THE WELSH GOVERNMENT issued a press release last week hailing its success in delivering 5,000 vaccinations against Bovine TB (bTB) in the Intensive Action Area against the disease in North Pembrokeshire, South Ceredigion, and North-West Carmarthenshire.
The press release read: ‘More than 5,000 doses of badger vaccination have been administered to animals inside the Intensive Action Area (IAA) in West Wales over the past four years. We are now half way through the fourth year of the Welsh Government’s five-year badger vaccination project in parts of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, which forms part of a wider programme of work to eradicate TB from cattle in Wales.
‘The Deputy Minister for Farming and Food, Rebecca Evans, said: “Since 2010 we have introduced a number of additional measures in the IAA because it was identified as having some of the highest rates of incidence of TB in Europe.
“We are now half way through 2015’s round of the vaccination project and provisional results indicate we have successfully delivered over 5,000 doses of the vaccine in the IAA across the four years”.’
The statistics accompanying the summary were released at the same time.
The Herald delved into the data to establish what it told us about bTB rates and the effectiveness of the vaccination programme.
The history of bTB control
It is 55 years since the whole of the UK became attested on October 1, 1960. Each cattle herd was certified as being subject to regular tuberculin testing with immediate slaughter of any reactors. Progress was maintained throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The ‘clean ring strategy’ was a badger culling strategy introduced in 1982. It involved cage trapping badgers on land occupied by affected cattle herds, then on adjoining land, expanding outwards until no further infected animals were captured. It was abandoned in 1986 as being non cost-effective.
Between 1986 and 1997, the UK Government pursued a strategy in which badgers were cage-trapped and shot. However, the strategy was only piecemeal, largely because of pressure from animal charities and single-issue pressure groups that meant that only badgers on land occupied by the affected herd would be culled.
Bearing in mind current claims that culling badgers is ineffective because of the proposition that badgers would simply leave the culling area to go to a neighbouring area, the methodology adopted between 1986 and 1997 in order to prevent wider scale slaughter of badgers appears both flawed and naïve: a strategy doomed to fail, and predictably so.
Culling in other countries
In New Zealand the success of culling the principal vector for the disease, the possum, has been markedly successful.
In 1990 the proportion of TB in cattle was about 7 times greater than it was in Great Britain. However in 1997 the proportions were about equal. By 2011, the proportion in New Zealand is about 40 times less than what it is in Great Britain.
Since the early nineties, control of the principal wildlife vector, the possum has increased whilst in Great Britain since 1986 control of the principal wildlife vector, the badger, has reduced.
The method of culling in Ireland relies on the use of snares and the subsequent shooting of trapped badgers. That method, widely condemned as cruel, is expressly forbidden in the UK. The effectiveness of the range of bTB measures – including culling – adopted in Ireland has driven rates of bTB infection in herds to their lowest ever level.
Bovine TB figures have, however, also fallen in Northern Ireland, were no licensed culling has taken place. That fact has been alighted upon by those opposed to a cull as evidence of the ineffectiveness of shooting badgers in order to control bTB. However, bTB rates are still substantially higher in Northern Ireland than in the Republic of Ireland: in 2013 6.4 per cent of cattle herds tested positive in Northern Ireland compared to 3.8 per cent south of the border.
As might be ruefully observed, the validity of statistical evidence and the science deployed by those on either side of the culling debate is likely to remain subjective and views remain entrenched. Wildlife and animal charities will continue to deride culling, while those who deal with the personal and economic fallout of bTB will favour it.
The Welsh decision
It was against the background of apparent comparative success of culling in other countries that the Welsh Government decided to begin a five year vaccination trial in West Wales and worth recalling that the Welsh Government embarked upon a vaccination programme as very much a second preference.
In 2012, Welsh Labour abandoned a previous policy, formed in coalition with Plaid Cymru, which supported a badger cull and decided to pursue a policy of vaccination. In doing so, it was criticised by the then Chair of the British Veterinary Association for ignoring scientific evidence supporting a cull and accused of ‘cowardice’ in the face of a celebrity-backed campaign against the cull and pressure from animal charities.
The decision not to proceed was described as a betrayal of farmers whose herds remain affected by the reservoir of bTB in the wild badger population.
But what, it is fair to ask, is the Welsh Government’s ‘Plan B’?
What if the data suggests that vaccination is no more effective than doing nothing?
A farmer’s experience
The Herald spoke to one farmer, who provided his observations on life in the IAA on condition of strict anonymity.
The farmer told us: “My dairy herd has suffered from bTB for 12 years. In 2012, badgers began to be vaccinated in the area, along with strict cattle control.
“I, like many farmers find this to be a costly exercise which doesn’t reach the root of the problem, the over population of badgers in the area.
“The stricter cattle controls and improved biosecurity measures also brought in in the IAA looks to move the blame of bTB onto the farmers, which is unfair.
“Because of the desperation I face with losing cattle to slaughter because of bTB and falling milk prices, I am left with no alternative but to shoot badgers which are on my land. “This is a population control measure and I take no pleasure in the culling of an animal. It’s either the badger or my cattle, and for the sake of my family and my income, it’s the badger.”
Data and dates During the vaccination programme the absolute incidence of bTB has fallen markedly, with numbers of affected cattle falling. One key piece of data is not encouraging when it comes to weighing the effectiveness of the vaccination programme. In the period immediately preceding the vaccination programme the incidence bTB had fallen even more sharply.
Bovine TB cases had climbed sharply over the years to 2008/09, topping out at 29% per hundred head of cattle in the IAA that year. The rate of detected infection in the last full year in the most recent Welsh Government report (2014/15) shows that infection rates remain above where they were in 2006/2007, when they were at around 16% and that in the current control area was 8%.
After an initial increase in incidence following the introduction of interventions in the IAA, incidence has been decreasing since 2011/12. Incidence has also decreased in the Control Area (CA) in the last year, halving from 12 % to 6 %. In 2013/14, there were three times as many new bTB incidents per 100 unrestricted herds in the IAA (18 %) than in the CA (6 %,).
That means that the gap in the incidence of positive tests in the control area, where no vaccinations have been trialled, and the Intensive Action Area where they have has widened over the course of the vaccination programme. From the start of the IAA in 2010/11, and historically judging by the Welsh Government’s own data, the ratio had been around two to one. While one would expect the gap to narrow if vaccination were more effective that not vaccinating, the gap between the incidence in the IAA and the control area has widened.
We asked the Welsh Government about the issue the above analysis presented. A Welsh Government spokesperson said, “The downward trend in levels of bovine TB in the Intensive Action Area is encouraging and is broadly in line with the trend seen in other parts of Wales. We know that it may take years to fully see the benefits of some of our additional measures in the area, which includes six monthly testing and badger vaccination. Therefore it is too soon to draw any conclusions on the effectiveness of the measures in the IAA.”
Big Farmland Bird Count returns
JIM EGAN has sent out a rallying cry for people to pick up their binoculars and go bird-spotting for the Big Farmland Bird Count (BFBC) which returns on Friday, February 8.
The passionate organiser of the count, organised by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), is urging farmers, land managers, gamekeepers and all wildlife enthusiasts to spend 30 minutes recording what species they see on their patch of land from February 8th to the 17th.
Your support will help identify the farmland birds that are flourishing due to good conservation methods and ones in need of most support.
“It would be fantastic to see even more farmers to take part in the count this year,” said Jim.
“Counting birds on farms is a great way to recognise what species are there as well as being an opportunity to take time out and see the benefits of work such as wild seed mix and supplementary feeding.
“Taking part and submitting results enables us at GWCT to shout about the important conservation work many farmers are doing.
“We want landowners to be proud of their efforts. We will make sure that the public and policymakers hear about what can be achieved on Britain’s farms. The BFBC is a very positive way to showcase what can be achieved.”
Backing this vital citizen-science project, running for the sixth successive year, is the NFU, which is this year’s sponsor.
President Minette Batters is vowing her support to the count by going bird-watching on her farm in Downton, Wiltshire.
She will be joined on day one with GWCT biodiversity advisor Pete Thompson, an advocate of the count, both of whom will be ready with their binoculars, notepads and sharpened pencils, recording what they see.
“I am delighted to be taking part in this year’s GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count which the NFU is pleased to be sponsoring for the very first time,” she said.
“It’s becoming an important national event where thousands of farmers and growers around the country are able to take stock of and importantly, take pride in what they find on their land.
“The NFU supports initiatives like the Big Farmland Bird Count as without sound management of the environment, enhancement of habitats, protection of wildlife and support for pollinators and soils, we do not have farming businesses.
“So, I would encourage all farmers to take part, and also remember to submit your records to the GWCT, so we can pull together a vital national snapshot of the state of the nation when it comes to farmland birds.”
A record-breaking 1,000 people took part in last year’s count, recording 121 species across 950,000 acres.
A total of 25 red-listed species were recorded, with five appearing in the 25 most commonly seen species list. These include fieldfares, starlings, house sparrows, song thrushes and yellowhammers. The most plentiful of these were fieldfares and starlings, which were seen on nearly 40% of the farms taking part.
At the end of the count, the results will be analysed by the Trust. All participants will receive a report on the national results once they have been collated.
New Flock and Herd Health Officers
HYBU Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) has appointed two new Flock and Herd Health Officers to its ambitious five-year Red Meat Development Programme, designed to equip Wales’s lamb and beef industry for a changing future.
The posts are key to delivering the programme’s commitment to helping farmers achieve on-farm efficiency and drive best practice in proactive animal health planning.
The programme is supported by the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 – 2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.
Lowri Reed hails from a farming background near Llanon in central Ceredigion, whereas Lowri Williams is from Llanfihangel y Creuddyn near Aberystwyth, and is a graduate in Animal Management and Welfare from Harper Adams University.
Dr Rebekah Stuart, the coordinator of the Flock and Herd Health Project at HCC, said: “We’re delighted to have recruited two officers with experience and knowledge of agriculture and flock management to this important strand of work.
“There are few things that can have as great an impact on the efficiency and bottom line of a livestock enterprise as a proactive and coordinated approach to animal health and eradicating disease.
“The project will help farmers to work with vets to put health plans in place and monitor their effectiveness. Since opening an initial expression of interest window late last year at the Winter Fair, we’re encouraged by how many farmers are keen to be involved. We look forward to working with them to put this exciting project into action.”
Agri-food robotics centre launched
A NEW advanced training centre in agri-food robotics will create the largest ever cohort of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) specialists for the global food and farming sectors, thanks to a multi-million-pound funding award.
The world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for agri-food robotics is being established by the University of Lincoln, UK, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded £6.6m for the new Centre which will see a massive influx of high-level robotics expertise at a vital time for the agri-food industry. The CDT will provide funding and training for at least 50 doctoral students, who will be supported by major industry partners and specialise in areas such as autonomous mobility in challenging environments, the harvesting of agricultural crops, soft robotics for handling delicate food products, and ‘co-bots’ for maintaining safe human-robot collaboration and interaction in farms and factories.
Professor Tom Duckett, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Lincoln, is the new Centre Director. He said: “Automation and robotics technologies are set to transform global industries – within the UK alone they will add £183bn to the economy over the next decade.
“Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK – twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined – supporting a food chain, from farm to fork, which generates a Global Value Added (GVA) of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry.
“However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions, and the demographics of an ageing population in advanced economies.
“Addressing these challenges requires a new generation of highly skilled RAS researchers and leaders, and our new CDT will be dedicated to delivering that expertise. It will be a real focal point for robotics innovation in the UK.”
At Lincoln, the CDT represents an important partnership between robotics researchers from the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS) and agricultural experts from the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT), as they work together to combat these pressing issues facing the global food chain.
Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, Professor Simon Pearson, said: “It is widely agreed that robotics will transform the food and farming industries in the coming years, but there is still a major skills gap in this area. Working with our industry and academic partners to design the 50 PhD scholarships will enable us to expand the UK’s science and engineering base, delivering a flood of skills and expertise that will drive our food and farming industries into the future.”
Professor Richard Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at UEA, added: “Agriculture remains an important and atavistic activity in the UK but it the most dangerous of all the main UK industry sectors. Given that, isn’t it astonishing that so much effort is devoted to robots for driving and delivering parcels to your door?
“This project will initiate a new movement to build robots to handle the unpleasant, difficult and repetitive aspects of farming. At UEA our expertise is in Computer Vision which is making computers that see. We’d like to build robots that can see when an ear of corn has ripened or be able to measure the amount of sunlight falling on a field of wheat or to tell when beans are ready for picking. We look forward to developing new systems that handle the challenge of being on a farm.”
The Centre brings together a unique collaboration of leading researchers from the Universities of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia, together with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, supported by leading industrial partners and stakeholders from across the food, farming and robotics industries. These include John Deere, Syngenta, G’s Growers, Beeswax Dyson, ABB and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.
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