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Strategy set to tackle bovine TB

08 Apr 08 06:07
Wyre Davies
BBC Wales correspondent

Wales has a huge problem with tuberculosis (TB) in cattle - of that there can be no doubt.

Last year more than £15m was paid out to farmers in compensation for cattle infected with TB and it is a figure which is rising steadily.

Almost 8,000 cattle in Wales were slaughtered in 2007, because of TB, compared with less than 700 a decade ago.

But what, or who, is to blame? How is the problem tackled? Later on Tuesday the Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones, will outline her response.

Speak to most farmers and the answer is unequivocal. The fault lies with badgers, killing them is the only answer.

Yes, badgers may be native to the British countryside and have been around for thousands of years but, say farmers, they infect thousands of cattle with bovine tuberculosis, a potentially fatal respiratory illness which can ultimately be transmitted to humans.

John Owen is a farm manager near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire who happens to have a 'closed' herd - one into which no cattle have been introduced in the last four years and which does not border another livestock farm.

Yet he has just lost 150 dairy cattle to TB and although he will be compensated for the animals' value, he will have to absorb thousands of pounds in lost income himself.

Mr Owen is a quietly spoken man and is not quick to blame badgers for something he says can not be definitely proven.

"It's been devastating. TB got into the herd somehow but no livestock was brought in and we test on a regular basis." Mr Owen would support a controlled cull of badgers within a limited, defined area as part of a wider strategy at tackling TB as would many vets who share the farming "perspective".

That view, predictably and understandably, is not shared by groups who seek to protect badgers.

For more than 30 years Gareth Morgan has taken delight in watching and studying badgers at many setts in mid Wales.

They are playful, intelligent creatures with a highly-developed social system.

Gareth and other badger enthusiasts do not dispute they or other mammals can carry TB but say to blame and punish them for spreading the disease in cattle is simply wrong.

Scientific evidence is inconclusive. Many reports back the farmers and the vets.

Others, most notably a study carried out over 10 years by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) suggest that a cull of badgers might not achieve a significant reduction of TB among cattle.

Buoyed by the ISG report, badger "huggers" as their detractors call them, say the real problem lies with modern, intensive farming.

Thousands of animals, mechanically reared for optimum profit, living in close quarters spreading illness among each other. Foot and Mouth, Bluetongue and now TB. Proof enough say those hoping to save the badger.

Those arguments certainly are not lost on the agriculture minister as she puts forward a comprehensive strategy today to deal with TB in Wales.

This strategy is likely to include better and more rigorous testing of cattle.

The problem for Ms Jones is that any announcement to eradicate badgers within a defined area may go down well in the farming community but will be deeply unpopular among the general public.

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