgers and other species; wildlife reservoirs of M. bovis are more common in the HRA and the western and northern parts of the Edge Area.

Compare this with the extracts from the Executive Summary Wales Bovine Tuberculosis Surveillance Report 2020 (5), where there is not a single ‘wildlife’ reference.

The risk of a herd becoming infected with TB is associated with factors such as herd density, herd size, production type, TB history and location. These factors contribute to the spatial pattern of TB in cattle herds across Wales. Dairy herds had a significantly higher TB incidence rate compared to beef herds, with this effect remaining after adjusting for herd size and location. Similarly, herds with more than 300 animals have the highest incidence rates, with this effect remaining after adjusting for herd type and TB Area.”

“The increase in recurrent infection (a TB incident occurring within the last two years) in cattle suggests this remains an important driver of infection in Wales.

Use of antibody blood tests increased by 85% in 2020 compared to 2019, with 11-13% of tests disclosing reactors in the high TB areas, west and east, intermediate TB area mid Wales.”

From 2017 onwards, the England epidemiological report has a map illustrating the areas of England where badgers are considered by (what is described as) “informed veterinary opinion” to be the source of bTB infection. This is veterinary opinion that has been informed by APHA’s flawed briefing of vets.The map suggests that badger contribution far outweighs that of cattle. Combined with DRFs, from which the map data is derived, it offers no evidence to support this veterinary judgement. There is a clear bias towards blaming badgers. It even references “infected badgers” within the text, with an admission from APHA that no badgers have been clinically tested.

There have already been 10 years of intensive badger culling in England, and there appears to be some intention to continue with so-called ‘epidemiological culling’ into the future, despite a lack of evidence as to efficacy (6). APHA’s epidemiological assessments try to justify this new style epidemiological culling, by ‘finger pointing’  badgers as the source of breakdowns.

Unscientific perpetuation of wildlife involvement persists

The unscientific claims of wildlife involvement in bTB persist. They are being pedalled via epidemiology reports that lack scientific evidence and backed by vested industry and veterinary interests. The speculative blaming of badgers as a source of bTB infection in cattle, without scientific evidence or justification, seriously undermines the whole bovine TB eradication policy.

APHA pride themselves on being a world class science establishment, supported by such statements as :

Science continues to be fundamental to everything APHA does and we are committed to high quality science-based evidence for decision making and policy development. We will deliver this strategy over the next five years.

The new model for epi-culling is not quite the model of scientific rigour APHA aspire to. Is it more a clear case of confirmation bias, remoulding and manipulating information to support a government policy that has tried to normalise removing large numbers of healthy badgers from the English landscape, contrary to high quality science based evidence and to correct handling of uncertainty and precautionary principles.

It has to be asked, has this manipulation been intentional? Is incompetence or even negligence the right perspective? Will public opinion continue to be ignored? Who exactly is pushing biased procedures? What level of pressure is being exerted from vested interests, and who is routinely interfering with government science?

References:

1. APHA 2022 Bovine Tuberculosis in England in 2021 Epidemiological analysis of the 2021 data and historical trends November 2022.

2. Griffiths, L.M., Griffiths, M.J., Jones, B.M., Jones, M.W., Langton, T. E. S., Rendle, R.M., & P.R. Torgerson. 2023. A bovine tuberculosis policy conundrum in 2023. On the scientific evidence relating to the Animal and Plant Health Agency/DEFRA policy concept for ‘Epidemiological’ badger culling. An independent report by researchers and      veterinarians to Defra and the UK Parliament.

3. Critical evaluation of the Animal and Plant Health Agency report: ‘Year End Descriptive Epidemiology Report: Bovine TB Epidemic in the England Edge Area – Derbyshire 2018, E. Wright BVSc Cert VA Dip (AS) CABC MRCVS & S. Mayer BSc BVSc PhD MRCVS.

4. APHA 2021. Science Strategy 2021-26.  Expertise with Impact. Online strategy.

5. APHA 2020. Epidemiology of bovine tuberculosis in Wales. Annual surveillance report
For the period: January to December 2020.

6. Langton TES, Jones MW, McGill I. Analysis of the impact of badger culling on bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the high-risk area of England, 2009–2020. Vet Rec 2022; doi:10.1002/vetr.1384

Long-term protection for badgers in Bas-Rhin, France

Monday, May 15 was World Badger Day, but in France protection depends on which side of a boundary the badgers are.

Photo L’Alsace /Marc WILB

Badgers are not all in the same boat in the Alsace region of France. There are the lucky ones, in the department of Bas-Rhin, where hunting is not allowed. Sadly, their neighbours, in the Haut-Rhin, can be hunted legally as in the rest of France.

The Bas-Rhin is therefore a national exception to the rule, the only department where it has neither the status of pest nor of  a huntable animal. “In fact, it is classified without legal status. This means that there is no authorization to hunt it and therefore that it cannot be hunted”, says Lætitia Duhil, badger referent at the League for the Protection of Birds.

The status of ‘pest’, hunted or not, is defined in each department by commissions bringing together hunters, farmers, foresters, environmental associations, and representatives of the State. In the Bas-Rhin, the associations advised at the end of 2004, a cessation of badger hunting.

Since then, it has not been deemed necessary to return to hunting, on the findings that a natural balance in their numbers now prevails and there is simply no need. In the Haut-Rhin, however, the wildlife commission has not yet invalidated badger hunting. Last year, only a hundred badgers were killed, an insignificant number compared with an estimated population of 10,000 – 15,000 badgers across Alsace. Leaving badgers alone seems to simply be the best way to manage them. This philosophy will hopefully now spread across France and elsewhere in Europe.

Translated from & with thanks to:
https://www.lalsace.fr/environnement/2023/05/12/le-bas-rhin-paradis-des-blaireaux

Bovine TB and Badgers: a weakened link

A new article in the May issue of British Wildlife magazine provides an overview of the current state of affairs with badger culling in England, and a welcome update on the science surrounding the issue.

It looks at new work that questions the role that badgers play in bovine TB in cattle, and what the most likely reasons behind the perpetuation of the disease are.

It also looks at the problems that badger culling is likely to be causing to the ecosystem in general, and whether or not this is being adequately monitored or mitigated.

There is a potted history of legal challenges to the badger cull, and a view on the insight and benefits that this difficult work has provided.

It looks at where the current government intends to take the badger culling policy next, and what ‘epidemiological culling’ could mean for our badgers in the future.

You can access a copy of the article here, for a charge of 99p.