Saturday, 14 January 2012

Badger/Bovine TB

In recent years I have become increasingly concerned by the effect TB is having on the welfare of our farming clients. Few people actually realise the emotional strain that is put upon families who have devoted their lives to farming, only to watch animal after animal test positive for TB in the knowledge that these stock, some of which may have been bred for generations, are now condemned to slaughter.

Farmers are often portrayed as being “hard” and “unfeeling” but in reality if you are to make a living out of rearing livestock you do need to have an empathy with your livestock after all if they are unwell they will neither grow to put on meat, become pregnant to provide lambs or calves nor produce milk. Thus the welfare of their animals is very important to farmers but they are also realists in that where there is life there is also death which is something the rest of society has, in large part, become sanitised from.

Despite this acceptance of death, the impact of the premature slaughter of livestock because of TB is often hard to handle both emotionally and financially. Farmers do receive compensation for livestock lost to TB but this is rarely sufficient to replace the livestock and goes nowhere at all to compensate for the additional costs and losses resulting from a TB breakdown such as additional feed required to sustain cattle that cannot be moved off the holding or the loss of milk production.

So, it was with interest that I recently attended a farmers meeting hosted by the Shepton Veterinary Group where Paddy Gordon, partner in the practice, spoke to a room full of dairy farmers all eager to learn how they can help reduce the impact of this devastating disease. Paddy who is a Cambridge graduate, part time lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, winner of various national awards as well as a practicing vet is no intellectual slouch and he stated that the current policy of TB control is simply not working.

The disease has spread at an alarming rate in the last 25 years; in 1986 235 cattle tested positive in the whole of the UK while in 2010 over 28,500 cattle tested positive. Surely this is evidence enough that the current policies are not working. In Somerset, which has escaped the worst effects of the disease until the last 10 years, the number of new herd break downs increased from 34 in 2001 to 303 in 2010. Paddy Gordon estimated that in the last 10 years the number of herds under restriction has also increased from 2% to 15% in the county.

Paddy explained that farmers are sceptical about the accuracy of the TB test but he rebutted this assertion by explaining that the test is pretty accurate and the reason there are so many “false positives” is more likely to be because evidence of the disease has not become physically visible at the abattoir rather than the animal actually not being infected. Of more concern is that the test misses some infected animals at the early and late stages of the disease.

In fact Paddy thinks this is a significant issue which is why herds do need to be tested frequently to reduce the chance of cow to cow transmission. However he also went on to explain that however frequently the tests are carried out, if there is an external source of infection which is not being tackled the disease will never be brought under control.

In this respect, badgers have been identified as the primary wildlife source of the disease and recently the government has announced that it will allow badger culling in pilot areas. Paddy went on to address the assembled audience on the practicalities of doing this in the Shepton Mallet area. The theory is that if the badger population can be reduced by 70% in a minimum area of 150 sq Km then the disease will reduce in cattle by as much as 28%. By way of example, 150 sq Km would represent a circle around Shepton Mallet extending as far as Oakhill in the north and Ditcheat in the south.

It was recognised this would be both very controversial and a massive logistical task but many farmers are desperate to reduce the impact of this disease on their lives and would be willing to pay for the cull which would be carried out by trained marksmen. In the meantime many farmers are already introducing additional biosecurity measures, trying to exclude badgers from cattle buildings and feed stores but this is not easy because a persistent badger can get through a three inch gap and obviously when cattle are out to pasture this can be even more difficult unless we have mains electric fences around all fields which would no doubt also be unpopular with walkers and the like.

So, what can be done? Well Paddy Gordon’s view, which seemed to be accepted by those present was that in the short term a badger cull, alongside continued cattle testing is the only way of tackling the disease although in the long term an effective vaccine for badgers will ultimately be the answer.

I find it sad, having been involved in research in to badgers and bovine TB back in the late 1980s that the arguments over this disease have hardly moved forward since then which is probably why the disease has continued to spread. Therefore regrettably I think the time has now come for action on badgers although at the same time I think as much resource as possible should be focussed on the development of an effective oral vaccine for badgers because that will probably be the most effective solution to a problem that everyone would like to see behind us.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Winter Roosts of Starlings

The winter roosts of starlings on the Somerset Levels have in recent years become a national phenomenon, even featuring on television advertisements. But, as so often happens, this spectacle has become a double edged sword because of the nuisance the birds can cause when they congregate to feed during the day at nearby farms.

It may come as a surprise to many that despite the huge numbers of birds we see during the winter, there is concern about the Starling population in this country. Indeed it has been placed, along with 51 other species on the “red list” by the UK’s leading bird conservation organisations.

The reason for this categorisation is largely because of the decline in the UK breeding population of which I have personal experience. For instance I can remember as a child being woken up by starlings scrabbling beneath the tiles on the roof above my bedroom where they were nesting and yet I cannot remember the last time I saw a starling nesting in such a manner in this area.

So there seems no doubt that the breeding population in this country has certainly declined, but the birds we see here in the winter are largely migrants from northern continental Europe and it is this disconnect between the huge numbers we see and the declining UK population which confuses many people.

Interesting as this may be, it does not get to grips with the problem we are now witnessing in this area where huge flocks of starlings are descending daily on some farms, giving rise to concerns regarding livestock feed contamination and possibly even contamination of human food products such as milk. Indeed one local farmer has claimed he has lost a significant number of livestock, and money as a direct result of the starlings. This gave rise to David Heath, MP for Somerton and Frome asking questions on the subject in Parliament.

The problem is that the Starlings are attracted to the UK because of our relatively mild winters and the reed beds on the Somerset levels provide ideal roosting sites from where the birds disperse in to the surrounding countryside in huge numbers to feed by day. As the number of farms has reduced in recent years, those that remain have often become bigger and now they provide ideal feeding grounds for huge flocks of starlings.

Dairy farms in particular are vulnerable to “attack” because they often feed their cattle with a “total mixed ration” where silage is mixed with other feedstuffs to provide the cows with a balanced “meal” providing all the necessary nutrients in the correct proportions. However, the starlings also seem to thrive on such rations and where the feed is based on maize silage in particular the starlings accumulate in huge numbers feeding in close proximity to the cows and leaving their faeces everywhere, including in the feed.

Anyone who has been under a large flock of starlings when it flies over will realise they do produce a fair amount of droppings and these may not only contaminate feed but also drinking water which many farmers are now harvesting off their roofs.

So, it is interesting to learn that DairyCo, which is a not-for-profit organisation working on behalf of, and funded by Britain's dairy farmers, has awarded a grant to local independent dairy specialists, Kingshay to investigate ways of evaluating and reducing the impact of starlings on dairy herds.

Kingshay, based at West Bradley state that “most say that maize silage is the magnet that attracts birds but some farmers have succeeded in reducing starling invasions on their farms and we need to investigate the combination of factors behind their success.”

So we await the outcome of their report with interest and in this context Kingshay would be pleased to hear from any farmers who have successfully reduced the starling problem on their farm without adversely affecting the bird population. Kingshay can be contacted on 01458 851555.

James Stephen MRICS FAAV
Rural Practice Chartered Surveyor, Wells

T: 01749 683381