Comment: Control diseases with smarter buying

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One of the joys of my youth was walking around the farm, and on these travels whenever I approached a fence, I would put one hand on a post and swing my legs over.

Easy peasy it was (provided, that is, I had not chosen a shoogly post). But it was made slightly more difficult when I came across a double set of fencing with barely sufficient room between the two barriers to get up sufficient forward-and-over momentum.

Double fences? Yes – and in those years before the introduction of some less biddable breeds from the Continent they were not to keep adventurous cattle where they were supposed to be, they were there as a barrier between those farms that were free from bovine tuberculosis and those that were not; the theory being that animals should not make contact across the divide.

Although Scotland can claim to be TB-free now, it has not always been the case. For the first half of last century, bovine TB was rife throughout the country and it was a constant issue and problem for those milking cows.

It was back in post-Second World War Britain that consideration was first given to a scheme for the eradication of bovine TB. This followed talks between the government and the farming unions north and south of the Border.

The plan was to start in the most favourable (read: easier) areas and progressively pursue the programme throughout the country. The campaign was fully launched on 1 October, 1950, though the Shetland Isles enjoyed the distinction of being the first area in the country to be officially recognised free from TB some two years earlier.

Apart from the considerable animal welfare bonuses from being TB free, there was also a financial incentive: farmers with Tuberculosis Attested Herds were paid extra for their milk on condition their cows were TB-free.

By 1960, the scourge of TB was, in official eyes, swept from Britain with all the herds being attested.

I relate all of this history as backing for the argument that Scotland’s TB-free status was hard won and that should not be forgotten.

But despite the official all-clear, the disease lingered on in the south-west of England and from that source, it has spread and is now endemic in large parts of the country.

And while Scotland has official TB-free status, cases continue to turn up. These are mostly individual animals, but last year on a farm near Falkirk a whole herd had to be taken out.

The number of TB cases in Scotland in the 12 months to March 2013 came to just over 450 – almost double the number of cases in the previous year.

The situation is much worse in England, where last year some 28,000 cows were diagnosed with TB and were taken out of the herds and slaughtered at a cost to the taxpayer of around about £100 million. The emotional and consequential financial cost to the farmer is not quantified, but is considerable.

After 20 years and more of political dithering down south, UK environment secretary Owen Paterson declared earlier this year that a plan to eliminate the disease had to be drawn up.

This statement was made against a background of anger and opposition to a trial planned cull of badgers from two areas. These animals are seen as carriers of TB, but they are also seen as part of the fauna of the country (and are also a protected species).

Last week saw the publication of the Defra strategy document aiming to free England from the disease within 25 years. Yes, 25 years.

The elimination plan involves a combination of control methods, including culling of badgers in some areas – particularly in the “hot spot” of the south-west of England – and it also includes the introduction of a vaccination programme.

The plan aims to stop the disease spreading into the north of England, and this part of the programme will include movement controls that require animals to carry a TB testing history.

I believe this is significant, as livestock men tend to have blind spots when they are buying animals. Conformation, performance and breeding are all scrutinised to the nth degree, but often the risk of disease is passed over.

If you doubt my word consider the cases of schmallenberg virus in Scotland – I believe all are connected with buying livestock from known infected areas in England, thus introducing the disease north of the Border.

We should not need double fences if buyers are mindful of disease risks.