We've kept cattle in a Gloucestershire 'TB hot-spot' since the 80's so we're no strangers to the rigmarole of annual bTB testing. But the dread we feel at testing time comes from the threat posed by Defra's 'test and cull' policy rather than concern about the disease itself.
In every other instance where disease threatens our cattle, we have vaccination in our armoury. We accept that none of these vaccines gives 100% protection but, as stated on Defra’s website, a vaccine against bTB can reduce the prevalence, incidence and spread of TB in the cattle population and also reduce the severity of a herd breakdown, regardless of whether infection is introduced by wildlife or cattle.
We are only denied this essential approach with bTB because of an outdated EU directive governing export that insists on 'accelerated eradication' of the disease while simultaneously banning the use of cattle vaccine. This predictably leads to carnage in all directions.
We are a well informed society, especially since the advent of the internet, so even the casual observer can see that the answer to this issue is to challenge the EU and get the rules changed to allow cattle vaccine - hence the huge and justifiable public outcry in opposition to a massacre of our badgers.
It's not good enough these days for those in favour of the cull to use sensational headlines and hope the public will simply accept what they read.
"26,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2011 for TB control" – yes, but Defra's own figures tell you that there were 5.4 million cattle in England in 2011. This is a loss of less than half a percent (0.5%) of the national herd, which is easily outnumbered by those cattle routinely slaughtered every year because of ailments such as lameness, mastitis and other problems.
"11.5% of herds were restricted in 2011" - in other words, 88.5% of herds were NOT restricted in 2011, demonstrating that only a small proportion of herds are affected by bTB.
And restricted herds can carry on trading despite TB restrictions, as described in detail on the South West TB Farm Advisory Service website, which includes case studies showing the many options available.
So facts, figures and science show that bTB is not "the main threat to the cattle industry”, but rather a problem for a minority of herds, mostly in the West Country. Cases of bTB have not risen dramatically: the percentage of the national herd slaughtered annually for bTB control has remained stable for the last ten years at just 0.5% - or half of one percent; there is no bTB epidemic; and there is no justification for the rush to shoot badgers now.
The NFU and other farming bodies must avoid a PR disaster by abandoning the badger cull and demand instead an exemption from the EU ban on vaccination. This will allow UK trials of the BCG cattle vaccination to be rolled out to individual herds identified as having repeated outbreaks of bTB, along with 'ring fence' vaccination of surrounding herds.
In addition, cattle vaccine trials could be offered as an option to all the farmers who have pedigree, single-suckled or dairy herds, who currently have to trust to luck to avoid having their breeding and foundation stock wiped out by Defra's test and cull policy.
A 2008 Defra report entitled Options for Vaccinating Cattle Against Bovine Tuberculosis, which modelled various vaccination programes, and which was endorsed by numerous prominent stakeholders - including the NFU - provides a useful framework from which we can still work today. The report also includes a detailed section on the vaccination policy that led to the successful eradication of another notifiable cattle disease, Brucellosis, some twenty odd years ago. This was achieved through a combination of voluntary and mandatory vaccination, in line with the geographical incidence of disease, administered by Defra Inspectors/Local Veterinary Practices; a herd accreditation scheme was also established to monitor disease status.
The system used to eradicate Brucellosis could be adapted for use with bTB, and, now that cattle are uniquely identified, their passports could be stamped to show that the animal has been vaccinated through official means. This in turn would allow cost savings, as only TB reactors with a stamped passport would have to undergo the Diva test.
We cannot allow our badger population to be decimated when we should be changing the rules instead.