Scientists in Northern Ireland are due to begin culling infected badgers in a pilot study zone from next year, in an experiment that is being closely watched on this side of the Irish sea.
Last week the Western Morning News reported on National Beef Association TB committee member Bill Harper’s high hopes for the pilot project. It is aimed at quickly identifying infected badgers, culling those with TB and vaccinating the rest.
The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) is about to launch year two of a five-year research project. It will consider the effects of implementing the TVR – Test, Vaccinate or Remove – approach to badgers in an area of County Down where there are high levels of TB in cattle, high herd density and a lot of badgers.
Following the WMN’s report last week, the agriculture department in the province issued the following statement on progress so far and the detailed terms of reference for the research.
“Implementation of TVR by the Department’s Veterinary Service has helped develop the expertise within the Department in relation to trapping, sampling and vaccination of badgers and to quantify the field logistics and costs of wildlife intervention,” a spokesman said.
“As TVR is a Research Project, only limited information will be available as TVR progresses to reduce speculation and premature conclusions being drawn in advance of completion of the project in late 2018. It is anticipated that a final report on TVR may be available in 2019 following the analysis of the data and test results.
“The TVR Research Project obtained a broad spectrum of support from farmers, politicians, veterinary and environmental stakeholders. The degree of interest in the TVR project from farmers and landowners in the TVR area (Banbridge/Rathfriland area) has been excellent, with 94% of farmers and landowners giving their permission to allow DARD staff access to undertake the TVR research project on their land.
“During Year 1 of TVR (2014), no badgers were removed, as this year was intended to obtain ecology data prior to removal of badgers next year. This year 280 badgers were captured, sampled, micro-chipped, vaccinated and released. It is worth noting that there were also some 350 badger recaptures during the trapping period, which were all released again. From Year two of TVR (2015) onwards, all TB test positive badgers will be removed, and all negative badgers vaccinated and released.
“To assist with the collection of ecology data, 40 badgers had Global Positioning System (GPS) collars fitted to record their movements. This monitoring will be carried out annually during the first four years of TVR. This initial approach was essential for two reasons, to establish baseline data on normal badger movements; and to monitor badger movements following the subsequent removal of test positive badgers in Years two to five of the research project. This is to establish if any changes in movement patterns occur following the selective culling in years two to four.
“One of the aims of the TVR project is to assess the feasibility of sett side testing on captured badgers. This year, all badgers caught were sampled, vaccinated and released again as planned.
Over the coming months the blood samples from captured badgers will be analysed by two different tests, the gamma interferon (IFNg) assay and the dual path platform (DPP) test. The IFNg can only be analysed within a laboratory situation and the results of this are required to fulfil the research objective of the study.
The DPP test is a relatively new test that we understand may provide a result within 30 minutes. It is currently the only test available on the market that can provide such a rapid result. Clotted blood (serum) is normally used for the DPP test but use of whole blood is also being assessed, as this would enable the test to be carried out at sett side from year two of TVR.
The comparison between the DPP test and INFg this year will hopefully provide an acceptable level of confidence in the DPP result. From Year two a decision to vaccinate or remove the badger would then be made based on the sett side DPP test result, all within the one capture session”.
The project potentially provides an answer to the biggest issue surrounding the way to handle TB in the wild and could reduce or even remove any public opposition to a badger cull, since only badgers confirmed to be TB carriers – and therefore infective to other wildlife and to cattle – would need to be culled.
Bill Harper of the NBA told farmers earlier this month at Beef South West at Westpoint, Exeter, that the TVR approach, if it is proved to be effective, “ticks all the boxes.” But it is not the only work that is going on to help scientists identify sick badgers.
LGC forensics, the UK’s leading forensic science providers is working on a bovine TB DNA-testing service, including using faecal samples to identify infection within a badger sett. And Westcountry vet Alastair Hayton, of Synergy based in Evershot, Dorset, have developed the Enferplex blood test for use on camelids and goats but which has huge potential both for detecting infection in cattle and – potentially – for identifying infected badger setts.
However Mr Hayton is still waiting for Ministerial approval for pre-validation trials, while DNA testing could take years before it is available to use in the field.
In the meantime, farmers have to work around increasingly tough movement restrictions on their cattle and a livestock industry that is becoming ever more cautious about buying cattle from the South West, where bovine TB is rife. As for Defra, there is still no improvement on its strategy that won’t even countenance TB-free status until 2038
As Mark Oliver, Cornwall dairy farmer and South West NFU dairy board chairman, told the WMN – neither the farmers or the wildlife can really wait that long.
Source: Western Morning News