FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
· What is Bovine TB?
Bovine TB is an infectious disease in cattle, caused by the bacterium, Mycobacterium bovis. Mycobacterium Tuberculosis is the human form of the disease. Bovine TB causes tubercles or lesions in the lungs. If not detected early, the lesions can spread to other parts of the animal’s body. Regular testing identifies the disease very early in cattle and the animal is slaughtered before the infection can spread further. The infection can be carried by droplet/aerosol form in the breath of the animal which can infect other cattle. Animals may be more susceptible to bovine TB if they are in poor health from malnutrition, stress, overstocking or other diseases.
· Can other animals get TB infected
Yes. The bacteria in droplet form can be inhaled by other animals. It can also be spread via the urine and faeces. The disease can be transmitted to other animals including wildlife that comes into contact with it. It has been said that badgers may have originally picked up the infection from cattle by foraging for beetles under infected cow dung. The badger may well be the victim rather than the villain.
· Can humans pick up the infection from animals?
Yes, by drinking untreated milk. Nowadays it is very unlikely since milk is pasteurised and meat is checked by veterinary inspectors in meat plants. In response to a Dail Question (no. 114) in 2000, regarding the means by which abattoirs dispose of tuberculosis infected carcasses, Agriculture Minister, Joe Walsh replied: “In the case of generalised TB, the entire carcass is deemed unfit for human consumption. If only an organ or part is infected, that organ or part is deemed to be unfit for human consumption, with the remainder of the carcass being passed fit for human consumption”. Consuming meat from an animal who has had a single TB – infected organ removed, is apparently safe. This would suggest that bovine TB pose little or no threat to human health.
· Why is bovine TB considered a problem to farmers?
Cattle are tested annually for BTB on the farm by way of a skin test. The skin test produces a specific lump on the site of the test if the animal tests positive for bovine TB. These animals are known as ‘reactors’ though they may be found to be clear of the disease at slaughter. Such animals are known as ‘the false positives.’ Reactors must be isolated from the rest of the herd until they are collected from the farm. Remaining stock cannot be moved/sold until they have passed two clear rounds of testing which can take many months. Farmers can lose entire herds. In short, bovine TB causes untold financial hardship to farming communities.
· When did badgers become suspect for the spread of bovine TB?
In the United Kingdom a dead badger was found on a farm, where there had been a recent outbreak of TB. When tested, the badger was found to be infected.
· Why are badgers blamed for spreading TB?
It is claimed that badgers may act as a reservoir for the disease. In one experiment in the United Kingdom, healthy calves were kept confined in a yard with infected badgers. This was accepted as proof that badgers could infect other animals. This experiment took place under a very artificial situation. This fails to demonstrate how badgers could infect cattle under normal conditions on the farm. In Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (DAFRD) are satisfied of the link and have undertaken a number of badger-culling ‘research projects’ in various parts of the country. To add to that, when outbreaks of bovine TB occur on a farm, the farmer’s vet can apply to Duchas for a licence to have badgers removed, if he/she is of the opinion of badger involvement.
· How many badgers have been culled by the Irish Government?
According to figures available, close on 45,000 badgers have been culled, ‘research projects’ and single licenses inclusive. Ireland has been culling badgers since early-mid eighties. First ‘research project’ commenced in 1989. Presently, there is a four-year plan in situ to cull all wildlife in 20per cent of the country that yields 50 per cent of reactor (infected) cattle. This will have a serious impact on our estimate 200,000 badger population.
Wildlife Treaties, like the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (The Bern Convention) are powerless to intervene because of the Government’s assertion that it is culling for scientific research.
· Are badgers killed illegally in this country?
Sad to say, yes. We can but guess the number of badgers killed illegally on Irish farms. BadgerWatch has seen the evidence of badger setts filled with slurry. Many are poisoned or shot and the carcasses dumped on roadways. It would then appear that the animal had been a road traffic casualty. It would be only fair to say, some farms have acted as hosts to generations of badgers and landowners have gone to great lengths to preserve and protect them.
· Has killing badgers reduced the levels of bovine TB in cattle?
Initially, in the short term there would appear to be a reduction in cattle TB levels where badger removal projects have been undertaken. This could be due to improved husbandry on ‘project’ farms as well as the removal of infected cattle.
· What does the snaring of badgers involve?
A survey of the area is necessary to locate badger setts. A licence to snare must then be sought from Duchas. Trappers are recruited through Farm Relief Services and a clean firearms licence is required. Badgers are trapped by use of the multi-strand wire snare. Each snare has an anchor which secures it into the ground. DAFRD snares are stamped with the letter “D” for identification purposes. Snares are set around badger sett entrances and badger paths in the evening. They must be checked the following day. Badgers, unlucky enough to be held are shot with a .22 rifle. The carcass is tagged and then placed in double bags for removal to a Regional Laboratory for post mortem purposes.
· Is there a “closed season” on badger snaring in Ireland?
Yes, but we believe it applies to research areas only. In response to the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention, Ireland introduced a pseudo-closed season for the summer months of June, July and August. It would appear from reports that DAFRD has never undertaken snaring operations during the three months in question. The heavy undergrowth makes snaring extremely difficult, even for the most dedicated trapper.
Serious welfare problems arise when badgers are snared during their most critical time, the breeding season. Nursing sows may be snared during the months of January-May. This leaves her dependent cubs abandoned to die underground of starvation and hypothermia. Surely the dependent offspring of a supposedly protected species deserves recognition in our Wildlife Act.
The UK in contrast recognises a closed season on snaring (cage-trapping in the UK) from January-end of April to allow the animals breed and rear their young. Badger populations do not recover rapidly. Cub mortality rate is high. It is acknowledged that 50 per cent of all cubs fail to survive their first year.
· Why are we opposed to badger culling?
The obvious answer is that conservationists do not accept the theory that badgers are guilty of spreading bovine TB in the first place. The route of infection from badger to cow under normal farm conditions has never been fully explained. The evidence remains circumstantial. On the other hand, the incidence of bovine TB is very low in Ireland with over 99.5 per cent of the national 7 million-strong herd free of the disease. So, why the urgency to kill tens of thousands of an ecologically important species, whose guilt has never been proven? The purpose of their killing is that Ireland may operate on a disease-free export trading status.
To refer to the summary of the O’Connor-O’Malley Report (1989) which clearly states “Thus eradication of the badger population would not eradicate bovine TB in the country”. Killing badgers will not rid Ireland of bovine TB. As many as 45,000 badgers may have been legally killed since the mid-eighties. Illegal killing might account for just as many more.
Badgers may play a minor role if any. If this be the case, slaughtering them on a massive scale would not be morally justified. DAFRD will insist it is taking out infected badgers only. Removing infected badgers means removing all badgers because the infection is diagnosed by autopsy. On average, 20 per cent of our badgers are infected. What this demonstrates is that 80 per cent of badgers killed are perfectly healthy animals. This is unacceptable.
· Are there other solutions to halting the disease?
Yes, there are .
In the early days the funding of the eradication programme was lacking consistency. It was of a stop/go nature.
The skin test for bovine TB is not 100 per cent accurate. It is the best there is but its accuracy can vary from 80-100 per cent. Healthy animals can fail the test. They are known as ‘false positives’ which are found to be disease-free after slaughter. Infected animals can be missed out when the test fails to identify them as carriers. They are termed ‘false negatives’ and are left behind to spread TB through the herd.
More cattle movements occur in Ireland than in other European countries which increases the risk of disease spread. Many Irish farm holdings are fragmented with the need to move cattle from one area to another more frequently.
A compulsory pre-movement test would help reduce the incidence of the disease. It is unlikely that farmers would agree to take on this extra financial burden.
We would all like to see eradication of bovine TB but not at the cost of decimating one species of Irish wildlife. Our badgers were under pressure long before bovine TB posed an extra threat to them. Apart from the thousands that culled legally by our Government, thousands of badgers also get killed annually on our roads. They are also hunted illegally for the gruesome activities of badger-digging and badger-baiting. Since they became suspect in the spread of TB it is possible that some landowners may be tempted to turn a blind eye to these activities and maybe even welcome them. Badger numbers do not recover easily. It is accepted that almost 50 per cent of cubs fail to survive their first year. And, in recent years increased development has greatly encroached on their natural habitats.
· Can we vaccinate cattle against bovine TB?
The short answer is no, we cannot. In Ireland, cattle must be tested annually for TB. Infected animals (positive reactors) are then taken out for slaughter. A problem would arise here if cattle were vaccinated. The vaccine would interfere with the results of the testing and all vaccinated cattle would react positive to the test. It would be impossible to tell whether the animal was infected or merely displaying vaccine interference with the skin test.
· Can we vaccinate badgers against TB?
This is becoming a real possibility and a welcome one. Research on the badger vaccine has been undertaken by Dr. P. Sleeman, Zoologist, U.C.C. and the Department of Large Animal Clinical Studies, Veterinary College, U.C.D. Isolated TB-free badgers were required for this research. They were found on seven small islands in and around this country. The eventual vaccine will be an oral up-take one consisting of a chocolate bait. It has been estimated that at least 70 per cent of the badgers will need to be immunised. It has been established that 60-80 per cent of badgers can be persuaded to eat chocolate covered bait over a three-day period. The practicalities of delivering the vaccine to the Irish badger population raises some questions. Who will be taking on the task of delivery? How can it be certain that the vaccine was not taken up by non-targeted species? 60 per cent uptake still leaves a wide margin of 40 per cent non-vaccinated badgers at large. Will this be enough to dispel any remaining anxieties within the farming community and bring about a reduction in illegal badger killing? Sadly, it may be many years before the vaccine becomes a reality. In the meantime it is likely the Government will continue to kill badgers. It has been said in the past that total eradication of bovine TB may never be achieved and in the final analysis it might be a case of settling for the irreducible minimum level. In Ireland an holistic approach to the bovine TB problem was never high on the agenda, instead we went for the soft option of seeing it in black and white.