The Journey and Insights of Gatcombe Farm.

Introduction 

This is Brian May. I’m writing this from my personal point of view, and please note that when I use the word “we”, it does not imply that I have anything other than humility and respect for the members of the Gatcombe team, all of whom understand many of these points better than I do.  I began researching bovine TB ten years ago, when I founded the Save-Me trust (with the object of giving wild animals a voice) with Anne Brummer, whose Harper Asprey Wildlife rescue had already given thousands of animals a second chance in the wild; together we embarked on a mission to find out the truth about cows and badgers and the scourge of bovine TB, in which the badgers stood accused of being a ‘wildlife reservoir’ of disease.  Five years ago, after an introduction by John Royal of the NFU, we set to work in collaboration with specialist farming vet Dick Sibley, to battle with the disease first-hand, at the dairy farm of Robert Reed at Gatcombe in South Devon. Since then, at least 40,000 badgers have been killed in the UK under licenses issued by Natural England. 

My aim here is to put the journey and insights of the Gatcombe project in a form which will be easily understandable to all.   And I am hoping that this will also pave the way for a better understanding between the various ‘stakeholders’ in the fight against Bovine TB, and will eventually lead to a better life for farmers, cows, and badgers in the UK.  You may question our logic in this summary, and we will readily admit that some of the evidence needs augmenting, but we ask only that you read what we have to say and form your own conclusions. We will welcome constructive feedback, and further discussion. 

 

 

1)  Firstly, why would Brian May have anything worthwhile to say on this issue ?  

“Surely Brian May is anti-farming ?  He’s a townie, a rock star, and a badger hugger.  He’s trying to stop us dealing with our farming problems;  he has no idea of what some of us are facing – the ruination of our livelihoods, and the ability to feed our families.”  Right ? 

Well, the short answer is, if I were anti-farming, why would I have spent so much time over the last five years trying to help a Devon dairy farmer ?  As part of the Gatcombe team, I’ve had a hand in transforming a chronically infected farm into a TB free zone – a major achievement in these times.  In this account you will see how that was achieved.  

You could also note that I haven’t been a part of any anti-farmer rhetoric along the way, ever since I met my first dairy farmer ten years ago, and I promised to fight against bTB alongside the farming community.  Interestingly, and it’s not something I’ve ever revealed before, five generations ago, my ancestors were dairy farmers in Devon and in Dorset.  Perhaps my involvement in this very fraught situation was somehow meant to be.  

2)  Am I ‘anti-’ the culling of badgers ?  

Yes.  And in the beginning it was because of a conviction that it was cruel, and morally unsupportable.  I still believe that now, but, after five years on Robert Reed’s dairy farm, and access to the latest statistics on badger culling, I believe we now have enough evidence to strongly suggest that the culling is not working, and the current strategy has NO HOPE of solving the TB problem in cattle.  And, even more important, we now have an alternative TB eradication strategy which DOES work, has worked for Robert Reed, and could work for the whole of the UK, and make the bTB problem history.  Instead of Owen Patterson’s claims that there is no silver bullet, and that it would take the next 25 years to solve the problem, we believe we have a protocol that will eradicate TB from a farm in four years, with minimum loss of cattle along the way.  So being anti-cull does not in any way equate to being anti-farmer.  I believe that from this time forward, the Gatcombe Strategy is the only hope for the prosperous future of Dairy Farming.  To put it even more clearly … even though things are sometimes engineered by the media to look like a conflict, we are on your side, dear farmers, not agin you. 

3) OK, let’s forget about badgers for a while, and focus on the amazing positive discoveries we have made at Gatcombe.  And there will be some Bombshells on the way.   

Mycobacterium bovis – M. bovis – is so perfectly adapted to survival, it can be regarded as a highly intelligent organism.  One of its greatest talents is HIDING.  It can live in the soil for up to a year, affecting no-one, but when it finds a host, it invades it and establishes itself, but remains completely hidden until it chooses to procreate.  It can mutate, changing its genetic makeup, in just 20 days, making it incredibly difficult to eliminate, although this mutation has enabled us now to establish which direction an infection is going between species, to which we will return later.  But this ability to remain concealed is at the core of the way it’s been able to outwit the Human Race until now.  What weapons do we have … well, the Skin Test, and Killing Badgers – right ?  That’s the current strategy in the UK.   Let’s look at what happens inside the farms.    

4) The SKIN TEST  

Current TB policy, endorsed by the NFU and enforced by the Government, prescribes a ‘test and remove’ strategy on cows.  At regular intervals, herds have to be screened using the SICCT (Single Intradermal Comparative Cervical Tuberculin) skin test.  If a cow reacts positive, it is removed and slaughtered.  Robert, in common with most farmers who have been compromised by TB (about 20 per cent of all cattle farmers) faced what seemed like insoluble mysteries.  So many farmers will recognise this scenario.  A cow which has up to now been tested as perfectly healthy reacts positive to the skin test, and is taken to slaughter.  When they open up the unfortunate animal to do the autopsy at the slaughterhouse, they find its lungs are riddled with lesions.  So the cow is in an advanced state of illness.  That cow has had TB for months, if not YEARS.  So why was it not discovered until now ?  At Gatcombe we have discovered the TB pathogen in cows that had passed 30 skin tests without being detected as TB infected.   How can that be ?  The skin test has been claimed to have a sensitivity of 90 per cent in the past.  Yet here we have inescapable evidence that this isn’t true.  The specificity of the test – relating to the number of false positives it yields - is a separate discussion. 

We know that the skin test detects, not the TB organism itself, but the sensitised cells the animal has developed to fight the infection.  And we know that the organism is very good at hiding itself, even inside the very cells that are sent to kill it, so the immune systems that our current tests are designed to detect are not always activated.   Thus we might expect that, by the time the animal becomes a ‘reactor’, it’s too late.  But for whatever reason, we can be absolutely certain that the skin test ordinarily LEAVES INFECTED ANIMALS IN THE HERD.  Recent estimates (unofficially endorsed by DEFRA – the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) put the sensitivity of the SICCT test as low as 45 per cent.  The farmers might as well toss a coin.  This is a Bombshell.   Many of those infected animals which are still in the herd will eventually become infectIOUS as well as infected, and, suddenly, do we not start to suspect that this has something to do with recurring ‘breakdowns’ (cows becoming reactors) in chronically infected herds ?  Our work (ref. Liz Wellington) has shown that a cow can be SHEDDING TB in its faeces even when it has no lesions, no visible sign of infection, and has passed multiple skin tests.  In the pursuit of refining the identification of cows carrying the disease, Dick has used a new test on the cows – Actiphage – as yet not validated by the Government, which looks for ‘phages’ which ‘eat’ M. bovis organisms, plus an ELIZA test, which looks for antibodies – both blood tests, supplementary to the skin test.  And the PCR test then looks directly for the organism in the faeces of both cows and badgers.   

It’s been heresy to say this until recently, but it’s now apparent to anyone who has looked seriously at this, that ‘Test and Removal’ by skin test is NEVER going to clear a large chronically infected herd.   It may succeed in a small herd which breaks down for the first time,  because the statistics may be favourable.  (This perhaps requires clarification: In simple terms, it comes down to the “contact rate” – the number of opportunities that an infectious animal has to infect another one. If there are only two animals in the herd, the infectious one only has one opportunity to infect the other. If there are 1,000, it has 999 opportunities to infect another one)  In a large herd, it’s absolutely certain that there will forever be residual infected cows infecting other cows, until the next breakdown happens.   Apart from ceasing to trust the skin test, we would go further, and say, as Sibley puts it, “You cannot test your way out of trouble”.  But enhanced testing is the first part of a strategy to eradicate the disease.   

5) HOW IS TB SPREAD ?    The role of SLURRY. 

So, this begs the next question.  How DOES the re-infection take place, and where ?   Let’s talk about shit !   In our research around the country, Anne and I visited TB infected farms.  Generally speaking the farmers invited us because they wanted to show us what they were going through, and persuade us that we were wrong in trying to interfere in the current TB Policy.   

What we witnessed was perhaps not what any of us expected.  These were all big intensive dairy operations, where the cows spent most of their time indoors in sheds.  In the beginning our instincts were that we’d rather see them out on grassy fields in the sunshine, but over time we learned that cows are often happier living this way.  In the early mornings we would see cattle in the sheds paddling in their own faeces and urine.  We were told this was normal until the clean-up operation happened later in the day.   But we were bemused by the fact that this prevalence of excrement was being ignored while the tiny droppings of badgers outside were being regarded as a risk.  But of course, it was the common belief that the infection was not coming from cows – it was coming from badgers.   We witnessed the skin test being performed.  We found it horrific.  And so did everyone else.  The farmers were highly stressed, because this was the moment when all their dreams could crash to the ground.  The stress transferred to the cows, who seemed to defecate constantly, and were soon paddling up to their ankles in their own excrement.  Stress is known to depress the immune system of both humans and cows, so this was in itself a very undesirable event in the life of a farm.  We felt the misery of it all as we had been expected to.  But the sight of the sea of slurry which surrounded the whole operation left us suspicious that slurry in itself might be contributing to the problem. 

What we also found shocking was the Slurry Pit.  All the dung and urine from the entire herd landed up in a huge swimming pool of SLURRY, in the middle of the farm, open to the elements, and, of course, putting a powerful stink in the air.  It was an open sewer, right ?  We wondered if there was any other business that would be allowed to operate with such an open entirely untreated sewage accumulation.  But perhaps we were being naïve.   

6)  Slurry at Gatcombe 

When we started work with Dick Sibley at Robert’s farm, we brought these questions and others with us.  Dick, who was already suspicious, said “You might well ask”.  

Dick brought in PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing of faeces – by experienced researcher Dr. Liz Wellington – of cows and of badgers on the Farm.  These Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests have been used in the battle against AIDS in humans, to detect HIV’s genetic material – RNA.  By massively ‘amplifying’ the RNA, it detects early infections before antibodies have been generated.  In this case the test can detect the presence of the organism M. bovis long before it produces symptoms in the cow.   

So how much infection resides in that slurry pit ? This is the next Bombshell.   We found 1,000 M. bovis organisms – the TB pathogen – PER GRAM in the faeces of one cow.   One cow excretes 45,000 grams per day.   And all of it goes into the slurry pit.  Even more worrying was the fact that one of the cows in whose dung this was found had passed the skin test 30 times.  This was a designated healthy cow that was not only infected but SHEDDING TB organisms at a huge rate.   

One gram of slurry infected to this extent is enough to infect a cow.  And bring an entire herd into restriction. A typical slurry pit holds 400 million grams.  We found live TB organisms not only in the slurry pit but also in run-off water and drinking troughs (and we were able to determine through the mutation of the DNA of the organism that this contamination was from cows, not badgers.)   

So we came to the strong suspicion that SLURRY is a significant medium of transmission of TB from cow to cow.  Perhaps the MOST significant.   

And it begins indoors, where it finds its way on to the current feed.    

7) Where does the slurry go ? 

For farmers there would normally be nothing surprising in this revelation.  But in the light of what we now know about levels of infection in slurry this becomes a number of Bombshells.   

    1. a. The slurry sits in the pit for probably six months or more. We do not know if the small animals that feed off the contents (rat-tailed maggots?) can carry the disease into whatever eats them, but it’s possible.
    2. b. The slurry is then pumped out without any treatment on to various surrounding fields.  In Robert’s farm it landed up in fields where maize was grown for cattle feed. The slurry on the land attracts slugs and snails etc, and the nearby badgers enjoyed a feast of their favourite foods, all infected, so it’s no surprise Gatcombe had an infected badger population.  Latrine tests on the badger setts actually confirmed that 30 per cent of the faecal samples collected had detectable M. bovis. showing a very significant infection in the local badger population. During the pumping process and after, infected slurry found its way into run-off water, as confirmed by our PCR tests.  
    3. c.We assume that run-off finds its way to neighbouring farms, and we actually observed the surface water on our visits to The Gower, so we see this as a prime suspect in the spread of TB from farm to neighbouring farm.   
    4. d.In some farms, slurry is actually pumped on to the fields where the cows graze, eating the residues of their own excrement.  This was a Bombshell to us.  
    5. e.In some farms, slurry is transported to be spread over fields in a neighbouring farm.  We found this even more shocking, now that we know the stuff is full of TB.  

8) The Autopsy insight.   

This is another Bombshell.   Dick, unable to find anyone to test for TB in a cow autopsy, enlisted the help of someone who does the same thing in humans.  This person told us that very often, if no lesions are be found in the lungs of an animal, it will be pronounced free of TB.  But if more work is done investigating the whole carcass, lesions will be found in other organs.  It can appear in ALL major organs.  Only in very far-gone cases will lesions be found in the lungs.   This is a game-changing observation.  What emerges is that TB is NOT, as has always been assumed, primarily a respiratory infection.  The clever M. bovis organism does not reveal itself so easily.  It generally passes into the body, not by breathing, but by ingestion in food.  It then propagates in various organs in the body undetected, until finally it appears in the lungs, and the animal becomes distressed, and visibly ill.  There is perhaps another clue in the fact that farmers, although working cheek by jowl with infected animals daily, very rarely contract bTB.  Also the infection seems to be rarely if ever passed from cow to cow when they grazing in close proximity outdoors.  On grass, they do not graze near cow-pats.  Cows are intelligent too.  So bTB IS PRIMARILY INGESTED, not breathed in.   

The sister organism of M. bovis is M. Tuberculosis, human TB, still a huge threat when I was a child.  50,000 British cases of TB were recorded per year in the 1930s, with 2,500 deaths.  It was always assumed that this disease was primarily respiratory in nature and in transmission.  Hence the large-roomed sanatoria in World War 2 which attempted a ‘fresh air cure’.  But TB in Britain was virtually eradicated in the 1950s by vaccination and pasteurisation of milk, so it’s now accepted that M. Tuberculosis, too, does not exclusively spread by breath.  Ingestion is probably the main channel of infection unless the carrier is far enough gone to have lesions in the lungs.  Those sanatoria may have worked because their sanitation was better than where the patient contracted the disease.  

This is a digression, of course, but there is another very potent and informative human analogy to be made.  In Victorian times Cholera claimed thousands of victims in London.  It was thought to be carried in foul air, so victims were isolated and the population stayed away from the supposed infective zones.  But in 1854 physician John Snow discovered that the infections could all be traced to one water source – a contaminated stand-pipe in the street, that was then disabled.  This revolutionised the strategy used to combat Cholera, and within five years the disease was virtually eradicated in London.   

Yes, we suggest this is the next Bombshell.  We believe that the discovery that bTB is spread by ingestion must revolutionise the techniques used to combat it.  The solution lies in SANITATION – the safe disposal of Slurry.  Hence the Gatcombe Strategy.  

9)  What IS the Gatcombe Strategy ? 

a) Using sensitive tests to directly find the pathogen in the faeces, blood, and perhaps also eventually urine, of cows.  

b) Identifying and cutting off the routes of re-infection within the herd.     

c) Identifying infected animals before they become infectIOUS. 

d) Scrupulous hygiene.  All excrement is removed immediately, and the birthing stalls are fitted with rubber floors and disinfected, because Dick was able to trace a cluster of infected adults to a single birthing moment where he suspects the calves were infected at birth by slurry.     

e) No introduction of new stock without testing the potentially imported animals for the TB organism (not relying on the skin test to look for antibodies, but using a more sensitive test like Actiphage) 

 

There are other refinements, and the techniques applied are still being added to - every case will be slightly different.  But the strategy, as it exists, has succeeded. 

This technique has transformed Gatcombe from a chronically infected farm to TB Free Status.  This is without killing a single badger, but more of that later.  

We regard this is the major Bombshell of the whole project.  The Gatcombe Strategy has worked, where every strategy in the past has failed.   

10)  How could we roll out the Gatcombe Strategy nationally ? 

Dick’s view is that we only need to apply these techniques to the persistently infected farms.  They are nearly all large intensive Dairy operations, and it is here that the cycle needs to be broken.   

What we are saying is:  We now believe that the great ‘Reservoir of Re-infection’ of bTB is undetected cows in the large herds.  Not, as has been widely believed in the past, wildlife. 

We believe that if the Gatcombe protocol can be used to clean up these large herds, it will prevent the spread of new infections and in a matter of a few years, effectively eradicate TB from the UK. 

Preparations are already under way to test the Gatcombe Strategy on a larger scale in Wales.    

We could, in a sense, leave the discussion right there, and the problem is solved, and we have hardly mentioned badgers, but we need to address some other questions, which might cast doubts on our conclusions.  

New breakdowns in recent times in areas far from TB hotspots have always been traced to cattle movements – not to badgers, who are not infected in these areas.  So it’s now time to talk about BADGERS.    

11) How relevant are the badgers ?  

We mentioned in our short history of Gatcombe that we achieved an officially TB free herd without killing badgers.  What we have not yet mentioned is that those badgers were not only infected at the beginning of the exercise, but also at the end.  Save-Me’s physical rôle in the project was to vaccinate the badgers, to ensure that they could not re-infect the cows.  But at that time supplies of BCG vaccine were cut off, because there was a shortage for humans.  So the clear-up of the cattle was achieved WITHOUT badger vaccination, in the known presence of infection in the surrounding badger population.  So it appears, though anecdotally only, that the badger infection was not relevant.  This raised our suspicions.   

Then we observed that all our infected cows were the ones that were housed all year in the sheds.  The cows that grazed on grass in the fields next to the badger setts were the only group that were NEVER infected with TB.  This made us even more suspicious.  It began to appear that ridding a herd of cattle of TB had nothing to do with badgers at all.  But how could this be ? Surely the connection had been established in theory and in practice over the years of badger culling ?

Well, we can look at theory first. 

12)  Theories of bTB transmission  

We can examine with a clearer vision, in the light of the Gatcombe experience, how transmission between the two species could occur.   

a) Cow to Badger  - This route of infection is demonstrably easy.  Now that we know that the organism is ingested by eating, it’s easy to see how foraging badgers will be attracted to the invertebrates that cow pats attract, and end up eating the pathogen.  So of course wherever there are infected cows, there will be infected badgers.  

b) Badger to Cow  - This is much more difficult to imagine, in the light of the realisation that ingestion is the primary method of transfer of the disease.  We can be sure it’s not about cows sniffing badgers’ breath, and as for eating badger excrement, which would be a necessary condition for infection passing in this direction, the chances of it happening seem remote.  Why ? Because the badgers do NOT defecate randomly on their foraging travels.  They ONLY do it in their designated latrines.  Badgers are extremely fastidious in their habits, and keep their toilet germs in places which are not used for anything else.  Their sanitation is good.   These latrines are easily identifiable, and no farmer would include one in his pasture land.  They are fenced off.  So it’s extremely unlikely that a cow will ever be in a position to ingest TB organisms passed from badgers.   

Even if it WERE to happen, the number of TB organisms in a badger excretion is almost vanishingly small compared to a cow pat. One shedding cow can produce the same number of M. bovis organisms in its faeces in one day as 500 badgers.   

But maybe the badgers sneak into the cow feed and defecate ? It has been suggested that this might happen in the past.  And that is why “Biosecurity” on the farm until now has been all about fencing off areas to keep the bloody badgers out.  But in a year of multiple trip camera surveillance at Gatcombe we recorded how often badgers ventured into the vicinity of the cow sheds.  It NEVER happened.  It’s not really a drama, because, even if one had, it would have contributed just one five hundredth of the pathogens contained in one cow stool, an insignificant morsel compared with the river of infection contained in the cow slurry.   

So, though the traditional wisdom may regard this as heresy, if we were to discover that badger-to-cow transmission essentially does NOT take place, would it be such a big surprise ?   

13) So Badgers were never in the equation ?   

Well, we haven’t yet looked at the evidence which has claimed to prove that badgers are the main cause of re-infections – we will do that last of all.  But IF you go along with the conclusions above for a moment, we have another major set of Bombshells.  We would have to conclude that :  

a) Badgers will NOT be found to be a significant carrier of TB infection to cows, in which case the killing of 40,000 native wild animals over the last 5 years amounts to a mistake of colossal proportions.    

b) The ‘Wildlife Reservoir’ so often quoted by Ministers of the Environment would exist, but would be a dead end.  This reservoir was created by infected cattle, but its potential to re-infect a cattle herd has been wildly overestimated.  The major re-infection has always been from the undetected shedding cows.  

c) Neither culling nor vaccinating badgers would meaningfully contribute to the control of TB in cattle (this is actually close to the conclusion of the RBCT (Randomised Badger Culling Trial) in 2005, although the trial has been continuously and mischievously used to justify the policy of culling in the UK)  

d) We could forget ‘Perturbation’ as a factor in the spread of infections to cattle.  Badgers undoubtedly DO scatter when disturbed, and massively when members of their family groups are killed, but it now seems that, even if they are infected with TB, they will seldom communicate the disease to cows in their new territories.  Because what would be the mechanism ? 

We might still want to vaccinate badgers for the sake of their health, but other studies have shown that badgers, again contrary to traditional beliefs, generally don’t physically suffer badly from TB – they are still able to forage, eat, sleep and procreate quite satisfactorily.  ALSO - they don’t often pass the disease on to the other occupants of the sett.  This might have been surprising if we still regarded bTB as a primarily respiratorily communicated disease, but since we now know they would have to be eating infected material to become infected, it’s unlikely to happen; as we have seen, hygiene in badgers is sophisticated.    

Evidence is also being accumulated which indicates that TB may not be self-sustaining in badgers.  This is another Bombshell if it is true.  Another game changer.  Because, take away the source of infection – the cows – and the badger population will likely quickly become healthy again.  Badger vaccination may not be needed in the future to protect badgers.  All we need to do is remove the reservoir of infection in the large dairy herds.   

14) So, finally, what about all that evidence that culling badgers actually IS working, and has worked in other countries ? 

a) The current claims of a 66 per cent decrease in incidence in Gloucestershire?   This recent claim is entirely bogus, based on old news from the analysis by Brunton et al two years ago of the available culling data up to 2017.  The gains described in the paper were recognised even by its authors as non-significant, and the new Downs ‘response’ carefully omits to even mention the fact that the latest data from 2018 wipes out the gains and shows an INCREASE of incidence of TB of 130 per cent in Gloucestershire.    

The Downs paper also glosses over the fact that in six months of this period the selected farms were also using the Interferon test in addition to the skin test.  In any experiment to determine the efficacy of changing one variable, it’s of course essential to keep all other variables unchanged, or we never know the reason for any resulting change.  This invalidates the whole idea of using this study to attribute any improvements to badger culling.  Many farms in the cull also used increased biosecurity measures in the period, which further completely invalidates any claims for the success of culling.   

To cite the Downs paper as proof that badger culling works amounts to a shameful manipulation of the facts.

b) “Culling produced a 50 per cent reduction of TB in Ireland”.  This is what Owen Paterson told the Nation in 2014. Well, we just need to look at the histogram for Ireland.  

Paterson drew this ‘wishful thinking’ red line on that graph.  It hardly needs to be pointed out that any responsible scientist would draw a horizontal line through this set of data.   

It’s bogus.  It was always a lie.  Ireland have now abandoned culling because it simply did not work.  

c) Possums in New Zealand– another example produced by Paterson  to promote his assertion – and a theme still returned to by George Eustice and others – that “no country ever defeated TB except by tackling the wildlife reservoir”.   It’s not true.  Possums were designated a reservoir of infection, much like the badgers in the UK.   So the New Zealand government embarked on  a massive cull of possums.  They abandoned the “comparative” part of the skin test;  they stopped injecting the avian tuberculin and only used bovine – making the skin test much more sensitive.   But the truth is that the tide only turned for TB in New Zealand when the Government introduced a sliding scale of compensation for cattle farmers – giving them incentives to clean up the farms themselves. 

In fact, rather than “No country has eradicated TB without bearing down on the wildlife reservoir”,  it would be more accurate to say “No country has ever eradicated bTB by using the comparative skin test”.

d) RBCT.  The gains and losses seen in the Randomised Badger Culling Trials are small.  It seemed that culling produced marginally beneficial effects within the cull zone and negative effects in the surrounding area. But the error bars – the uncertainties in the data - are of the same order of magnitude as the data, and many have opined that the trial should have stopped when the massive interference of the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease occurred, with cows consequently being moved and removed, and new stock being brought in, sometimes without regard for the infection risk due to their place of origin.  The writers of the RBCT conclusion implicitly took this into account when they clearly stated that “Culling badgers can make no meaningful contribution to the control of bovine TB in cattle.”.  But nobody listened.  Well, certainly not Cameron’s government, or its current successors.  And so, at this moment, badgers are still being trapped and killed.  And future historians will not find any acceptable justification.  

 

15 ) Small asides … more clues …  

a)  “But when badgers became a protected species, the incidence of TB went up – right ?”  But nobody noticed until now (Dick Sibley) that this was the exact moment when farmers abandoned composting the excrement from cows in straw.  So in the old days. the composting heated up the TB organisms, if there were any, and ‘pasteurised’ the mix … destroying the pathogen.   Slurry pits do not function this way.  We are only now beginning to understand the consequences.    

b)  “Why do some farms never go down with TB – and some continually go down ?”  We can now make a more intelligent guess.  Maybe it’s just down to hygiene, and the fact that cows don’t walk from farm to farm.  Only if infected cows are bought in can new infections get started.   

c) There are implications for the specificity of the SICC skins test, if autopsies on cows have been failing to find TB in reactor cows having only looked for lesions in the lungs.  If many of these animals pronounced healthy in the post-mortems were actually infected in other organs, this would improve estimates of the specificity of the test – false positives would be less common than it has been thought.  But this is little or no help to farmers, because although they now need to worry less about false positives, and losing animals unnecessarily, it is the false negatives remaining in the herd that are prolonging the agony indefinitely.   

  

16)  What happens now at Gatcombe ?  

This ‘next step’ is of crucial importance.  Our final Bombshell is that Gatcombe has now been prevented from finishing the job of the complete eradication of TB.  Right now it enjoys TB free status, but we know there are still infected (though not necessarily infectIOUS cows in the herd.    Ironically, DEFRA do not allow testing while the herd is officially TB free !!!  So, for the moment, we can’t identify the remaining infected cows to isolate or remove them.  Robert is just waiting for a breakdown in an upcoming test.  Then Dick Sibley will be able to resume all the enhanced testing and finally eradicate TB from the herd.  A change in Government policy is needed here to enable participating farmers to complete the job.   

Under consideration also is the use of an Anaerobic Digester, which can process the slurry to remove infective organisms, and can also generate electricity as a spin-off.  These devices are expensive, and as yet untried in this situation, but in the long term could be a great investment, for making slurry safe.  

17)  Quotes : 

Sir Charles Godfray -Author of the Godfray report on TB to Michael Gove:  “There is no evidence that the cull is working” 

Sir Iain Boyd-ex Govt Chief Scientific Advisor: “We will never know if the cull is working, because there are too many other factors” 

Lord John Krebs -Instigator of the RBCT experiment : “It’s a crazy idea to cull”.

 And, specifically in response to this story, as presented to Farmers Weekly, Lord Krebs comments :
“The Gatcombe Farm project is hugely important because it shows that, at least on this farm, it has proved possible to get rid of TB in cattle by focussing the cattle themselves and not the badgers.  All the experts agree that most new infections are likely to be caused by cattle to cattle transmission and this project confirms that bearing down on this source can eliminate the disease.  The comparative skin test for TB is highly specific but it is also insensitive, meaning that even when a herd has tested negative, there could well be a hidden reservoir of the bacterium waiting to show itself at a later stage.  There are a number of new tests in coming on stream, including the Actiphage test, which may be more sensitive, and if testing can be improved this would be a huge step forward in disease control.  It is also striking how much TB there is in slurry.  This could well be a source of infection for badgers (as well as cattle).  There is a lot of talk about badgers infecting cattle, but as Gatcombe shows, there  may be more infection going the other way.  I hope DEFRA extends the Gatcombe approach so we can find out how effective it is in a range of farms.  TB has proved to be very intractable and everyone should welcome a new way of getting on top of this terrible disease.”
 

And a final word of pure conjecture. 

We believe that the entire British population now needs to get behind British farmers.  In these troubled times, there is no more important issue than the ability of our country to feed itself.  But the other side of the coin is that there is great benefit to be derived for farmers in restoring the public’s confidence that they will act responsibly towards the nation’s heritage of wildlife.  To enable us to move forward together, the rifts that have arisen from years of unjustified killing need to be healed.   

If you would like to contact us about anything in this story or would like to receive a printed copy as shown in the photo above please go to https://www.crazycow.rocks/product-page/the-journey-and-insights-into-gatcombe-farm Thank you 

PDF can be viewed here The Journey and Insights of Gatcombe Farm.  Leaflet 

 

 

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