Could Pioneering Vet’s TB Test End the Slaughter?

As badger culls begin, could one pioneering vet’s bovine TB test end the slaughter?

Patrick Barkham.   The Observer.  Sun 15 Oct 2017.

Research at a secret location in Devon may help eradicate bovine tuberculosis without a single badger being killed, says leading vet

A pretty stone farmhouse sits in a bucolic green valley, surrounded by airy cowsheds. It looks like a timeless West Country scene but is actually a pioneering farm, where cutting-edge science is helping to solve the hugely controversial, multimillion-pound problem of bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

As an expanded badger cull gets under way this autumn, in which 33,500 animals will be killed to help stop the spread of the disease, a leading vet, Dick Sibley, believes this Devon farm demonstrates a way to eradicate the disease in cattle – without slaughtering any badgers.

Sibley’s trial, at a secret location, was halted earlier this year when two new tests to better identify bTB in cattle were deemed illegal. But government regulators have now given the vet permission to continue. His work is backed by rock star-turned-activist Brian May, whose Save Me Trust last week began a four-year programme of vaccinating badgers at the farm against bTB.

The family that owns the farm, which has 300 milking cows, turned to Sibley in despair after being virtually shut down with bTB for five years. Because of the disease, their cattle cannot be sold on the open market.

“We had nothing to lose,” said the fourth-generation farmer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of interference from extremists on both sides of the argument. “We want to get rid of TB, it’s costing us a lot. Any technology would be better than the old bTB test.”

Despite four years of badger culling, bTB continues to rise in England, and 30,980 cows were slaughtered in the year up to June in attempts to control it, an increase of 4%. Farmers, as well as wildlife campaigners, are increasingly critical of the cattle test for bTB, which misses many cases, leaving undiagnosed cows to spread the disease within herds. In 2015, 16% of English bTB “breakdowns” were only detected in abattoirs, after supposedly healthy cows had been slaughtered.

Sibley is pioneering two new tests. The phage test, developed by microbiologist Cath Rees of Nottingham University, uses a bTB-invading virus to “hunt” for the live bacterium. It is detecting bTB in cows on the Devon farm months before they test positive with the traditional “skin test”: 85 cows have tested positive with the phage test despite all being found disease-free by the conventional test.

Farmers then need to know if infected cows are infectious. For this, Sibley uses a second test, qPCR, developed by Liz Wellington, life sciences professor at Warwick University. It detects bTB in dung, showing if a cow is “shedding” – spreading – the disease. If it is, the cow is slaughtered even though the conventional test suggests it is healthy.

Both professors have given Sibley free use of their new technologies, and the tests have shown that supposedly healthy cows are the “hidden reservoir” of bTB on the farm. But Sibley said what farms need as well as better testing is better risk management and more resilient cows. “I’ve never cured a cow with a test,” he said.

The farm is an intensive dairy operation that keeps its cattle indoors once they are fully grown and milks them robotically – some cows produce 15,000 litres of milk each year. “If you don’t give that cow everything she needs, and keep the disease away from her, she will crash and burn,” said Sibley. “It’s just like athletes: if there’s a bit of E coli in the Olympic village, they all go down.”

TB – in cows as well as humans – is traditionally a disease of bad living conditions, so the farm’s barns are airy. There are fewer cows in each barn compared with a typical dairy farm, walkways are cleaned three times a day, and regularly changed drinking water is held in “tipping troughs” that are kept scrubbed clean. Dung falling into troughs is likely to be a key transmitter of the disease.

After studying each cow’s history, Sibley believes mothers often spread the disease to their calves at birth. The farm is combatting this by building a new maternity unit with rubber floors that will be disinfected after every delivery. Colostrum – the crucial first milk that boosts a calf’s immune system – is harvested from each mother but pasteurised before it is fed to each calf, so it won’t spread disease.

Leading vet Dick Sibley is trialling new testing methods for bTB that will detect the disease much earlier in cattle. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Observer

After being “shut down” for five years, the farm had its first clear test last year. It hopes to be clear of all restrictions within 12 months. But Sibley says that removing the disease from cows without tackling diseased badgers is like “crossing the road and only looking one way”.

Farm CCTV reveals that no badgers come close to the cattle sheds, but Wellington’s qPCR technology tested badger latrines and found local badgers were shedding the disease: 30% of 273 faecal samples contained the bacterium. Young grazing cows are potentially exposed to the disease.

“We have to accept that the badgers are a risk,” said Sibley. “We either kill them, fence them out or, more constructively, vaccinate them to reduce the risk of infection in the environment.”

May’s ‘Save Me Trust’ is funding badger vaccination around the farm. The Queen guitarist became a hate-figure for some farmers when he suggested that if bTB was such a problem they should stop rearing cattle. But he has been working behind the scenes for several years to support farmers.

“I’m very, very hopeful that Dick Sibley has the answer,” said May. “I hope it works out, not just for this farm but for the whole of Britain. That would take away this awful polarisation between farmers and the public and animal welfare groups.”

A global shortage of BCG vaccine stopped May vaccinating badgers last year and he points out that the farm has virtually banished the disease without touching a single badger. “If badgers are running around with bTB and the herd has been cleaned up with advanced testing, that really makes you wonder whether badgers are contributing to the disease,” said May.

While some epidemiologists have privately expressed frustration that the government has not yet adopted new cattle-testing technologies, Sibley said the regulators move slowly. “The authorities must have rock-solid evidence in case they end up in court. I predict that in five years time phage and qPCR will be in the toolbox for farmers.”

Other bTB-hit farms are interested in Sibley’s approach and May’s charity has pledged to help meet veterinary costs. In Wales, farms with chronic bTB are receiving special support from the Welsh government and could be among the first to adopt the new techniques. Christianne Glossop, Wales’ chief vet, said: “I have known Dick for many years and have great respect for his work. I am also well aware of his current trials and will be keeping a close eye on the results of his pilot in Devon exploring innovative new testing methods.”

The Devon farmer admits he has been surprised by his success. “This test is showing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m excited that it could help us get clear of the disease and help other farmers in the future.”

THE CULLING DEBATE.

A zoonotic disease – one that can jump from animals to humans – bovine tuberculosis (bTB) caused thousands of human deaths until the pasteurisation of milk began in the 1920s. It was then almost eradicated from British cows with the widespread slaughter of herds in the 1950s.

However, in 1971 it was discovered that cows had passed the disease to badgers after a dead badger was found on a farm in Gloucestershire. The find led to five decades of debate and scientific uncertainty, and it is still not known what proportion – if any – of cattle TB cases are caused by badgers. The scientific consensus is that cows and badgers pass the disease between them but the precise method of transmission is also not known. Epidemiologists believe it is most likely via animal faeces.

Cattle TB has risen steadily since the 1980s and cost £500m in compensation to farmers in the decade up to 2013. That year, badger culling began in two “zones” in Gloucestershire and Somerset. It has since expanded to 21 zones in England. Ireland, the only other country with a bTB problem, also culls badgers.

Pro-cull farmers argue that reducing badger numbers will reduce bTB in the environment. No data has been published on the impact of four years of badger culling on cattle TB, but many scientists question the cull’s effectiveness.

Bishopstone Tidemills and Port Expansion

Sunday, Sept 18.  I walked with a friend to Bishopstone Tidemills where there is much evidence of the archaeological dig being carried out to unearth the remains of the now ‘lost’ village.  I found the evidence of William Catt’s huge greenhouse intriguing with what I assume are heating pipes beneath the structure?

I was also made aware of local opposition to the proposed expansion of Newhaven Port on to land designated several decades ago as ‘the port development area’ which will see most of the East Pier demolished to make way for an increased deep-water channel and the construction of a new 300 metre long quay and an adjacent ‘lay-down’ or working area.  The main thrust behind all this is to establish a base from which to service E-ON’s Rampion Offshore Wind Farm currently under construction off Brighton.  I am all for green energy and this development would make the appearance of the port look like a working port again, rather than the semi-derelict one Newhaven appears to travellers entering the port at the moment.  The new quay would also attract larger cargo ships and cargoes.

I have since spent some hours reading through a number of documents freely available at     http://padocs.lewes.gov.uk/AniteIM.WebSearch/Results.aspx    The downsides of this development are in my view from three directions. 1) There would be the commercial activity and associated sounds creeping even closer to the already compromised solace that people derive from visiting the tranquillity of the Tidemills site.  2) The loss of several hectares of the East Beach with much of it an expanse of vegetated shingle – a threatened habitat nowadays in our busy world and, the loss of an extensive areas of sand at low water.  3) The construction of a large and by what appears to be a fairly high road bridge traversing both the railway line to Seaford and the Mill Creek.  I believe these three issues are cause of quite some concern but sadly, they are not sufficiently significant to stop or amend this development – especially with this Tory governments obsession with development over nearly everything else.

I do feel though that as a further mitigation the owners of the port, the French-owned Newhaven Port & Properties Ltd, could at no additional cost extend eastwards the proposed local nature reserve for Tidemills, to include the large triangle of vegetated shingle stretching towards Seaford (part of the former millpond) and the grassed floodbank (the Cinder Path), unless they have ‘plans’ for this too?  I have forwarded this impassioned proposal to both Mr. Francois Jean of Newhaven Port & Properties Ltd. and to Nazeya Hussain of Lewes District Council.

September Sightings

Saturday, Sept 9.  I took a railway excursion, ending up back on the coast at Folkestone. Rail travel I believe, is a fine way of seeing cross-sections of our landscape. On the outward journey north, I saw what were presumably, two hot-spots of ash die-back disease – one just north of Battle and a very noticeable area at and around Wadhurst station.  Added to this from time to time were instances of alder alongside watercourses, dead from Phytophthora.  Upon reaching Tonbridge station, I was greeted on Platform 3 by a large black and white cat sprawled across the platform grooming itself and not caring a jot about the comings and goings of people and trains.  By its persona, I can only assume it owns the station and answers to the name Sapphie!

See  http://www.kentonline.co.uk/tonbridge/news/station-cat-stars-in-railway-38942/

Folkestone harbour, has changed a lot from when I visited it once about 20 years ago.  A lot of money is being spent on transforming the redundant harbour into a public space with restaurants and bars and a pleasant walk along the long breakwater.  100 years on from WW1, I couldn’t help but think from time to time about the many troops that must have passed by the same scenes that I was seeing today.  The little shops and cafes down The Old High Street were enjoyable too.  A nice spot for a few hours ramble.  Continuing the theme of trees, I saw the two healthiest horse chestnuts for years, perhaps rather out on a limb and with the prevailing wind having a long fetch over the sea, they are protected from attack.

                                                                                                                                            I noticed that on the south-facing slopes of the North Downs overlooking the town that much of the chalk grassland was being engulfed by scrub.  What a pity…

Sunday, Sept 18.  Walked to Bishopstone Tidemills where there is much evidence of the archaeological digging being carried out unearthing the remains of the now ‘lost’ village.  I found the evidence of William Catt’s huge greenhouse intriguing with what I assume are heating pipes?

Monday, Sept 19.  Beautiful sunny day again.  Sat on the near deserted beach and watched lagoons formed by a low shingle ridge, flood on the high tide, these being patrolled by turnstones looking for food – especially washed-up mussels.  There have been numbers of large white and Vanessa butterflies along the beach of late, blown by the NE breeze or, are they possibly looking to migrate south??

 

Sheep to Graze Green Park

I wonder what sort of fencing they will be using – to keep the dogs out!  And I wonder if they’ll remove them at night because of potential larger 2-legged predators?

https://www.royalparks.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/herd-of-sheep-take-on-new-role-as-woolly-lawnmowers-in-the-green-park

Rare breed sheep will be grazing the wildflower meadows of The Green Park in August, to help the invertebrate community thrive

From the 21-27 August, Green Park is welcoming woolly visitors for a conservation trial that sees The Royal Parks Mission: Invertebrate team up with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and Mudchute Farm.

Rare breed sheep will be used for grazing across one of the wildflower meadows in Green Park, to help London’s tiniest creatures thrive and prevent the sheep species from becoming extinct. The scheme is part of the Royal Parks Mission: Invertebrate project which has received £600,000 from the Players of People’s Postcode Lottery to shine a spotlight on the capital’s vital grassland creatures.

Livestock grazing has an important role in wildlife conservation, and is carried out to manage and improve habitats of high nature conservation value. Most grasslands in the UK would eventually become dense scrub and woodland if left un-grazed. The trial hopes to help maintain a variety of plant species, and prevent coarse grasses dominating the meadow in Green Park, which will ultimately encourage a greater variety of pollinators and other meadow-based invertebrates.

Invertebrates are the unsung heroes of the ecosystem and every day millions of tiny creatures are working 24/7 to keep our environment flourishing and our food chain moving. With green spaces under ever increasing pressure, parklands are more valuable to wildlife than ever before.

The sheep species taking part include: Oxford Downs, Whitefaced Woodlands, Southdown’s and Manx Loaghtan. These breeds have been selected for the trial, as unlike modern commercial breeds that rely on supplementary food from man, they have evolved to thrive on a variety of different plants. They will therefore eat the tougher grass, and trample in the seed that has dropped from the wildflowers in the meadow.

Dr Alice Laughton, who is leading the project for The Royal Parks, comments:

“We are very excited to be carrying out the first sheep grazing trial in The Royal Parks. By increasing the biodiversity of the park grasslands, we hope to encourage the invertebrates that inhabit meadow grasslands to flourish, and it will help plan how we manage the parks in the future. We’re delighted that People’s Postcode Lottery recognises the important role of invertebrates and that the Players are helping us to inspire the UK public.”

Britain – Colonialism and Meddling

I’ve watched and listened to a number of programmes related to the partition of India into two separate states during August 1947…

The haste at which this was carried out, particularly the drawing over a few weeks of the two new borders between India demarcating the two areas which were to become Pakistan, beggars disbelief!  India had been clamouring for independence for years with Britain refusing to act, then suddenly after WW2, with Britain now broke and India requiring money for re-investment and modernisation, Britain led by Churchill and aided by Mountbatten, dropped India like a hot potato.  Indian politicians, in particular Jinnah, and to a degree Nehru also carry a fair amount of blame for the eventual Partition and the ensuing bloodshed.

Britain seem to just want to forget about the rising tide of religious tension, under investment and the fact that thousands of men from India had fought and died for Britain in two World Wars. The ensuing slaughter of perhaps a million civilians along religious lines in the ensuing division of land, the five million displaced people, is truly shocking.

I know it’s easy with hindsight to judge events of some 70 years ago but it again makes me recoil from being proud of some aspects of what Britain and the Union Jack have done for the World, colonialism – exploitation and meddling in other peoples affairs, (include here Iraq, Palestine, Africa).

Royal Sovereign Light Tower Construction

I remember this being built.  It was to be the first of several to this design but I believe because of construction delays and costs, no others were built.  I recognised one local face in the construction crew; in the film, there is at times some rather grating accompanying music.  Note the masses of ‘personal protective clothing’ worn!  The tower, as were all lighthouses in the UK, was later converted to run automatically.

New Bridge for Exceat

Two similar schemes were drawn up during the 20th century regarding Exceat Bridge. Refer to my book “Seven Sisters” for more.  Available from www.montylarkin.co.uk or local bookshops & countryside centres.

Cash Boost To Tackle East Sussex Congestion Hotspot.  [Abridged]

Brighton News, Wednesday, June 28th, 2017.

EXCEAT BRIDGE. IMAGE CREDIT OAST HOUSE ARCHIVE CC BY-SA 2.0

Members of East Sussex County Council’s cabinet agreed plans to use a government grant to build a new two-lane bridge to replace the current one-lane Exceat Bridge over the Cuckmere river.

The Government has confirmed that East Sussex County Council will receive £2.13million from its National Productivity investment fund – a pot of money designed to help councils improve journey times and cut congestion.

Cllr Rupert Simmons, the county council’s lead member for economy, said: “We want to improve connectivity across the county and have, for some time, been looking for solutions to the issue of Exceat Bridge. As well as being frustrating for motorists, the bottleneck does nothing to help the businesses in our county.

“Our own limited resources would not stretch to funding the construction of the new bridge, but I am delighted that we are able to put government funding designed to address these kinds of problems to good use.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, members were told that this was a first stage in an extensive design, costing and planning process and that any proposal would be subject to discussion and approval from the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA).

Funding of £500,000 has already been approved by the council for maintenance of the bridge – this funding would go towards the construction of the new bridge, should the scheme be successful.

Cllr Simmons added:  “We have considered a number of options to deal with the problems at Exceat, including traffic lights, but it is felt that a new two lane bridge is the only way to effectively deal with the congestion created by the current layout.

“The location of the new bridge is a sensitive one and will need to be carefully designed to minimise the impact it has on the South Downs National Park in which it sits. We look forward to working closely with the SDNPA, doing everything we can to deliver much needed relief to motorists using the A259 and taking steps to help the growth of our economy.”

Possible designs and costings will be reported back to Cabinet in early 2018.

British Archaeology In Fight for Survival

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/20/trouble-brewing-british-archaeology?CMP=share_btn_tw

British archaeology is in a fight for survival  [Abstrct]

Mary Shepperson,  Tuesday 20 June 2017.

The first University Archaeology Day marks a point of crisis in British archaeology. As student applications fall, threatening university departments with cuts, commercial demand for archaeologists is soaring, leaving a looming skills shortage.   Archaeology is a great subject to take at university. Why then are fewer and fewer students applying to study it?

On 22 June, the first ever University Archaeology Day will be hosted by University College London. The intention is to paint an inspiring picture of archaeology as an exciting field of study leading to a hearty spread of career opportunities, but University Archaeology Day is also a response to a growing crisis in UK archaeology, both for university departments and for the commercial sector. This crisis is likely to have repercussions well beyond the world of academia.

Archaeology is a great subject to take at university; it brings together a mix of humanities and sciences, and combines social theory, critical thinking and hard practical skills. Adventure abounds, both intellectual and actual. Why then are fewer and fewer students applying to study it? This is the question plaguing beleaguered archaeology departments across the UK which are seeing student numbers drop year on year.

The problem boils down to a combination of perceptions and financial factors. The drop in student numbers began after the 2008 financial crisis but has been exacerbated by the hike in tuition fees and the withdrawal of student loans for second degrees. Unlike earlier generations who saw university as more of a chance to experience and explore, students now increasingly see university as a financial investment which needs a decent prospect of financial reward to make sense. Subjects like archaeology, which don’t obviously lead to well paid careers, have suffered the consequences of this more hard-nosed attitude towards education. The scrapping of A-level archaeology last year is both symptom and cause of the declining profile of the subject among students.

Archaeology is more sensitive to falling student numbers than most subjects. The need for laboratory work and the requirement for a range of practical training makes archaeology an expensive subject to teach. However, archaeology is not classed as a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or as a SIVS (Strategically Important Vulnerable Subject) which are favoured by government funding and admissions policies. This means that archaeology courses rapidly become uneconomic for universities if course places aren’t filled.

So why should all this be of concern? If students don’t want to study archaeology, the subject isn’t economic and the government doesn’t consider it important enough to protect, why shouldn’t it be allowed to die back in universities? Well, in addition to the loss of the UK’s position at the forefront of international archaeological research, there’s an increasingly desperate shortage of archaeologists in the UK.

Archaeology is part of the process of planning and construction, with UK developers required to pay for any archaeological work which might be necessary. The recent surge in house building is already stretching commercial archaeology units to their staffing limits and it’s hard to see how planned major infrastructure projects, such as HS2 and a third runway for Heathrow, can be managed as things stand. A recent report by Historic England estimates that the UK will need between 25% and 64% more archaeologists by 2033 to meet commercial demand. Brexit has the potential to make the situation even worse as many archaeology units are now heavily reliant on EU nationals.

It might seem curious under these circumstances that students aren’t more attracted to archaeology as a career when there are so many unfilled commercial vacancies crying out for graduates. The problem is that up until now commercial archaeology has been mostly quite horrible.  Pay and conditions in commercial archaeology are frankly appalling for a skilled graduate profession. A new graduate can’t expect more than £16,000 – £18,000 p.a., and even a senior supervisor or project officer doesn’t earn much more than £25,000, including for jobs based in London and the southeast.

In return, a commercial archaeologist is expected to do a heavy physical job in all (British) weather. Job security is poor; permanent positions don’t come easily and many archaeologists are employed on a project-by-project basis. Traditionally, most young archaeologists don’t stay in commercial archaeology for more than a year or two before escaping to another part of the heritage industry or by transferring their many skills to a more lucrative career – by which I mean almost any other career

However, commercial archaeology is finally starting to respond to the looming skills shortage. In 2014 the Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) managed to get a Royal Charter for the profession, which will hopefully begin the process of elevating archaeology away from its traditional amateurish image of bearded enthusiasts in funny jumpers towards a more serious professional ethos. A host of new training initiatives have been launched, mostly as collaborations between universities, commercial units and the CIfA, aiming to improve skill sets, raise standards and encourage people into the profession.

Between the shortage of trained archaeologists and the renewed efforts by the commercial sector to improve the lot of archaeology as a profession, it seems likely that pay and conditions will have to improve, especially if developers want their housing estates, runways and high speed rail lines delivered on time. In fact, there might never have been a better time to get into archaeology; that’s if there are university departments left to train at.

Further reading: British Academy’s Reflections on Archaeology Report