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.”
Devolution must be respected
IN RESPONSE to a UK Government white paper on internal markets, the Farmers’ Union of Wales has stressed the importance of protecting Welsh farmers against unfair competition from other parts of the UK and countries across the globe, and that Welsh devolution must be respected.
In his introduction to the UK Internal Market White Paper, Alok Sharma MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, highlights how increasing differences between rules and standards applied by different Governments in the UK’s four nations after Brexit could cause market distortion, discrimination and unfair competition for businesses in a way not seen for hundreds of years.
The White Paper, therefore, proposes measures to prevent such impacts based on the principles of ‘non-discrimination’ and ‘mutual recognition’
FUW Head of Policy, Dr Nick Fenwick said: “We are glad the UK Government has woken up to the need to take this issue seriously as it has previously been kicked into the long grass because it is so politically contentious.”
Dr Fenwick said that the FUW had been highlighting the need to address this issue since the EU Referendum in 2016, and in July 2018 the FUW had published a detailed paper considering the matter entitled ‘Filling the Void – Steps towards a post-Brexit UK policy framework’.
“While we welcome the UK Government’s recognition of this issue, we are extremely concerned at the suggestion that rules could simply be dictated by London, rather than there being a means by which to reach agreement between UK Governments.”
Dr Fenwick said such a move could undermine devolution and work to the disadvantage of Welsh farmers.
“The consideration of such matters in a White Paper within months of the end of the Withdrawal Agreement period gives us very little time to hold proper detailed discussions and introduce the type of structures and bodies we truly need to make recommendations, enforce regulations, arbitrate on matters etc. in a way that is fair.”
“It also gives us very little time to sort out what are huge constitutional issues which also happen to be crucial to the running of Welsh businesses,” he added.
In response to the White Paper, the Union further stressed that while the UK Government is right to recognise the dangers of direct and indirect discrimination, unfair competition, market distortion and other issues that could arise within the GB/UK internal market, it should also recognise that the same issue exists across international borders.
“Given the current trade negotiations with the EU and USA, for example, the UK Government should also recognise the likelihood of such adverse impacts occurring as a result of inappropriate or ill-considered trade deals which expose us to different standards or unfair competition,” said Dr Fenwick.
“This is a particular concern with regard to agricultural produce produced to environmental, health and welfare, social and other standards that do not meet those required of UK producers, and subsidy and support regimes that differ significantly to those introduced in future in the UK’s four nations.”
At present, while significant differences between the UK and the EU is allowed under Single Market, Common Agricultural Policy and related rules, these are within strict boundaries aimed at minimising market distortion and unfair competition while recognising regional and national needs.
If a trade deal with the EU is reached, there is potential for market distortion and unfair competition for UK producers as a result of the fact that the EU will continue to pay farmers direct support, but Wales and England want to move over to environmental ‘public goods’ style payments – with many lobbying for farm payments to be cut altogether.
“The EU’s reaffirmed commitment to maintaining direct support for active farmers through CAP payments, coupled with a move in Wales and other parts of the UK to get rid of direct farm support in favour of environmental payments, would clearly introduce the kind of unfair competition the UK Government refers to in this paper.
“This danger is no different in principle to the dangers recognised in the Internal Markets White Paper, so also should be recognised by our Governments – not only in the context of unfair competition from the EU, our most important trading partner in terms of food, but also countries like the USA if we are to strike a deal with them.
“We need a trade deal with the EU to avoid massive damage to farms and other businesses, but we also need our governments to recognise the self inflicted damage that could be done by radically changing our own farm support systems while our main competitors twenty or thirty miles away over the sea continue with direct farm support,” he added.
Wales can lead on net-zero farming
NFU CYMRU hosted a farm visit for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, to demonstrate that Welsh farmers are well-placed to deliver on the industry’s net zero ambitions.
The event saw NFU Cymru launch its new document, which sets out that Welsh farmers are part of the solution to climate change.
NFU Cymru President John Davies presented the report to the Secretary of State, who also holds the role of nominated President for COP26, as part of the on farm meeting.
The visit was hosted by NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones, whose 1,600-acre sheep, beef and egg farm near Corwen also produces renewable energy to satisfy the farm’s energy needs, exporting the surplus power to the grid.
As part of his visit to Derwydd Farm, Mr Sharma was also able to learn about the scale of work carried out on the farm as part of Welsh Government’s Glastir agri-environment scheme, including creating habitats for wildlife, tree planting, protecting some 30 acres of peatland, hedgerow management and soil and grassland management.
During his visit, the BEIS Secretary planted an apple tree as an example of the environmental work the agricultural sector carries out to sequester carbon, while also providing food and aiding biodiversity.
Speaking after the visit, NFU Cymru President John Davies said: “By focussing on improving farming’s productive efficiency; improving land management and enhancing land use to capture more carbon; and boosting renewable energy and the wider bio-economy, Wales’ farmers will be able to play their part in addressing the issues brought about by climate change. By reducing carbon emissions in these ways farmers are in a strong position to achieve the industry’s goal of achieving net zero by 2040.
“I am thrilled that we were able to welcome the BEIS Secretary, Alok Sharma MP, on farm today to see Llŷr Jones’ exciting and impressive farming enterprise, which has carbon capture and renewable energy at its heart. Llŷr’s farm is just one of a wide network of farms across Wales who are harnessing innovation to reduce emissions and produce climate friendly food. These businesses are net zero leaders not just in the respect of farming, but in a wider business context.”
Alok Sharma, COP26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “I was very pleased to visit Llŷr Jones’ farm and see first-hand the actions being taken to mitigate climate change and support nature on their land.
“I welcome the NFU’s ambitious commitment to reach net zero by 2040, and I look forward to working across governments, business and civil society in the run up to COP26 to raise global commitments to reduce carbon emissions.”
NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones added: “I take great pride in the work we do to maintain and enhance the environment, encourage biodiversity and support the local community alongside my core role as a food producer.
“I was pleased to be able welcome the Secretary of State on farm today to show him how we’re always striving to positively influence the carbon impact of our business. I hope Mr Sharma enjoyed his visit to my north Wales hill farm and that what he has seen shows him that our industry has a vital role to play in the climate change challenge now and in the future.”
Broadband must reach rural communities
THE FUW has responded positively to news that there are plans to bring full fibre broadband to an additional three million homes and businesses in some of the UK’s most isolated rural communities, but stresses it must really reach them.
The connection to 3.2 million UK premises, which was given the go-ahead after an Ofcom consultation, is reported to be part of a £12bn investment by Openreach to build full fibre infrastructure to 20 million premises throughout the UK by the end of this decade.
Places set to benefit include Aberystwyth in west Wales, Millom in Cumbria, Thurso in north-east Scotland, and Ballycastle in County Antrim. Openreach is due to publish the full list of the 251 locations, referred to as Area 3, where it will build the new network. Ofcom has estimated there are 9.6 million homes and businesses situated in this final third of the UK.
Responding to the announcement, FUW Ceredigion county chairman Morys Ioan said: “The last few months have served as a stark example of how vital connectivity is. Our own Union staff, many of whom live in rural areas, have been working from home and we have continued to assist members with digital paperwork for their farm businesses. Without an internet connection this would not have been possible.
“It is really good news that this extra funding is being directed at rural communities but we must make sure that it really does go to those premises who currently are not benefitting from full fibre broadband.
“Our rural towns and villages have been left behind in the race for better and faster connectivity and it is critical for the competitiveness and viability of rural businesses, and the economy, that tangible improvements are made now.
“The FUW has stressed on many occasions that those without a connection cannot diversify their businesses, that they cannot support their children’s education and that they cannot connect readily with Government programmes for advice and support payments as they are mandated to do.”
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