Farmers must do more to tackle the spread of tuberculosis between cattle, which is a bigger part of the problem than badgers, experts have urged.
The Government commissioned an independent review of its strategy for tackling bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in livestock amid ongoing controversy about badger culling to control the disease.
Measures to tackle the disease include cattle testing and movement controls, improving “biosecurity” or protective measures to prevent disease spread on farms, developing vaccines for cattle and badgers and culling badgers – which can spread TB to cattle – in 32 areas of England.
While the experts commissioned to undertake the review were specifically not asked to assess the current industry-led culls, they said the totality of the evidence on badger culling showed a “real effect but a modest effect”.
Decisions over culling the iconic British mammal, which can cut incidence of TB in herds by around 15%, should be informed by science but is a judgment call for ministers, the experts said.
But the review warns against an “over-emphasis” on the role of wildlife in spreading TB to cattle.
It says poor take-up of relatively cheap biosecurity measures on farms and trading in high-risk livestock is hampering disease control.
We realise that wildlife does have a role in this disease, but it's wrong to put all the blame on wildlife
The review’s chairman Professor Sir Charles Godfray, from the University of Oxford, said some in the farming sector were doing “tremendous things” on bTB, but there was “fatalism” over the disease in other parts of the industry.
He said: “We realise that wildlife does have a role in this disease, but it’s wrong to put all the blame on wildlife and to use this as an excuse to not make hard decisions in industry, which is going to cost the industry money.”
Asked to quantify the contribution to disease spread from badgers and the farming industry, through cattle to cattle infection, Sir Charles added: “If I was asked to say more one than the other, I would say definitely on the cattle to cattle side.
“We do think there is a huge amount that can be done within the livestock industry.”
Professor Michael Winter, from the University of Exeter, said biosecurity measures included installing buffers between farms and injecting slurry into the ground rather than spreading it to prevent surface contamination, and ensuring contractors clean gear properly between farms.
It is important not to “wave a stick” at farmers but to work with them to bring in such measures, Prof Winter said.
The review also warned 1.7 million cattle were moved within and between areas with a different level of risk in 2016, including substantial numbers from higher to lower risk areas, which could be an important source of infection.
Compensation for slaughtered cattle could be adjusted to prevent risky trading of livestock, the report suggests.
With research showing the benefits of widespread culling that is repeated each year for four years persisting for some years after the cull stops, periodic culling could be a more better strategy than continually killing badgers.
The report calls for more effective testing of cattle in high risk areas, which would reveal more infections, but help remove the disease from herds quickly.
And Sir Charles said: “we desperately need more evidence on the efficacy of vaccinations”, with the report suggesting a badger vaccination programme in areas which have been subject to culls to test if it is as effective as culling.
Farming Minister George Eustice said: “As a Government we are committed to eradicating bTB and have always been clear that there is no single measure for tackling it.”
He said the report would help inform next steps in the strategy to achieve officially TB free status for England by 2038.
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA, said: “Farmers and animal charities want the same outcome – to end the scourge of bovine TB and the devastating impacts it has on farmers and animals.
“Our concern is that the focus on blaming badgers has stalled vital research and investment to find more effective solutions that would save the lives of cattle and move away from the current futile killing of badgers.”
National Farmers’ Union vice president Stuart Roberts said: “To tackle this disease it is crucial that we use every tool available to us, including cattle testing, cattle movement controls, on-farm biosecurity, vaccination and control of the reservoir of disease in wildlife in areas where it is endemic.”
He added: “Farmers are already taking a range of steps to protect themselves against this disease, with measures like securing feed stores, double fencing fields to stop nose-to-nose contact with cattle on adjoining farms, and preventing wildlife accessing buildings to help mitigate the risk of the disease spreading.
“The Godfray review suggests more can be done but the question many cattle keepers have is which measures bring the greatest disease control benefits.”