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From: Huw Rowlands (Farmer)

BOVINE TUBERCULOSIS:

A SOLUTION

 

There is no doubt that everybody wants to see Bovine Tuberculosis eradicated from our national cattle herd.  How to do this has become an extremely emotive subject, but I believe that the so-called “Badger Cull” to be seriously mistaken and wrong in so many ways.

My dictionary defines the verb “to cull” as meaning “to take out (inferior or surplus animals) from a herd or flock.  Based on this definition, what is taking place cannot be described as a cull, but merely as a random killing of badgers in the target areas.  Nobody can be certain how many badgers exist in Somerset and Gloucestershire, so nobody can be sure that the 80% target of badger deaths would ever be met.  How can it be possible to kill a percentage of an unknown number?  The numbers cannot add up because they don’t exist.


Dead animals are not healthy animals.
Badger skull, courtesy of Shropshire Wildlife Trust.

Methodologically the badger kill is unlikely to be effective.  By randomly shooting badgers which are out and foraging at night, the most likely victims will those animals which are the healthiest and therefore least likely to be carriers of BTb.  The most seriously affected animals will remain underground in their setts, but will be encouraged to wander further afield in search of their kin once the healthier members of their cete have been eradicated.  This can only increase the risk of the disease being spread further.

Morally and ethically the random killing of badgers is unacceptable.   Clearly, dead animals are not healthy animals.  It seems to be a peculiarly British approach to disease control that the solution to an outbreak is to kill anything affected first and ask questions later.  Other animals are known to be vectors for BTb.  Once we have killed all the badgers, are we then going to start on fallow deer, foxes, moles, brown rats, ferrets and domestic cats just in case they are harbouring BTb?  And just to be on the safe side, had we better kill every single rabbit and mouse since they have been shown in laboratory tests to be able to be infected with BTb?

On this farm, which is one of a tiny number (three, at the last count) in the United Kingdom producing rare breed beef to LEAF Marque standard, our philosophy is to work with our land and wildlife rather than against it.  For this reason among others we keep Red Poll cattle which are suited to our land.  Some years ago we discovered that herd health and disease resistance was reduced in part because our soils and soil structure had not been monitored and maintained.  This deficiency is now being addressed by the use of green compost to improve both the soil’s structure and its humus content, releasing more minerals and nutrients to the benefit of plant growth and thus cattle health and immunity to disease.  If this benefits our cattle in terms of disease resistance, it reduces the risk of them catching BTb and must have a similar effect on our resident badgers.  If we can provide and maintain a healthy ecosystem, disease (and merely BTb) becomes less of a problem.

In partnership with Natural England and Cheshire Wildlife Trust we are at the end of the second year of a five year long programme to vaccinate badgers against BTb.  By ensuring that we have a healthy badger population, we are less likely to suffer from badgers from outside our own cete moving onto the farm and bringing disease with them.  Ideally we would be testing the badgers we trap and culling (in the true meaning of the word) any found to be infected both to protect our cattle and to protect the remaining badger population.


Badgers are marked with livestock spray once they have been vaccinated
to prevent a re-catch being treated twice.

The big worry in big business and government circles is that Britain might lose its Officially Tb Free (OTbF) status.  The question nobody seems to be asking is why it is needed in the first place.  Were it to be lost, live exports would be banned, which is something many people are keen to see happen in any case.  If we wish to export beef, it is far more humane for cattle to be killed in Britain and sides of beef to be transported and shipped.  If we wish to export for livestock breeding purposes, then the technology exists to allow semen and embryos to be whisked across the globe.  Live exports are an anachronism and we can live very happily without them.  Were we prepared to sacrifice our OTbF status on the altar of pragmatism, field trials of a BTb cattle vaccine could then take place, ultimately leading to vaccination of the entire national herd.


BTb casts a long shadow over Britain.

The failure to deal with BTb by successive governments is costing Britain a fortune. DEFRA’s own figures show that solely in compensation for slaughtered cattle £152.1 million was paid out from 2008 to 2013, and many of the livestock killed were undervalued.  BTb herd breakdowns are driving individual farm businesses close to bankruptcy and individual farmers close to suicide.  It would be far cheaper in the long term, and far more humane, to abandon OTbF status and go all out for cattle vaccination.

Let's open the door to a new way of thinking how we manage and control disease both in our valued domestic animals and in our precious wildlife.

Copyright © Huw Rowlands 2014 - All photographs by the author.

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