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Down on the Farm

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Reproduced from Private Eye 11th August 2000

ALTHOUGH the sight of farming lobby hounds in full cry after the wrong fox often provides good entertainment, the current hysteria over TB and badgers is not a laughing matter.

With TB in cattle becoming an epidemic that costs the ministry of agriculture (MAFF) more than £30m a year and farmers much more, there are urgent calls for action from nearly everyone. The latest pair to weigh in have been National Farmers’ Union (NFU) chief Ben Gill, and leading dairy auctioneer Tom Brooksbank with a notably ignorant diatribe. The trouble is, no one has anything to suggest other than gassing badgers. And that has almost nothing to recommend it.

The ineradicable belief that cattle get TB from badgers, and that reducing badger numbers will reduce outbreaks of TB in cattle, began almost by accident and has been perpetuated by MAFF and the industry in the finest scapegoat tradition. Apart from the fact that some badgers carry TB - along with rats, foxes, deer and other mammals, all of which seem to have escaped notice - there is little direct evidence to implicate them. Hence the Krebs report and the current trial culls to clarify the badger’s role - if any.

TB is a respiratory infection; and unless the two species spend the quiet hours of the night kissing each other, badgers cannot be the main source of infection. Nor does the rapid spread of TB to new areas makes any sense - cattle get on lorries and move around the country; badgers, hardly ever.

As MAFF has belatedly recognised with its husbandry panel, there is more to disease than infection. Even in “hotspots” where many farms find TB reactors in every test, some never do. There has been no research into this at all, but the suspicion exists that many cattle, especially dairy herds, which have a narrow genetic base, unnatural diets and metabolic stress, and are often awash with drugs which damage the immune response, are easy targets for TB and other bugs.

For a source of infection one need look no further than the national herd itself. Even at its lowest level TB in cattle was still endemic, and the long test interval combined with the notorious inaccuracy of the test, allows many cattle to avoid detection. The simplest immediate measure MAFF could take is to test more often.

None of this interests the NFU or the vet groups such as the BCVA, who with MAFF connivance tried to use the TB Forum - an informal discussion group formed to consider other measures - to force a vote in favour of a widespread badger cull. After all, they already know whodunnit, even if the scientists don’t. Any other solutions could mean troublesome interference with farming methods, and that really would be unacceptable.

Reproduced from Private Eye 11th August 2000
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