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Bovine tuberculosis

The Guardian - 10th January 2001

By Derek Brown

Farmers have told MPs that they feel "a growing sense of desperation" about the continued spread of TB in cattle. They want the government to speed up research. Derek Brown explains.

How widespread is bovine TB?

The latest figures indeed look alarming. A total of 443 outbreaks were reported in England in 1997. In the first nine months of last year, there were 637. In Great Britain as a whole, the corresponding figures are 515 and 745. (The disease is virtually non-existent in Scotland).

Is it a new phenomenon?

Hardly. Before the second world war, as wildlife lobbyists tirelessly point out, some 40% of British cattle were infected. Now the figure is 0.1% - that's just one in a 1,000 beasts.

How is the disease transmitted?

Nobody knows for sure. There are various theories about how myobacterium bovis spreads. Some say is passed from animal to animal through contact. Some say is airborne or that it lurks in the soil. Farmers are strongly inclined to blame badgers, which harbour the same disease. That theory first emerged in the early 1970s.

What is being done about it?

The ministry of agriculture is very keen to eradicate the disease, not least because infected herds have to be destroyed and their owners compensated at market rates. The men from the ministry, together with independent advisers, are working on a five-point action plan, including a detailed study of the alleged badger factor.

What does the badger study involve?

Killing them. At least, killing around 12,500 of them, in selected areas. That is only about 3% of the badger population, but wildlife activists say the cull is unscientific and unnecessary. The ministry points out that it is only part of a much bigger and hugely complex study, and that the purpose is not to eradicate badgers, but establish what part if any they play in the transmission of the disease.

How long will it take them to decide?

That is what is now concerning MPs. The original timetable has slipped badly and the first hard results are not expected before next year. It could be 2004 before they emerge, hence the rising pressure from farmers for more positive action - ie more badger killing.

Whose idea was the badger cull?

It was proposed in 1997 by Professor John Krebs. The Labour party, while in opposition, said that it would not support any such operation. Now they insist that the possible badger connection must be thoroughly investigated.

Isn't the badger a protected species?

Yes - but not from the min of ag. Badger-baiting, that most sadistic of so-called sports, has been outlawed since 1835. Police believe it still goes on though, and that the baiters leave the mutilated corpses of their victims by country roadsides, to give the impression of roadkill.

Can humans get the bovine form of TB?

Yes, but its transmission to humans is extremely rare.


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