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Monday, September 20, 2010

Minister poised to make the same mistakes on bTB

Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones is to go to a farm in North Pembrokeshire this afternoon to announce that she will be ressurrecting her plans to cull badgers in the area as part of a bTB eradication strategy. This time though she will be defining the area of the cull in the order and taking more care with the consultation after the fiasco she presided over last time.

The Minister has issued a written statement to Assembly Members in which she acknowledges that an injectable vaccine for badgers is already available but argues that this will not eradicate the existing pool of bTB. Nobody has said that it would, but it would certainly stop it spreading and it will take just five years for those badgers already infected to die out naturally. She says she has set up a working group to develop a vaccination policy for Wales. That development at least is very welcome.

Also welcome is the increased emphasis on cattle control measures and the zero tolerance approach against those farmers who do not test on time and who ignore the measures that have been put in place to minimise the infection of cattle by other cattle.

However, that is where the logic of the Minster's position ends. She says that all the evidence suggests that a combination of culling badgers alongside strict cattle control measures will be the most effective strategy in reducing bovine TB in cattle. That was certainly not the conclusion of the UK government's culling study, which ran from 1998-2007 and was conducted by the Independent Scientific Group. The most up-to-date conclusion of that group was that "badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain". Rather than suppressing the disease, killing badgers appears to spread it.

The Minister is hoping that the 28% reduction in bTB she now estimates will be delivered by the cull will be considered to be 'substantial' by the courts, and that this will therefore be sufficient to justify overriding wildlife Acts designed to protect the badger. What she does not explain is how she arrived at this figure when her previous plans only envisaged a 9% reduction in bTB.

It seems to me that even on the new figure, and in the light of the ISG evidence, the Minister will still have difficulty passing the test set by the courts when they overturned her last order. She could find herself arguing this case right up to and beyond the Assembly elections. It is also likely that she may lose again, leaving the other measures in the order in limbo and hindering her cattle control measures.

It is significant that the Minister states that she does not envisage eradicating the badger population in North Pembrokeshire. She estimates that there are 1400 affected badgers in the area but does not claim that she will cull them all. She says that she expects the badger population is the Intensive Action Area will not disappear completely and that it will recover to its pre-cull level within five to ten years.

If that is the case then what is the point of her policy? Badgers will still be infected by bTB from other animals, including the cattle and she will have to start the cycle all over again. This is clear evidence in my view of the short term impact of her policy and its dependency on electoral considerations rather than rational science. The only long term solution is vaccination, but this needs to be started now not at some indeterminate time in the future.

The Minister is not just gambling with her own future, she is also gambling with the future of farmers as well through her obstinacy. The delays involved in obtaining the necessary powers to implement cattle control measures caused by arguments over the cull, will mean that bTB will continue to spread at a faster rate than it need do.

She will also once more be creating dissension within the various communities of North Pembrokeshire affected by this cull and will no doubt return to the regime of police and Assembly Official intimidation to put her policy into place, forcing landowners to allow access, putting their own biosecurity at risk and creating the danger of infection through the resultant pertubation.

This is a failed policy from a failing Minister and her Labour colleagues, including the First Minister, who resisted a cull when he was Rural Affairs Minister, need to get a grip and tell her to think again.

Update: The Badger Trust has now issued a statement which is reproduced below:

In announcing a further proposal to kill badgers in Wales, Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones said she remained determined to tackle the bovine tuberculosis crisis in Wales. But culling could make no meaningful contribution and could make the epidemic worse. This would not be eradication of bovine tuberculosis and was the conclusion of the greatest scientific field trial ever undertaken in Britain costing £50 million over nine years.* Worse, the Badger Trust stresses that the plan would also interfere with the stringent cattle-based measures Welsh farmers are already taking.

Ms Jones says “most experts” agreed that badgers played an important role and that bTB could not be beaten unless the disease was tackled in both wildlife and cattle. However, she fails to name her “experts” or to indicate their status or qualifications to call any role of badgers “important”.

She also says “our critics claim that vaccination of badgers is the answer”. This is not the stance of the Badger Trust. We agree with her that vaccination could only prevent or reduce infection transmitted by badgers. That said, vaccination has a key advantage: it avoids the perturbation effect when badger social groups are disrupted by culling and could be helpful alongside cattle-based measures, in particular annual cattle testing. Badger Trust points out that dangerously, there is a higher number of overdue herd tests in Dyfed than in the rest of Wales (six as opposed to four percent), according to the Jan - June 2010 official statistics and half the overdue tests are in Dyfed, the specified area of west Wales. This is where Ms Jones promises a draft order that would allow the Welsh Assembly Government to pursue “a badger control strategy”.

Under the proposals, there would be an annual cull of badgers over a five-year period. A ruling by the Court of Appeal in July ruled that an earlier order, the Tuberculosis Eradication (Wales) Order 2009, which applied to the whole of Wales was unlawful. The new draft order is specific to an Intensive Action Area, covering north Pembrokeshire and including areas of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. However, Ms Jones fails to mention two other counts on which the court ruled in the Trust’s favour: that culling would not yield a substantial benefit as required by the Animal Heath Act, nor that there was the necessary balance between the disbenefit to wildlife and any benefit of eradication. The Trust explains that figures quoted for assumed benefits of culling in the intensive action area do not put them into context. The statement says: “. . . there would be an annual cull of badgers over a five-year period. Based on the available evidence, at the end of a cull and post cull period (total of 10 years), through culling alone we expect to have reduced bovine TB in cattle in the area by approximately 22%, preventing an estimated 83 confirmed herd breakdowns that would otherwise have occurred in the absence of culling badgers in the area”.

The statement fails to explain that an extrapolation of the last two years’ figures (2008 and 2009) for Dyfed means there would be 6,255 breakdowns over ten years, so 83 over that period would be 13 in a thousand – hardly substantial and a reckless gamble. For the present the much improved stringent cattle measures in Wales now in force should be allowed to produce results, but it will take many years, and badger culling will lengthen rather than shorten the process.


That's a little personal.

Outside politics, the rest of us deal with tradeoff's which are nearly always imperfect with right and wrong being a matter of perspective. TB and Badgers is a complex issue which no clear cut right answer, especially if your are looking at it from the Badgers point of view. While no problem is truly intractable, TB and Badgers is getting close.

Please play nice children. Elin deserves a hug next time you see her and kind words that you don't think she is failing, just wrong.

Elin will get judged as to her success or failure next year, that is our job as Ceredigion voters.

No doubt you expect us to treat public servants with respect. Can you do the same for your peers?
The cattle controls you refer to have not been delayed, as you claim: In fact they have been in place since May.

The 9% figure presumably comes from a calculation carried out for a smaller culling area. If you increase the area and take other factors into account it increases the positive effect of culling.

The ISG's Final Report (which you seem to treat like a Bible, despite the fact that the culling results contained within it have been superseded at least three times by follow up reports) says that "...in any event, a vaccine for badgers would need to be delivered by the oral route, in the form of a bait, in order to be practical and economically viable".
I am aware that cattle controls have been in place but in her statement to the Assembly on 14 July the Minister made it clear that the loss of the Order meant that other measures apart from a cull could not be implemented.

The 9% figure is the one presented to the courts by Government officials and is referred to in the judgement. From what I can see in the statement the intended area for this cull is identical to the one considered then so the discrepancy cannot be put down to it being a smaller area. In any case 9% is a percentage reduction in bTb not the absolute reduction in badgers, the only context in which your argument would make sense.

Actually the quote does not come from the ISG's final report but the subsequent reports by the ISG monitoring the long term impact of the cull to which you refer and which are the most recent evidence. I treat it as a work of authority because it is the most comprehensive peer-reviewed study available.

A vaccination trial is being instituted in Gloucesteshire shortly in which the vaccine is being administered by injection. It does not have to be an oral application. The method is very similar to that being advocated for Pembrokeshire except the badger is not killed. My argument is that the Minister should use the trial in the IAA for our own vaccination trial rather than a cull.
'Personal' is having people force their way onto your farm to slaughter your badgers against your will despite the fact that they are apparently healthy as you've had no TB! Elin Jones wouldn't be in politics if she found someone saying that she is making a mistake to be too 'personal'.

The 9% figure comes from direct empirical results - and while there have been further studies of the RBCT areas since, those are all by scientists who still say that culling is not worthwhile. I have yet to see a single scientist with expertise in this area who backs the cull, while the list of those who oppose it goes on and on.

Vaccination would be cheaper, far more flexible as to where and when you can use it, far less divisive and unpopular and will probably work better in the long run. If nothing else it actually decreases the level of TB in badgers whereas culling increases it - so will never eliminate TB.
PB: “…in her statement to the Assembly on 14 July the Minister made it clear that the loss of the Order meant that other measures apart from a cull could not be implemented.”

The Minister was probably referring to vaccination, which was included in the quashed order.

PB: : “From what I can see in the statement the intended area for this cull is identical to the one considered then so the discrepancy cannot be put down to it being a smaller area”

Here is what the Judgement says: “[the 9% figure] was based on a field trial in an area culled of 125 km2 in England.”

The Welsh area is 288km2.

PB: “9% is a percentage reduction in bTb not the absolute reduction in badgers, the only context in which your argument would make sense.”

Not sure where you got 'reduction in badgers' from. The whole point is that increasing the size of an area increases the positive effect of culling in the culling area (30% reduction in TB incidences based on figures published in the Judgement), while offsetting the negative effect on the periphery of the cull area (a 13% increase, again based on the judgement). It’s straightforward geometry – the larger the shape, the smaller the area of the halo around it, expressed as a percentage of the whole.

PB: “Actually the quote does not come from the ISG's final report but the subsequent reports by the ISG.”

The Final Report of the ISG means just that – i.e. there are no subsequent reports to the ‘final’ report. There are papers published in conjunction with ex-members of the (now long disbanded) ISG. The latest figures were published in July this year, and show an overall reduction in TB of 28.3% in the culling area, and an overall increase outside the culling area of 9%. Another of the papers published by a former ISG member this year said that “TB in cattle herds could be substantially reduced, possibly even eliminated, in the absence of transmission from badgers to cattle”.

Clearly, some of us disagree with the ISG's 2007 statement that "badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of TB etc." , while simultaneously agreeing with their view that "...a vaccine for badgers would need to be delivered by the oral route, in the form of a bait, in order to be practical and economically viable".

You clearly take the opposite view, agreeing with the former statement, but dismissing the latter. It all shows how dangerous it is for scientists to make such conclusive statements regarding a complex issue regarding which figures are still emerging.
Hello Peter

Didn't mean to diss ALL Lib-Dems in a previous comment - and thanks for answering the "off-topic."

Re the announcement today - it is both remarkable and highly disturbing that all the "evidence" presented to Elin Jones this time round is about culling. Last time, there were numerous papers on the WAG website saying, more or less, that although vaccination had not been carried out on a wide scale, models suggested it would work as well as a cull but have none of the social side-effects. These papers have now gone - we've still got them, though, as we anticipated this and downloaded like mad when the cull was quashed. Here are 2 excerpts, about which, incidentally, Elin Jones or Glossop have never responded in public:

“The final model commissioned by the Welsh Assembly also included output comparing the effects of each control strategy on the incidence of cattle herd breakdowns. While the model cannot predict the time until benefits can be seen with each approach, the differences in reductions in cattle herd breakdowns between the cull only, vaccinate only and combined method without perturbation were minimal and unlikely to be detectable in the field. All three of these options resulted in a long-term reduction in CHB of between 5% and 10%. All three models are based on all the most up-to-date scientific evidence on TB dynamics in badgers and cattle and the potential efficacies of the suggested control options”.

“A more recent modeling exercise aimed to compare the feasibility and efficacy of different spatial strategies of badger vaccination aimed at reducing the rates of TB in British cattle herds (CSL 2009b). The most effective spatial strategy in reducing CHBs was one that targeted the worst areas of cattle TB. This report did not comment on the number of CHBs prevented or the time until such benefits were seen, but it did indicate that a vaccination strategy was effective at reducing cattle herd breakdowns”.

Welsh Assembly Government, 2008, Decision Paper on an Intensive Action Pilot Area

So what's changed, so as to cause Glossop's office to now assert that "the unknowns of vaccination and the weaknesses in relation to its effectiveness mean that it is not a reasonably practicable alternative to the culling of badgers as a way of reducing TB in cattle in the IAA within a reasonable time".

Stitch-up, whitewash..call it what you will. But that's what's going on here. And WAG have had the nerve to invite the badger people onto their vaccination working group!
My understanding is that the latest paper published this year concluded that "badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of TB" and the quotation comes from that.
No. That quote is from June 2007, since when three more sets of figures showing overall better results have been published. These are real figures, whereas the figures relating to the impact of vaccination were based upon speculation and complex computer models which can only give qualitative rather than quantitative outcomes, given the huge number of unknown variables when it comes to vaccination.
Sorry, I have checked and that quote is from the latest update report published in 2010 and not the 2007 study. That report says that there is no long term benefit of badger culling on the incidence on bovine TB in cattle. The authors of this work (all members of the ISG) conclude:

“Our findings show that the reductions in cattle TB incidence achieved by repeated badger culling were not sustained in the long term after culling ended and did not offset the financial costs of culling. These results, combined with evaluation of alternative culling methods, suggest that badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain."

It can be found here:http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0009090
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