I am committed to telling it how it is on the farm, so how could I possibly not write about how, after remaining free from the disease for 39 years, our herd has recently been on the receiving end of a so called ‘TB breakdown’.
Throughout the time we have been at Bwlchwernen – my farm in West Wales – we have undergone regular bovine TB tests, all of which we passed. The tests involve skin testing all our cows with a serum, which are checked to see if they show a reaction on a return vet’s visit, three days later. No swelling or a lump under 4mm means clear, whilst those with swellings larger than this are either termed ‘inconclusive’, (in which case the animal gets another test), or ‘reactor’, meaning the animal is presumed to have TB and must be slaughtered.
Over the years, we have had quite a few ‘inconclusives’ but they have all gone clear on the subsequent test. However, our run of good fortune came to an end in March, when we had two so called ‘reactors’ and five ‘inconclusives’ in our annual test, most of which were young animals. Receiving this news is a major blow for any livestock farmer, but for us, as cheese-makers using unpasteurised milk, it is obviously more serious. Not because there is any risk from eating cheese made from the milk of these cows – recent research has shown that the TB bacterium is unable to survive the cheese making process – but because we must now pasteurise our milk until the farm goes clear again.
I find the UK approach to controlling livestock diseases deeply flawed, and the resulting regulatory system has, in my opinion, become obsessively risk averse, due to a combination of a deep and now nationally institutionalised fear of disease, plus a fundamental lack of understanding about its true nature and causes.
I have always believed that health is far more than the mere absence of disease, but rather a vital state where plants, animals and people are able to stay in good health and resist disease organisms as a consequence of sound nutrition and hopefully, in our case, good dairy farming practice. There is nothing new about this idea – it has been around for more than a century – but everything I have experienced during my years of farming here has reinforced my belief in this philosophy and shown me that, with very rare exceptions, if the welfare and nutrition of the animals are properly attended to, health will be the consequence and disease problems will by and large correct themselves.
TB has always been present on UK farms, as it has been in the human population, but until the nineteen eighties, the levels at which it occurred among cattle were relatively low. During the last thirty years, however, the incidence of breakdown has increased to the point where it has reached near epidemic proportions, particularly on farms in the South West of England and Wales.
There are several factors that have contributed to this, these include the intensification of dairy farming, the “genetic improvement” of dairy cows that compromises their immune systems, and the use of nitrogen fertiliser, which has resulted in the acidification of soils and leads to various mineral imbalances, especially selenium.
There is also no doubt in my mind that the dramatic increase in the badger population since the early eighties is one of the key factors behind the spread of the disease. The main reason for this expansion of badgers is that in 1981, the wildlife and countryside act gave them protected status, thus making it illegal for farmers to control populations, which until then was common practice. Once you have too many badgers, they end up hungry, they build sets in the wrong places, the weak ones gets sick, and this minority of unhealthy badgers then acts as a reservoir of infection to nearby dairy herds.
I know full well that it is controversial to link badger population increases to the spread of bovine TB from my time at the Soil Association, where there was a substantial split of opinion amongst my senior colleagues about this issue. Some of us, myself included, were of the view that allowing the badger population to increase unchecked was creating the very conditions that causes human populations to contract diseases in cities – overcrowding, poor hygiene and poor nutrition. We felt that if we spoke out about this, it would probably have some traction with the public, who had come to trust us over food related issues, and enable the Government to adopt a more sensible disease treatment strategy.
Those opposing argued the opposite – that many Soil Association members would be horrified to learn that an organisation they trusted on issues around food actually advocated the targeted control of this much loved countryside creature. In the end I was persuaded to keep quiet, and consequently we never spoke about this publicly. Nevertheless, it remains my view that the badger is absolutely, although by no means exclusively, part of the problem, and unless their population is reduced, any measures adopted to control TB amongst cows are likely to prove a pointless exercise – rather like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it.
The government however, have not adopted this position, largely because of their perception that it would not sit well politically with the badger loving urban majority. Instead they have stuck with the policy of slaughtering all animals testing positive, whilst leaving the badger populations to find their own equilibrium.
Back to our case history. After our first positive skin test result, the Government Animal Health Department carried out an assessment of local farms and found that two years ago, a nearby holding had a single case of TB and so was considered ‘contiguous’ to ours, (even though we don’t share a boundary). This meant that the results of our second skin test, conducted 60 days after the first, would be upgraded to ‘severe interpretation’ with the consequence that five of our inconclusive testing cattle were reclassified and also sent to slaughter.
I was so unhappy about this, I emailed the Wales Chief Vet, asking her if our animals could be blood tested before they were sent to slaughter, but this was rejected and we were informed that unless we ‘went quietly’, not only would the compensation be withdrawn for any slaughtered animals, but we would also be liable for prosecution. We decided further resistance was futile and with extreme reluctance, allowed the animals to be killed. At the time of writing this, we have now parted with 16 animals, none of which showed any signs of ill health, one of which was our highest yielding cow at the time, and another was a young heifer with a gleaming coat, about to have her first calf.
The procedure after slaughter is to establish by post-mortem whether the cattle show any clinical signs of TB, firstly through a visual inspection of the lungs and subsequently through laboratory cultured tissue samples. In our case, none of the animals showed any signs of clinical infection, either at post-mortem or from the subsequent tissue test, but our relief at learning this has been tempered with the frustration of learning that since none of the slaughtered animals have been shown to have the disease, they had in all probability lost their lives in vain.
One of the key questions arising from this depressing catalogue of events is why it should be that our cattle are showing positive reactions to the skin test when they don’t appear to actually have TB. There are two hypotheses which could go some way to explaining this. The first is that although our cows are coming into contact with infected badgers, instead of actually contracting TB, they are developing immunity, which is in turn creating antibodies which are triggering the inconclusive and positive skin tests.
The other possibility is that a significant number of our cows have the parasite liver fluke, which, according to one of our vets, is often responsible for so called ‘false positive’ reactions to the skin test. This would account for the reason why in the past, when we have dosed inconclusive reacting cows for liver fluke, they have always gone clear on the second test.
These hypotheses correlate exactly with the theory of positive health – that animals coming into contact with disease organisms don’t necessarily get the disease if they are in sufficiently good health to withstand the challenge, but instead develop immunity. If this is correct, one of the saddest outcomes of the current slaughter policy is that we are unwittingly ‘weeding out’ the very stock that we should be keeping, especially if we are going to maintain a policy of co-existence with an over large and infected badger population.
It is impossible to overstate the emotional impact and trauma for small dairy farmers being on the receiving end of such treatment. I find it almost beyond my comprehension how this country could have arrived at such a dysfunctional and misguided approach to controlling such a widespread disease. One that bears down hardest on the small dairy farms we should be striving to preserve, many of whom are already on the brink, having been receiving less than the production cost of their milk for years. These farmers end up giving up quietly, whilst the larger industrial style farms, whose cows are often permanently housed and are therefore less in contact with badgers, survive.
I need hardly add that this is not the end of the story and will write more about this as things progress.
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