Is the TB testing flawed?

Writers Posted 13/09/21
I hope that some good can come from the hype by raising the profile of how bTB is dealt with.

“You can’t have too much of a good thing” was a recent comment made to me. I’m not sure I agree. We’re still dealing with the workload created by our bumper grass crop. In early spring we envisaged a long, dry summer ahead and feared supplies would be tight, so we bought in extra grazing. How wrong we were. A crystal ball could be handy. Even if we tripled our livestock numbers I doubt they’d have kept pace with grass growth.

Our mower has been kept busy; lack of sunshine has prolonged the hay-making process. The end result is large stores of silage, and hay of varying quality. Grass regrowth after cutting has been impressively fast. Livestock look well, and market prices are remaining buoyant. I’m wondering how long this good fortune will last.

No boasting about our crop of winter oats; yields were poor, in large part due to the increasing numbers of deer and the damage caused by them. On the home farm our double fences on either side of our new hedges deterred the deer from visiting these fields, but all around us it’s clear to see that herd sizes are increasing at an alarming rate. There needs to be more control to lessen the numbers and minimise the damage to trees and crops.

Could more be done to encourage the consumption of venison? It’s said to be a healthy meat, lower in saturated fat than other red meats. It’s one of my favourites. Venison just needs to lose its Bambi image. Legal beagle daughter subscribes to the cooking magazine Delicious and in it venison gets the thumbs up, described as nutrient-rich meat. I was also delighted to see they ran an article entitled “Could eating meat and dairy help the planet?” This had a positive slant on food, farming and the future, saying agriculture can be part of the solution to global warming. Some hope for our industry, which is heartening.

I was intrigued to see the Woodland Trust sent out an envelope promoting its work. Displayed on the outside was a picturesque red squirrel and an appeal to make a donation to protect the UK’s threatened woods and wildlife. Far be it for me to question their wisdom, but I thought squirrels (grey ones especially) are actually quite destructive to trees. They gnaw on the phloem tissue which is responsible for the movement of sugars around the plant and is situated under the bark. Squirrel damage can kill the tree or leave scars, providing an entry point for pests and diseases which also ultimately leads to the tree’s demise. Perhaps there should be more done to control grey squirrel numbers.

I enjoy woodland, and appreciate trees, in the winter. I get to spend time in the woods with our working spaniels. During the spring and summer I like to save seedlings on our farm if I spot them growing in vulnerable places like pastures where they risk getting damaged. I rescue them and nurture them in pots until they are strong enough to be planted out in more suitable locations.

I get pleasure from observing their progress. I place the daggings from our sheep around the base of the trees, keeping moisture in and providing a little natural nitrogen, generally helping them to thrive. Might as well put our wool to good use; our wool payment was dismal again this year and we won’t get paid for this year’s wool until we send next year’s clip.

The Woodland Trust leaflet states that “we can’t ignore the plight of UK wildlife”. There’s a picture of a hedgehog and a description that reads: “Our playful scuffling badger cubs are history”. Badgers, though, are far from history. Their numbers are rocketing; even on the land we farm, many more setts are appearing, whereas, sadly, hedgehog sightings are rare.

This is no coincidence. Conservationists blame habitat loss, traffic and farming practices. There’s a strange reluctance to admit a link, choosing to ignore the fact that badgers’ diets consist of earthworms, rodents, vegetable matter (they love maize and grapes) and hedgehogs. The reality is that hedgehogs decline while badgers flourish. Culling badgers has been stopped. The question of what part badgers play in the spread of tuberculosis is hotly debated. The disturbing fact that 28,356 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered after testing positive for bovine TB in the 12 months to March 2021 is distressing. Farmers’ careful breeding of stock for better genetic improvements to the herd can be lost. Losing cattle testing positive and slaughtered has an economic and emotional effect on the farm, and for those that have cared for the animals it’s incredibly sad, and so I have some sympathy for the owner of Geronimo the Alpaca, who captured the media’s attention.

Geronimo, though, tested positive in August 2017 when he arrived in England from New Zealand, and was again positive when tested in November 2017. Geronimo was finally destroyed on 31 August 2021 amongst a furore of what can only be described as a shocking media circus which only added to the animal’s distress. It hit the news, talk shows, twitter etc.

I hope that some good can come from the hype by raising the profile of how bTB is dealt with. Many farmers claim that they’ve had seemingly healthy animals that tested positive destroyed with post-mortem results showing no sign of TB. This begs the question: Is the TB testing flawed? Is the regime fit for purpose? No one wants to see healthy animals slaughtered needlessly. TB is a risk to human health and requires a robust system in place. Is more scientific research needed to help evolve a better, more efficient way of dealing with TB in animals?

I’ve decided I don’t want to become a sheep’s dentist. I’ve been getting up close and personal with my ewes, condition scoring, checking bags and teeth. The fuss that some of them make, when all I want is a quick glance at their teeth. Such drama queens; I know age can be a sensitive subject, but really I think some overreact. The cull ewes sold well so I suppose it was worth the effort. Happy farming.


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