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No direct contact needed for bTB

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Prof Rosie Woodroffe: ‘Hard to offer farmers advice’

Prof Rosie Woodroffe: ‘Hard to offer farmers advice’

NEW findings from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Imperial College London suggest that badgers and cattle rarely meet – and that direct contact between the two is not a likely source of transmission of bovine TB. 

The stated aim of the badger culls, which began as pilots intended to trial ‘controlled shooting’ of free running badgers in two areas of South West England, but were expanded to include the more expensive trap-and-shoot and a new cull zone before the initial trial period had finished, was to reduce the ‘wildlife reservoir’ of bovine TB in badgers.

The new research shows that while badgers do favour cattle pasture as a habitat, they typically avoid cattle themselves and rarely get close enough to transmit infection directly. In the study, researchers used GPS collars to track the movements of badgers and cattle across 20 farms in Cornwall. They didn’t find a single incidence of badgers and cattle coming face to face and said that, if anything, badgers tended to avoid larger animals, preferring to keep 50m between themselves and cows.

They said that any bovine TB transmission between the species is likely to come from their shared environment – possibly from infected urine or faeces in pastures, possibly from other cattle as well as badgers – rather than direct contact. Imperial College London researchers said their discovery means advice to farmers on controlling bTB may require a rethink and ‘paves the way for novel approaches to managing this controversial disease’.

BTB HARD TO CONTROL 

The findings could shed light on just why bTB is so hard to control, even when badgers and cattle are being culled, because the bacteria that cause the disease can persist in the environment for months.

Earlier research from the government’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA, now APHA) which used surveillance cameras on 75 farms to look at possible ways of badger-proofing farms captured footage of badgers attempting to access cattle feed in sheds and fields. Defra said its bTB control strategy still includes wildlife-proofing high risk farms.

Discussing the recent findings, Professor Rosie Woodroffe, a senior ZSL researcher and a visiting professor at the School of Public Health at Imperial, who has spoken out against the government’s badger culling policy, said: “It has been known for a long time that badgers can transmit TB to cattle – but without knowing how they do it, it is hard to offer farmers advice on the most promising ways to protect their herds.

“Our study provides the strongest evidence yet that transmission is happening through the environment, helping to explain why controlling TB is so difficult. This work marks the first step towards identifying more effective ways to reduce transmission between badgers and cattle, and also potentially better ways to manage cattle-to-cattle transmission as well.”

It has long been known that badgers can pass bovine TB on to cattle, but an increasing body of research has shown that patterns of infection are very complex – that cattle-to-cattle transmission is the most common source of bTB on farms and that cattle can pass the disease to badgers – and this means badgers’ role in transmitting the disease, which can also affect a host of other wild and domestic species, is unclear.

‘NO CERTAINTY’ 

Speaking to the BBC, Prof Woodroffe said: “There are loads and loads of things that farmers are being advised to do and there is no certainty that any of them will actually work and because of this, hardly any farmers implement any of these sorts of measures. If we can focus on the things most likely to work on that massive array of things farmers are being advised to do, more people will do them.”

The researchers, whose work was funded by Defra, are now scanning fields to see where TB bacteria are present.

Defra is expected to announce that its highly controversial cull will be expanded into new areas of the South-West later this summer.

A COMPLEX DISEASE 

A NFU Cymru spokesperson said: “Bovine TB is a complex disease that must be tackled in the round, including addressing wildlife disease reservoirs, if we are to stand any chance of eradicating the disease. The role played by badgers in the spread of bovine TB is well known and widely accepted. Badgers are recognised as a significant wildlife reservoir of the disease in areas where it is endemic. Research has shown that badgers could contribute to up to 50% of cattle herd TB breakdowns in areas where the disease is rife.

“NFU Cymru has always said that we must use all options available if we are to stand a chance of controlling and eradicating this devastating disease. Cattle movement controls, cattle testing and on-farm biosecurity all have a vital role to play in a TB eradication plan, but experience from across the globe and indeed from our neighbours across the border in England and across the Irish Sea, have shown that a genuine TB eradication plan must also include a strategy for dealing with the disease reservoir in wildlife, in areas where it is endemic.

“From its inception, NFU Cymru has consistently raised concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the Welsh Government’s badger vaccination policy in the Intensive Action Area (IAA) in North Pembrokeshire. Four years in to what was supposed to be a five year programme, a global shortage of the BCG vaccination has led to its premature curtailment. A bovine TB wildlife strategy predicated solely on the vaccination of badgers is not a viable or sustainable policy option.

“Farmers in the IAA and across the whole of Wales are playing their part in bearing down on the disease t h r o u g h s t r i n g e n t cattle control measures, but the reservoir of infection that exists in wildlife has not been confronted. If the Welsh Government is genuine about eradicating Bovine TB in Wales then it has to implement a policy of targeted culling of badgers in areas where the disease is endemic that will actively remove the disease from the badger population in these areas.”

NO NEW EVIDENCE 

A Welsh Government spokesperson told The Herald: “We are fully aware of this interesting work by Professor Rosie Woodroffe, which we have discussed with her in some detail.

“We remain committed to a science-led approach to the eradication of bovine TB. Our current programme includes the testing of cattle, strict biosecurity measures and movement control. This is aimed at tackling all sources of infection. The latest statistics show the number of new TB incidents in the 12 months to April 2016 reduced by 17%.

“We will continue to study all the available evidence relating to the transmission and prevention of bovine TB and are considering how Professor Woodroffe’s observations might feed into continued development of our TB programme. The Cabinet Secretary will make a statement on the Welsh Government’s refreshed TB eradication programme in the autumn.”

FUW Senior Policy Officer Dr Hazel Wright told us: “The latest study by Professor Woodroffe and colleagues provides no new evidence on the issue of bovine TB transmission. The FUW has long recognised that infected badgers can contaminate both pasture and housing via the excretion of M. bovis bacilli in urine, faeces, sputum and exudate from open abscesses.

“Farmers continue to adhere to strict cattle testing, movement and biosecurity measures in an attempt to reduce the level of transmission from badgers to cattle. However, in the absence of any badger control mechanisms, such cattle measures will only have a limited effect on disease eradication whilst having a very significant emotional and financial impact on farm businesses.”

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Farming

Economic value of red meat sector rises

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THE VALUE of the iconic beef, lamb and pork sectors to the Welsh economy rose in 2020, as consumers turned to local, sustainable, quality food during the COVID pandemic, according to analysis by Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC).New figures from the Welsh Government ‘Aggregate Agricultural Output and Income’ report show that the total value of agricultural output in Wales for 2020 is projected to stand at £1.7billion – a 6.2% (or £99 million) increase on the provisional figure for 2019.


Cattle and sheep account for 44% of this total at £750million; the highest proportion recorded since 2016. The agricultural output value for Wales’s pig sector also increased (by 34.3% or £2 million) to a value of £8 million.
The figures reflect the strength of the livestock sector in Wales and sit in contrast to Total Income From Farming (TIFF) figures for the UK as a whole newly released by Defra. Although the TIFF figures are a different form of measuring farm production, the UK data concurs that the livestock sector has had a strong year, but in other parts of Britain, this was more than offset by poor harvests in the arable sector.


Demand for beef and lamb have been strong in the domestic retail market since the immediate aftermath of the first COVID lockdown in spring 2020. After initial market volatility, marketing campaigns by HCC and other bodies encouraged consumers to recreate restaurant meals at home.


Over the past 12 months, domestic retail sales of lamb and beef have trended consistently higher, with spending on lamb 20% higher than the previous year. Sales at independent high street butchers are also strong.


Research shows many demographic groups, including families with children, buying more beef and lamb than previously, and turning to quality home-grown produce.


HCC Data Analyst Glesni Phillips said, “The strong demand for red meat from the domestic consumer has helped drive market prices for beef and lamb at Welsh livestock markets in the second half of 2020 and into the early months of 2021.


“It’s no surprise, therefore, to see that the overall value of the industry is projected to have grown. We have seen inflation in the costs on farmers, which offset some of the gains from improved market price; however, it’s heartening to see consumers’ support for quality Welsh produce.“Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef remain key drivers of our rural economy, and given their excellent brand reputation, they act as flagship products for the growing Welsh food and drink sector.”Further analysis of the aggregate output and income figures for Welsh farms are available in HCC’s latest monthly market bulletin.

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Farming

Ian Rickman: 2021 is a critical year for Wales’ farming future

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THE INCREASINGLY negative narrative around livestock farming and its portrayed impact on the environment and climate change has led to farmers in Wales standing up to tell their stories and highlight the positive impact livestock farming has.


Through the Farmers’ Union of Wales’ campaign ‘Guardians of the Welsh Land’, farmers are addressing misleading claims by various groups about the role livestock farming plays in relation to climate change and the environment.  Launching the campaign, FUW Deputy President Ian Rickman said: “The FUW has consistently recognised the threat represented by climate change and the need to take action. This is clear from a cursory look at our manifestos and policy documents published over the past twenty years.

“We know that farming is already responsible for a critical carbon resource in soils, woodland and semi-natural habitats and I’m pleased to launch the FUW’s environment campaign – ‘Guardians of the Welsh Land’ from my home farm here in Carmarthenshire today. As farmers are the most trusted link in the supply chain, they are best placed to communicate their stories, helping to address consumer concerns and influencing political agendas. Members can also look forward to a variety of webinars over the coming months, which will focus on the different challenges ahead for the industry and how to overcome them.


“There is no question in our mind that we need to counteract the continuation by the anti-farming lobby of their campaign to vilify and belittle domestic food producers.  These attacks are corrosive and grossly misleading, negatively influencing consumer perception of the industry and influencing political agendas on a global scale.”
Mr Rickman added that 2021 is an important year for these types of conversations.

“Knocking on our door are the United Nations Food Systems Summit and COP26. The FUW has been engaging with these conversations at an international level and shares some concerns with other industries across the globe about the wider narrative and ambitions set out in inconspicuous looking documents. Plans, we and the general public don’t support.  Telling the positive story of the guardians of our Welsh land is now more important than ever,” he said.


Starting in the first week of June, the campaign introduces four farmers all of whom tell the story of how they are addressing environmental and climate change needs in their unique ways: Carmarthenshire organic sheep farmer Phil Jones, the Roberts family from Meirionnydd, Ceredigion dairy farmers Lyn and Lowri Thomas and FUW President Glyn Roberts who farms with his daughter Beca at Dylasau Uchaf in Snowdonia.
“The campaign will further highlight that Welsh farmers are rising to the challenge of improving soil health and increasing organic matter in soils, improvements which represent further opportunities for sequestering more carbon. These improvements, the campaign will highlight, are achieved through specific livestock grazing patterns and rest periods. The campaign is also clear that the correct options, guidance and rewards are required to encourage more farmers to adopt such systems,” said Mr Rickman.
Soil, the campaign will stress, is a long term investment and at present, around 410 million tonnes of carbon is stored in Welsh soils and 75,700 hectares of Wales’ woodland (25%) is on farmland, representing an important and growing carbon sink.
“As acknowledged in Natural Resources Wales’ State of Natural Resources Report, using land for food production is an essential part of natural resource use and management.  Whilst we acknowledge that  agricultural intensification has undeniably had negative impacts on some species and ecosystems, there is overwhelming evidence that other factors, including reductions in agricultural activity and afforestation, have also had severe negative impacts,” he added.

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Farming

Excellent Easter for lamb sales

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Lamb proved a popular choice for consumers over Easter with retail sales soaring above the last two years. This demand has been reflected at livestock markets where farmgate prices are still standing strong.

At a time when lamb is always a firm favourite, this year people of all ages were both buying and spending more as a result of a renewed interest in sourcing quality, local produce and cooking at home.

In the 12 weeks to 18 April 2021, the total volume purchased was up 14.8% on the year, and 6.0% higher than in 2019. Consumer spend on lamb reached £190.0 million, which was 18.7% more than in 2020 and 14.6% higher than the same period in 2019.  

Lamb leg roasting joints were the most sought-after cuts despite the fact that Covid-19 restrictions on large gatherings remained, followed by chops and mince.

Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales’ (HCC) Data Analyst, Glesni Phillips said: “Lamb performed exceptionally well over the Easter period this year. It saw a 10.2% increase in the number of buyers engaging with the product and a rise of 3.3% in the frequency of which lamb was bought.

“The average price of lamb was also higher, but this obviously did not deter new buyers. The figures show that there are new buyers in all age categories, but this is especially true for shoppers aged under 45 years and those with children.

“The pandemic has led to more consumers cooking at home, giving many the opportunity to realise and enjoy the exceptional qualities and versatility of Welsh Lamb, and at the same time, support the local economy.”

Butchers also benefitted from the popularity of lamb in the run-up to Easter with total spend increasing by 16.1% on the year. The volume sold also increased, by 12.6%.

Glesni Phillips added: “As we approach the end of Spring, the consumer demand for lamb is continuing. This can be seen in the liveweight lamb prices which remain strong when compared to historical averages, with the average SQQ in Wales standing at 329.7p/kg in Wales for the week ending 15 May 2021.

“New season lambs are now entering the market – they accounted for over 70% of lambs at auction in Wales during the latest week – but the supply is still relatively tight. HCC is looking forward to working with retailers over the coming months on new activity, which will include in-store marketing, press and targeted digital communication to maintain this growth in sales. Butchers, who demonstrated their key role in the community during the pandemic, will also be offered training on a number of key skills to boost their sales even further.”

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