Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2000

PROFESSOR JOHN BOURNE, DR CHRISTL DONNELLY AND DR ROSIE WOODROFFE

  40. Where you talk about protests, how likely is it that protests that have taken place could influence the reliability of the trials themselves?
  (Professor Bourne) The actual interference that we get from protesters rather than non-co-operation?

  41. That is correct. I suppose both, but I am really thinking about the active protests.
  (Professor Bourne) There have been degrees of protest. This is probably a question that is better addressed to MAFF than me. They are in a better position to give you line and verse on this. Certainly from our perspective, the degree of protest has not been any more than we might have originally expected.

  42. So what do you think the impact will be on the trials, if any?
  (Professor Bourne) At the outset the trial was designed so that it would be robust. We expected there would be non-participation, we expected there would be protester activity, and we indicated in our—I think it was the first but certainly the second—report that for it to have a serious impact on the trial the non-co-operation and protesting activity would have to be massive. It certainly has not been anything to that degree. Co-operation has been at a very high level, and while protest has occurred it has varied from one triplet to another, and it has not, in our view, been serious—with respect to the integrity of the trial. That is not to under-estimate the impact it has had on MAFF staff. You can imagine it is very disturbing for staff in the field to be faced by protesters in the way they are, and it has led to damage of a large amount of MAFF property. I think that is a question you need to address to MAFF and to the Minister.

  43. Moving on to the question of humaneness, I think the independent auditor did do an investigation into humaneness of despatching badgers but not of trapping badgers. Have you made an assessment of the humaneness of the trapping process?
  (Professor Bourne) You are right in that the actual trapping procedures were not part of the humaneness audit, although clearly I did discuss that with the auditor at a personal level. It is something we take very seriously within the ISG. You probably are aware that we have asked for research to be done—and research that is being done—on various trap designs. We have had an initial report on that work, and in fact it is one of the items for the ISG meeting this afternoon. We do take these welfare aspects very seriously, as you would expect us to.

  44. Can we expect some kind of report about the humaneness of the trapping procedures then?
  (Professor Bourne) There certainly will be precise measurements of damage to badgers in traps, and this is conducted on post mortem examinations, so it does involve quite a serious recording of these sorts of damages.

  45. Does that include non-target species?
  (Professor Bourne) I was going to say, also there have been records of non-target species being caught. Again, MAFF will give you details of the number of species that have been caught and those that have been found dead in traps and those that have been destroyed on humane grounds. We are aware of that and we asked for that information to be forwarded to us. Again, that does relate to the work being done on cage trap design.
  (Dr Woodroffe) I wonder if I could perhaps add that the levels of—having trapped badgers as part of research for years myself and having experience of doing this—injury to badgers in traps is extremely minor. We are talking about losing fur off their wrists or maybe from the nose. It is uncommon to see more severe damage than that. Of course, that is not quantifying the stress of being sat in a trap all night, but I would add that these are standard procedures which are frequently used in research as well as in this sort of operation. We are not talking about major suffering.

  46. I have got an issue on traps, but I will resist that. I also want to know about lactating sows when you actually catch them. How many cubs are affected, do you think? What are you doing to locate the cubs when you trap lactating sows?
  (Dr Woodroffe) We designed the close season with a view to avoiding the capture of females with dependent cubs that would be left to starve below ground. The design of the close season was based upon existing data, on the best available data on the timing of reproduction in badgers—mostly coming from intensive field projects, such as my own that I used to run in Oxford. The aims of the close season in these circumstances are slightly different from close seasons adopted by other authorities, because the culling process means that if cubs can be captured cubs themselves can be humanely despatched. Experience indicates that cubs are more easily trapped than adults. So whilst one might wish to avoid disruption at or around badger setts over, perhaps, a wider period during a cub's period of dependency, given cubs' trapability one is able to capture cubs and humanely despatch them not long after they start moving above ground. We keep the close season under constant review, obviously, with a view to altering it if that would prove to be necessary, based on the available data. On that basis I carried out an analysis of the capture of lactating females and cubs in the Poulshott area in Wiltshire, which was proactively culled in the last two weeks of May of this year. The sizes of the cubs that were captured at that time did not differ in any way that I could detect statistically from data from my own study in Whithill over a three or four year period. That suggests that in that area breeding was no later than in the population from which I took most of the data. That suggested that the data that I used to derive the close season were applicable to that area. The figure on the number of breeding females that were caught during that period, I think, were given in Parliament earlier this year, and given as 51. That was based upon the subjective assessment of the people out trapping in the field. They get the badger out of the trap, turn it over and they look at the underside of the female to try to determine whether she has bred that year. Given that these females would either be lactating or have recently stopped lactating, that is quite a good subjective assessment of a female's breeding status. With 51 lactating females we would expect—on the basis of average litter sizes—to catch between 120 and 150 cubs. Actually, 162 were caught, according to my evaluation of the data. So that is consistent with us having caught the majority of the cubs that were present. Of course, that subjective assessment is not conclusive evidence of a female having bred. The only conclusive evidence that a female is actively lactating can be gathered at post mortem, when you can try to express from the teats, or you can cut into the mammary tissue and see whether milk comes out. Only three females were actively lactating of the animals that were captured in Poulshott that year. I followed up what happened subsequently at the setts where those females were captured and in two cases two cubs were caught subsequently and another in the other case. So, again, that is consistent with us having caught—with an average litter size of between two and three—the dependent cubs of two of the three lactating females. So as far as we can judge, one lactating female was left (and I am not able to assess whether they caught the cubs because I have not got the survey maps at the moment) but I think what those data suggest is that the numbers of cubs that would have been left to starve must have been very low.

  47. Fifty-one out of how many?
  (Dr Woodroffe) Fifty-one out of a total of 602 badgers.
  (Professor Bourne) I think what is important is that only three of those were lactating at the time of capture.

  48. I will not ask you to give an update on the stuff you have in paragraph 19 because there is quite a lot of it, but when do you think we will be able to hear the information and the update of the logical consequences of the investigation?
  (Professor Bourne) The majority of those projects are full three-year projects. The ecological consequences one is actually over four years. One would not expect some useful data to emerge from that until the end of those projects, which would be in about three years' time. Other studies are further down the track. For instance, studies relating to genetic analysis. That data is emerging continually, and will be assessed and analysed on a continual basis. The effect of badger removal on badger social organisation is being conducted over a three-year time period, and there may be some data before the end of that period. Projects relating to measuring population density, again, are on-going and they are three-year projects, but we may have some useful data before the end of the three-year period. It is pretty well all within a three or four-year time frame.

  49. Will it be before the final results of the main tests?
  (Professor Bourne) It could well coincide, actually, with the useful data we get from the trial. Equally, it could coincide also with data we get from the pathogenesis study on-going with cattle, which are, again, in a three to four-year time frame.
  (Dr Woodroffe) I would like to pick up on the ecological consequences project, very briefly. The Environmental Impact Assessment, of course, is a key part of assessing badger culling policy, and its outcome as well as the economic studies will help to answer the question that was raised earlier about the minimum reduction in cattle TB that one would consider needed to advocate badger culling in future. I just wanted to add that because it is part of assessing not the impact of the trial as a phenomenon but the impact of badger culling as future policy it is appropriate that that lasts for a long period.
  (Professor Bourne) These projects are being reviewed at a two-day meeting next week in London. So we will have much more detailed information after that.

  Mr Öpik: I would be grateful if you could pass them on. Thank you for that. I just want to ask you to, maybe, revisit the case for having a triplet—albeit late—in Wales.

Mr Drew

  50. Can I move on to husbandry? Firstly, an observation which you may want to respond to. Given the length of the other aspects of the trial, I am interested in why the husbandry working group were asked to report in such a short time span?
  (Professor Bourne) That is a question, I think, that should be more properly addressed to MAFF. MAFF are responding to your suggestion and respond they did. It is their report, not ours.

  51. Can I immediately ask you what value you would put on that report?
  (Professor Bourne) I think you probably have not seen yet the response that we sent to MAFF on that. I do not think MAFF have finally considered that.

Chairman

  52. No, we have not.
  (Professor Bourne) Certainly we regarded it as being a useful scrutiny of the literature, but we did make the point that it was more a laying out of the literature and what it did not have was any careful scrutiny or assessment of the literature. I think in that respect it was less useful than it could have been. Nonetheless, it did identify husbandry factors which may have relevance to farming practice with respect to control of bovine TB, and I think those have been taken on board subsequently by TB Forum and are being relayed to the farming industry. With respect to the research proposals, they did find, of course, that they did endorse the approach we were taking with respect to an epidemiological risk analysis approach rather than doing direct experimentation on farms. It did, nonetheless, make some recommendations for research activity, and again we have responded to that. I do not have the details with me, but, for instance, there was a suggestion from the husbandry group that work on diagnosis was not important. We strongly disagreed with that. Improved diagnostic techniques, we believe, are absolutely critical. They highlighted the need for studies on genetic resistance, and we believe that should not be a high priority, for reasons we have gone into in detail in our response to MAFF. There is probably no point in my going into that detail now. However, in essence we valued the report, we recognised it for what it was and what it was not and we responded to the research proposals that they were suggesting—the main proposal of which we disagreed with.

Mr Drew

  53. Are you saying that you would want MAFF to generate further research in this area, and would that then in turn have some impact on your work?
  (Professor Bourne) What we are saying is what we stated at the outset: we believe the best approach to identify risk factors is initially through an epidemiological survey because there are many risk factors and no one knows the quantitative significance of them. On the basis of TB99 and the analysis of TB99 data, we then may be able to point more, focus more objectively, on particularly high risk factors and ask for more work to be done in the field situation on those factors. It is possible, yes, but it does depend on the outcome of the analysis.

  54. Is this not rather urgent in the sense that, if husbandry is going to be one of the possible remedies, somebody somewhere had better do some work fairly quickly if it is going to in any way influence—?
  (Professor Bourne) Absolutely, which is why we insisted that TB99 was put in place as quickly as it was, that we should analyse the data as quickly as we can and why we were so disturbed because there were some suggestions that TB99 would not be adhered to in the way that was agreed as a result of the swine fever activities in East Anglia. We made our views very clear to MAFF about the urgency of TB99. We have highlighted the importance of this work in the whole tranche of research activities that we have in place.
  (Dr Woodroffe) TB99 is not operating in isolation. We are aware of at least three retrospective studies of husbandry which are ongoing, again using epidemiological questionnaires, one funded by the Milk Development Council and the second retrospectively, TB49, by MAFF, which will report relatively soon as well. Quite shortly I think we are looking at seeing a number of studies which could direct future action on research.

  55. The NFU in their resubmission for this inquiry are adamant that farmers are taking particular measures with regard to animal husbandry to reduce the risk of transmission. What scientific objectivity is there to say that is the case?
  (Professor Bourne) That farmers are doing this?

  56. Yes.
  (Professor Bourne) There is none. Equally, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that what they are doing is the appropriate thing to do. That is the whole point of us doing a risk analysis, to identify what the major husbandry factors might be in influencing cattle TB.

  57. I find that compelling. We have not seen this but are you now making recommendations to MAFF that they must re-examine not just the literature but do some actual controlled experimentation in the area of animal husbandry?
  (Professor Bourne) No, we are not, because we do not believe that is an appropriate thing to do at the moment. We do not know what the major risk factors are and if one tried to put in place farm experiments there are so many variables that it would be a worthless exercise. This is why we are insisting on and have put in place the risk analysis through TB99.

  58. Are you not looking at the effect rather than the cause? Is it not worthy of at least some cognisance on your part of the fact that husbandry is an important contributing factor?
  (Professor Bourne) We believe that husbandry could be. There is no evidence that it is. We are looking at retrospective data. Rosie mentioned TB49. I am bound to say the likelihood of that being valuable to us is not very high because that information was not collected on the basis of providing for an epidemiological study; it was for disease management. A project nonetheless is coming to an end which was funded in part by the Milk Development Council, again looking at retrospective data. For our part, we have done an initial analysis of TB99 on farms outside of trial areas, for which there are no controls. We would expect, by the time we publish our report in March, to have analysed the data that we have available from trial areas which would include controls. It is possible on the basis of that that useful information could be relayed to farmers, but we will not know until we have completed those analyses. We recognise the urgency of this. We have recognised it from the outset. I think you will agree that we moved very speedily to design the questionnaire which we believe was appropriate, which in fact you believe was too complicated and too long. Experience in the field has suggested otherwise and we are very anxious to get this data in and get it analysed.

Mr Mitchell

  59. You say in paragraph 27 that you recommended that MAFF should commission studies on the economic impact of the disease. They now have done that and you are being consulted on the kind of projects that are suitable. What kind of projects are suitable?
  (Professor Bourne) We need information at two levels. One is at farm level and the other would be at a more national level. Those projects have been considered by a group, in which we played a part. Whether the final decision has yet been made to fund these I am not sure, but they have been considered. I would imagine that MAFF are moving towards agreeing the funding of these.


 
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