In the late 1960s the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food was trying to solve a mystery: cattle testing and movement controls had successfully reduced cattle TB levels to a fraction of one percent, and led to the disease being eradicated from most of the UK; yet these controls seemed to be having no impact on disease levels in parts of the South West of England, where incidences were at least five times higher than the national rate.
Confirmation of what many had suspected came in 1971, when a dead badger was found to be severely infected with TB. The area where the badger had been found shared two characteristics; it had high levels of TB, and what were, by those days’ standards, high badger numbers.
The discovery led to a succession of national policies aimed at removing badgers in such areas – policies supported by eminent conservationists such as Peter Hardy MP, sponsor of the 1973 Badger Act – but from the mid-1980s these became less intensive, and in 1997 a moratorium was placed on culling which persists in Wales to this day.
Since 1971, badger protection legislation has led to an estimated ten-fold increase in badger numbers – to the extent that badger population densities across vast areas of Wales and the UK are now at the same level as those previously only seen in the pockets of South West of England where TB had persisted.
The impact of this increase on other wild animals is well documented, most notably in terms of the devastating impact on hedgehog numbers – badgers are, after all, our largest terrestrial carnivore.
And, not surprisingly, TB levels have returned to epidemic proportions across much of Wales, while tried and tested cattle controls which work in countries devoid of wildlife reservoirs have failed to control the disease.
Since 1997 the annual percentage of Welsh herds which have their official TB free status withdrawn has risen ten-fold, while the number of Welsh cattle culled annually to control the disease has gone from 613 in 1997 to 9,934 in the 12 months to October 2016. During the same period, the number of Welsh badgers culled due to TB was zero, despite the latest Welsh Government figures showing TB levels in badgers to be fourteen times higher than in cattle.
Between 2007 and 2011, the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition, with cross party support, decided to grasp the nettle by implementing a badger cull in north Pembrokeshire, but their plans were thwarted; first by the courts, which basically ruled the original legislation underpinning the cull had been improperly drafted, and then by the 2011-2016 Labour administration, which decided to vaccinate rather than cull badgers in the area – despite official advice that vaccination would be so ineffective that it would cost a net £3.5 million, while a cull would have led to reductions in herd incidences and cattle slaughtered which would more than cover costs.
This position was backed up by the Bovine Tuberculosis subgroup of the EU Task Force for Monitoring Animal Disease Eradication, who in 2012 criticised Wales’ change of direction, saying “There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.”
So it comes as little surprise that the latest official report on the badger vaccination programme in north Pembrokeshire, which cost £3.7 million, concludes that “Consistent trends in indicators of bTB incidence have not yet been seen…”
For Welsh farmers suffering the daily emotional and financial consequences of having their businesses locked down for months by movement restrictions, and seeing cattle taken or culled on farm, year-in, year-out, the latest Welsh Government proposal to escalate what are already the most restrictive cattle TB rules in the world have led to palpable anger – but not because of the rules per se.
In fact, while few agree with all of the proposals – which include splitting Wales into five regions, each with strict additional cattle controls – many understand the merits of what the Welsh Government is trying to achieve, but with one caveat: The failure to include solid proposals to proactively deal with the disease reservoir in badgers makes no sense.
Similar concerns were expressed during a recent Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee hearing, when Dr Paul Livingstone, who headed up New Zealand’s successful TB eradication programme, described badgers as ‘the elephant in the room’, claiming nothing was being done in Wales about a key disease reservoir.
The Welsh Government might argue that such claims are unfair – they have, after all, implemented an (albeit, to date unsuccessful) badger vaccination programme, and only recently Chief Veterinary Officer Christianne Glossop stated infected groups of badgers might be trapped and humanely killed where it can be objectively proven badgers are infected.
It is certainly true that both the Welsh Government and the farming industry acknowledge that badgers are a source of infection, and that something needs to be done about the matter; the battle is over what to do about it and when.
Farmers fear that personal views and political cowardice on the part of politicians will continue to slow down TB eradication, as every excuse is used to avoid action, while talk of culling badgers only when ‘it can be objectively proved’ is read as a delaying tactic, aimed at putting off moves to tackle probable causes of infection indefinitely.
Over the coming weeks Cabinet Secretary Lesley Griffiths will consider whether to implement the Welsh Government’s proposals.
While Welsh Government statements that badgers may be culled when sufficient proof has been gathered hints at light at the end of the tunnel, failure to be robust and ensure such measures can be rolled out rapidly and on a large enough scale will delay eradication by decades, while prolonging the expense and torment for farming families.
The situation would be bad enough under normal circumstances, but with Brexit looming, competitors in other countries have one eye on our TB status, and how it might be used to their benefit – and our detriment – in trade negotiations. The clock is ticking.