Following the outbreak of bTB among the hounds of the Kimblewick Hunt near Oxford, reported in the Huffington Post, we have a real opportunity to test if Defra's response is based on objectivity and science - or something else.
Bovine TB (bTB) is a real and present danger to cattle and the livelihoods of farmers, that much is understood. While the disease is currently affecting 0.5% of the UK cattle herd, in some areas the local impact has been devastating. One can understand the desire in those communities to do whatever they can to get the disease under control.
Therefore, now that a new potential way for the disease to spread has been discovered, we would assume that every available measure to investigate the outbreak and prevent further spread of the disease would be taken. Looking at the apparent response so far, there has to be concern that this hasn't happened.
According to reports, the hunt themselves claim that the hounds contracted the disease from an infected cow carcass. A notice on the Master of Foxhounds Association website says that bTB at the hunt was suspected in December and confirmed in January. The hunt 'suspended hunting', and Defra did not impose any movement or other restrictions as 'it does not consider that there is any increased risk to wildlife and farm stock'.
If the hounds did contract the disease from the carcass, has a full investigation been made into where the carcass came from? Has the farm been looked at? If it is already 'locked down' because of bTB, then why are they still delivering carcasses to feed the hounds (a regular, widespread practice)? If the farm is bTB free - well, clearly it isn't. That farm, and all neighbouring farms, need to be checked quickly.
After finding out about the outbreak, we sent trained League investigators to take a look at the kennels. For a property that was the centre of a bTB outbreak, biosecurity measures seemed lapse to say the least. A couple of biohazard signs stood in the yard, where animal carcasses lay freely, with dogs wandering around them. There was no cordon, and no vehicle disinfectant measures to be seen, in spite of a vehicle being witnessed arriving back at the property.
Another scenario should be looked at. The hunt may have assumed the disease came from a carcass, but it could potentially have been picked up by a hound from a cowpat. This is a known route of transmission for the disease, so is perfectly likely.
The Kimblewick Hunt covers a territory from Luton in the east to Oxford in the west and Basingstoke in the south. How many farms does that cover? A quick look at bTB outbreaks shows several in this area. If this was a police case, detectives would be asking a lot of questions.
While the Kimblewick potentially did shut down their hunting season on discovery of the disease, they also invited other hunts to come and use their territory - this in fact was how the outbreak was discovered, as monitors noticed that riders were wearing different coloured jackets to normal. Therefore hounds from other hunts have come into the area, run across the potentially infected areas - then returned home to other parts of the country.
If I was a farmer, in any part of the country that has a bTB problem, or close to an area with a bTB problem, or even in an area where hounds come to, eg, a country show, from an area with a bTB problem, I'd be asking serious questions about this.
If farmers have to lock down their farms and restrict cattle movements to tackle bTB, why are hunts allowed to freely roam the countryside now we know that there is a real chance that the dogs could be carrying and spreading the disease? The League estimates that there are more than 3,000 hunting hounds in the English Btb epidemic zone alone, which may be out in the countryside an average of two days a week during the six-month hunting season.
The question therefore is the one I posed at the start of this article - will Defra's response be based on objectivity and science - or something else? They may have been working hard on this issue, contacting neighbouring farms and so on, as discussed above. If so, it will be good to hear that.
But questions must be asked as to why this outbreak wasn't made public, at least until journalists started asking questions. It begs the question - how many other outbreaks among hunt hounds have taken place, but haven't been publicised? It really isn't a big leap to wonder if hunt hounds have been infecting and re-infecting cattle across the country without anyone suspecting anything (meanwhile, around 28,000 cows a year are killed and several thousand badgers culled).
One cannot help but be aware that there are a number of Defra Ministers with strong links to the hunt lobby. Did they intervene to influence Defra's response? It is also relevant that the current Minister for Animal Welfare at DEFRA, Lord Gardiner, is the former Director of Political Affairs at the Countryside Alliance - and is an Honorary Member of the Kimblewick Hunt.
For the sake of the Kimblewick Hounds, the farming industry and public health, we need a full inquiry into Defra's actions in order to clarify these issues.
You can find out more about hunting on the League Against Cruel Sports website.