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350 vote 'No Confidence' in Beckett

More than 300 vets have written a letter to Defra Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, expressing a vote of no confidence over her handling of the growing bovine tuberculosis crisis.

In the letter sent yesterday, 350 vets in the Westcountry and across Britain called on the Government to agree to a controlled cull of infected badgers, which they say are largely responsible for the epidemic which has affected thousands of cattle.

So bad is the problem, said TB expert Dr John Gallagher, that the disease has spread to other species, including all five types of deer native to Britain and even domestic cats.

The letter stated that current research into the disease was unnecessary and expensive as the link between infected badgers and cattle was proved as far back as the early 1970s.

The vets also refer, in the letter, to the recently published report on the Four Counties Trial, in Ireland, which claims to have proved the effectiveness of controlled culls of badgers in areas where bovine TB is known to exist.

In the letter addressed to Mrs Beckett the vets say: "We write in despair over the present disastrous bovine tuberculosis situation and the wholly inadequate approach taken by your department in controlling the disease."

Leading the protest is TB expert and retired vet Dr John Gallagher, of Lustleigh, near Newton Abbot.

He has been involved in research into the disease since the early 1970s, when Dr Roger Muirhead discovered the first badger with bovine TB.

Dr Gallagher said: "It is extremely frustrating to think that we have all the evidence to prove the link between badgers and bovine TB and the Government still refuses to act.

"As long as badgers are left unmanaged this problem will continue to escalate and before long we will not have a single area without the disease.

"This has become a political issue and one on which the Government will not act ahead of a General Election. They do not want to be seen to be approving something that would lead to killing lots of furry creatures"

"If badgers are left unmanaged these animals will continue to die a long and very painful death."

Dr Gallagher said evidence proved that the disease was being spread by infected badgers through their saliva and urine as they fed on worms on pastures in the late winter and early spring.

He said: "All the evidence shows that the increase in cases tends to be shortly after this time when cattle were being put back out to graze on the same land. Where the badgers have been taken away the problem ceases to exist."

A number of experiments similar to the Four Counties Trial showed during the mid-1970s that after controlled culling of badgers by gassing, there was a significant drop in the presence of the disease, to the point of virtual eradication.

When cattle become infected by the disease farms are effectively shut down, with cattle only allowed to be sold or moved off the farm after they have provided two clear test results, 60 days apart.

But, said Dr Gallagher, the problem would soon return because of the presence of infected badgers.

He said: "We do not want to eradicate them, but there are simply too many of the creatures around now and they are having to fight among themselves for territory.

"We don't discount the presence of TB passed from cattle to cattle. But there are cases arising in farms, which were previously uninfected by the disease, in areas where there are setts occupied by infected badgers."

Dr Gallagher said the rapidly expanding badger population (the badger is a protected species), meant that they were having to fight for land to build their setts.

He explained: "If an infected animal bites a healthy one it will inject the disease with its teeth directly into the body and it will spread much faster."

But while infected cattle were slaughtered, he said the disease was allowed to run its course in badgers.

The Government has already said it will not rule out the possibility of controlled culls.

But it said it would not a make a decision on the matter until the Independent Scientific Group presents its findings in the so-called Krebs trials, which could take at least another two years.

And that, according to yesterday's letter, is time unnecessarily wasted.

The letter stated: "You have already been advised that the Krebs trial set up in selected areas in 1998 has been hopelessly compromised and that also it is a hugely expensive exercise which is most unlikely to yield any valid results. It is thus unacceptable to continue using this trial as an excuse for inaction."

The letter was signed by 350 vets from across the country from Cornwall and Devon to Preston and even London.

Dr Gallagher said: "It is rare that so many scientists agree on an issue like this.

"If the Government does not act soon the Westcountry will be particularly badly hit as it has large badger population and many of them are infected."

Dr Elaine King, chief executive of the National Federation of Badger Groups, said last night: "These vets appear to be out of date and out of the loop. The culling of badgers does not reduce TB in cattle, the research in Ireland does not apply to the situation in Britain. We need to be taking heed of the independent advice."

Miss King blamed the rising incidence of TB in cattle on it being transferred from cattle to cattle, due to the unregulated movement of cattle around the country.

She cited the recent court case of a farmer in Gloucestershire who was jailed for eight months for breaking the cattle movement regulations, after he moved cattle around the country illegally.


Bovine TB and the link with badgers

Experts believe that badgers infected with bovine TB spread the disease in a number of ways. They say that saliva left on the grass by the animals as they feed on worms, urine from territory marking and biting can all spread the bacteria (mycobacterium bovis) responsible for the disease.

Scientists accept that infected cattle kept indoors in badly ventilated areas during the winter can spread the disease in the same way it is spread among humans through water droplets in the air. But they say this does not account for herds that were previously uninfected.

If left untreated or unrecognised, bovine TB makes its way through the body leaving nodules in the lungs and abscesses. While a healthy badger is plump with a full face, an infected creature will appear gaunt.

Badgers were made a protected species in 1973. It is believed that there are at least one million badgers in Britain. A recent study in 1996-98 examined 5,500 badgers - 26 per cent tested positive for tuberculosis. There are no more recent figures, but experts predict that the incidence will be higher.

Work started on eradicating bovine TB from Britain in 1935. By 1960, using selective badger culling, the number of positive cases had dropped to 0.19 per cent of Britain's cattle, and the country was declared bovine TB free.

In 1986 there were 88 reported cases of the disease. In 2004 there were 3,000 cases.