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August 15 2005

Farming leaders have dismissed claims by environmentalists that new research indicates that killing infected badgers is not the answer to the spread of bovine tuberculosis through the Westcountry.

These arguments showed how little the pro-badger lobby understood about the issue, said Anthony Gibson, regional director of the South West National Farmers' Union, in response to a statement from the National Federation of Badger Groups (NFBG).

The report, by Rosie Woodroffe of the British Ecological Society, showed that badgers might get TB from cattle, rather than the other way round, claimed the NFBG. It argued that although there was a link between bovine TB in cattle and badgers, it was not possible to show the extent to which one species might pass the disease to the other.

"For years, the farming unions have promoted the simplistic view that badgers give TB to cattle, so the solution is to kill the badgers," said NFBG vice chairman Richard Turner. "This latest report underlines once again that the problem of bovine TB is a complex one with no easy answers. Above all, it shows there is no credible foundation to demands from the farming unions for the slaughter of thousands of badgers."

The new report reveals that bovine TB occurs in highly-localised clusters of infection in both cattle and badgers, and that these clusters in both species were found in the same places, within a mile or so of each other. While farming organisations would claim that this showed badgers were to blame for giving the disease to cattle, the scientists had made it very clear that it was just as likely that cattle had given TB to badgers, said Mr Turner.

The key to reducing TB in cattle was using measures that focused on cattle, he insisted. A better bovine TB test, more frequent TB testing, and in particular testing cattle before they are moved off farms, were among the most promising solutions.

The NFBG's response to the report showed how little the NFBG understood about the epidemiology of bovine TB, Mr Gibson replied.

"There is a significantly different immune response from the two species when challenged with the TB infection," he said. "Cattle tend to wall it in, so that it does not spread from the lungs, other than by coughing. Badgers lack this ability and so have a much greater tendency to excrete the infection.

"So while it is by no means impossible that TB will spread from cattle to badgers, it is much more likely to happen the other way around. Infected badgers are neither treated nor slaughtered, allowing the disease to develop to the extent that they can excrete vast numbers of TB bacilli in their dung, urine and sputum - something that does not happen with cattle, which in any case are slaughtered at the first sign of TB."

He added: "The enemy in all of this is not badgers or cattle, it is TB. Until the disease is tackled effectively in both species, it will remain a menace to both."