By Justin Kerswell, Campaigns Manager and Deputy Director of Viva!
At time of writing, parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire are once again reverberating to the sounds of gunshots and the screams of dying badgers. Despite the Government’s previous trials in 2013 being roundly condemned as pointless, bloody, inhumane and costly the guns are out again. Yet a rather pungent, potential culprit is quite literally spreading more-or-less unchecked across the countryside and nothing is being done about it.
If you’ve heard minister after minister repeat the words “Doing nothing is not an option” you’d be forgiven for thinking that everything else has been done to prevent the spread of bTB. However, you’d be wrong.
For all the talk of tightening up biosecurity – and let’s not forget that bTB is a cattle disease mostly spread within the industry itself – there is a gaping, stinking hole at the centre of this policy which may play a large part in spreading disease across the English countryside.
It is widely known that bTB can be spread to both other cattle and wildlife, such as badgers, through the urine and faeces (and other bodily excretions) of infected cows. So you would think it was a no-brainer to prevent the spreading of slurry from a farm with bTB infected cows on it, wouldn’t you? Well, incredibly, you’d be wrong.
It is not illegal to spread slurry from cows that are under movement restrictions on a farmer’s own land. In correspondence with Defra they told us: “Cattle farmers affected by bovine TB restrictions can spread the slurry from their herds on their own land.” Indeed, Defra merely tell farmers that they: “… should consider the risk of spreading the disease to other stock or wildlife”.
This despite a very real possibility that farmers are spreading infected slurry on their own land; then killing infected cattle yet reinfecting healthy cattle with dangerous slurry from those now dead cows. All the while blaming badgers when it is a cyclical disaster of their own making.
This is very plausible as bTB is tenacious. It may only be infectious on pasture for a few days (but potentially more depending on the weather) but it can remain infectious in cattle faeces for up to 2 months in the summer and 6 months in the winter. Recent research from Northern Ireland has suggested that excrement can aerosolise (i.e become dust particles) which is then breathed in by animals thus spreading infection. Slurry can run into waterways (where the bacterium can remain active for up to 58 days), which could be a vector for spreading it beyond the borders of infected farms. Hunts also regularly travel across farms under restrictions and Viva! have said previously that this too could be a vector for disease spread.
The risk associated with infected slurry is known, but is seemingly being ignored in England. One 2013 study in Northern Ireland showed that there was a higher risk of bTB associated with the use of slurry contractors: “The authors concluded, with few contractors washing and disinfecting their equipment after use, the potential of M. bovis spreading between farms and possibly even the establishment of a wildlife reservoir appears to be plausible.”
This raises an even greater concern: what of the milk containers and animal transporters that visit multiple farms on a regular basis? If slurry contractors are implicated in spreading bTB what role do they play and why has this not been looked at in detail?
In theory, slurry should be stored for at least 6 months in an effort to minimise the risk of spreading bTB. In a recent letter from Defra we were told: “Storing slurry for a minimum of 6 months is recommended, but it is not a legal requirement for all farms under TB movement restrictions.” They went onto say: “Unfortunately, AHVLA and Defra do not hold figures relating to how long farmers store slurry in practice.” Storing slurry takes space and costs money. How many farmers will abide by mere suggestions of best practice when there is no legal incentive to do so?
What other industry would be allowed free reign to spread a toxic, diseased substance across the countryside without effective regulations whilst placing the blame at the entrance to the burrows of England’s badgers?
We know from experience that many farmers and agricultural workers don’t give a flying hoof about taking personal responsibility for biosecurity. In 2011, at a Welsh livestock market, a Viva! undercover investigator observed only 3 per cent of visitors could be bothered to take the couple of seconds that were needed to disinfect footwear to prevent disease spread.
We ask again, why are badgers dying violent, needless deaths in the English countryside when farmers are still refusing to take responsibility for the literal mess of their own making?