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Tuberculosis threat requires mass cull of cattle, not badgers, study reveals

 
Cattle

Cattle undergoing routine testing for TB by a vet on a farm in Jedburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Chris Strickland/Corbis

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tuberculosis threat requires mass cull of cattle, not badgers, study reveals” was written by Damian Carrington, for The Guardian on Wednesday 2nd July 2014 17.00 UTC

A mass cull of cattle, not badgers, is the only large-scale action that can end the scourge of tuberculosis in England’s livestock, according to new scientific research that represents a heavy blow to the government’s current policy.

The work is the first national-scale model of how the disease spreads and also found that more rigorous cattle testing and cattle vaccination would significantly curb the disease. But it concluded that the impact of the government’s favoured option of a widespread badger cull would fail to prevent the epidemic growing.

The research was published on Wednesday in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, and is a heavy blow to environment secretary Owen Paterson and his ministers, who have resolutely backed the badger cull as an essential part of tackling the disease. The study was immediately rejected by farming minister George Eustice, who said a mass cull of cattle would kill the industry.

TB in cattle has soared in recent years and over 26,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2013 at a cost to taxpayers of £100m. Many scientists have dismissed the badger cull as an expensive and potentially dangerous distraction and the pilot culls in 2013 were judged not to be effective or humane by an independent panel.

The one-off cull of all cattle in infected herds which is considered in the new paper would see over 250,000 animals slaughtered, about 20 times the current annual rate, though far fewer than the 6.2 million animals killed in the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic. Prof Matt Keeling, an epidemiologist at the University of Warwick and one of the research team, acknowledged the measure would be “draconian” and “unpopular” but said that, because the cattle cull would cut TB infections, far fewer cattle would be slaughtered in following years. “This might be an acceptable cost if one is prepared to take a sufficiently long term view,” the team write in the paper.

The effectiveness of whole-herd culling stems from it tackling several key routes of infection at once: infection spreading within herds, infected animals failing to be detected by the current imperfect test and from fields harbouring infected manure.

The new model is based on the detailed data on the daily movements of cattle within the entire national herd and it replicated reality closely when tested. The model incorporates all the mechanisms of TB transmission, but lack of data meant badger-to-cattle transmission was not explicitly included, though was bundled with infection from other environmental sources such as manure, droppings and other wildlife. Slashing this environmental route of infection by 50%, mimicking a huge badger cull, led only to a curbing of the annual increase in infections from 10% to 6%.

Keeling said: “We are not advocating a whole-herd cull, but we are putting it up there. We wanted to ask if you went all out to combat it, what could you possibly do.” He added that the team’s “dispassionate analysis” showed the arrival of infected cattle was responsible for the vast majority of newly infected farms, rather than local environmental factors such as TB-carrying badgers.

Cattle and Badgers

Badgers walk past curious cattle on UK farm. Photograph: Jason Venus/Alamy

Robbie MacDonald from the University of Exeter and not part of the research team, said the work was groundbreaking: “The model is unprecedented in its scale, realism and approach.” He said the suggestion of a one-off mass cull would be “horrifying” for ministers, farmers and animal welfare campaigners, but that the work raised the question of whether the continued slaughter of tens of thousands of cattle for many decades was a worse prospect.

 

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