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Brexit, Bovine TB And The British Veterinary Profession

19/09/2017 13:52 BST | Updated 19/09/2017 13:52 BST

And so the process of decoupling the UK from the European Union moves forward, amidst much uncertainty.

One thing is certain; for better or worse, change is coming that will affect us all.

The countryside will not be immune to change. Indeed, after Brexit the raft of European legislation that governs nature protection will no longer apply to us. Over the coming months, decisions on how we manage this change, and what will replace the Nature Directives, the Common Agricultural Policy, and the myriad of EU rules affecting farming and biodiversity, will be taken. These decisions will have a profound impact on the future of Britain's countryside.

In broad terms, the EU has had a positive impact on biodiversity and species conservation, and there will be much focus on ensuring we don't lose existing protections. However, Brexit may also offer opportunities for the UK to pursue a different path on issues that are currently heavily dictated by EU law. One such issue is the thorny subject of bovine TB.

Bovine TB, or more specifically our efforts to control it, might well be described as a national disaster. Disastrous for cattle, with more than 350,000 slaughtered prematurely in the past decade; disastrous for wildlife, with 15,000 badgers shot since 2013 and potentially a further 35,000 being targeted this year; disastrous for farmers whose businesses and lives are being continually disrupted; and disastrous for taxpayers, who fork out £100 million or more every year to fund the whole testing, compensation and control process.

In spite of increased cattle testing intensity, cattle movement restrictions, biosecurity protocols and wildlife interventions, there is little sign that things are set to dramatically improve any time soon. Limitations in testing sensitivity, pressure from barely profitable dairy and beef industries, and a lack of political will to really grasp the nettle, will doubtless see to that.

DEFRA has a plan to achieve bovine TB-Free status across England by 2038. Regardless of whether this is achieved, an awful lot more animals, both domestic and wild, will be killed, and an awful lot more public money expended, in pursuit of this goal.

The veterinary profession surely has a responsibility to promote better ways of protecting livestock and wild animals from infectious diseases, without the need for all this carnage.

And perhaps Brexit offers a way forward.

Bovine TB vaccines exist. The M.bovis-based human BCG vaccine was critical in bringing TB in people under control in the UK. Field trials on cattle in Africa using BCG variants have shown it to be around 60% protective. An injectable vaccine for badgers, which has been shown to substantially reduce the risk of infection in vaccinated animals and their unvaccinated cubs, has a UK licence.

Bovine TB vaccines are not perfect. They are not 100% protective, and they don't eliminate TB from infected animals. But they don't need to. Mass vaccination programmes only need to reduce the average number of animals that each diseased individual in a population infects (the R0 value) to less than one, and the infection will fizzle out.

We're constantly told that EU and international rules prevent us licensing and using a TB vaccine in cattle. But we'll be free of the shackles of those EU rules soon enough.

Of course, mass vaccination programmes for cattle will have consequences. Live exports of cattle might have to end (and who could argue with that from a welfare perspective), and other dairy and beef exports might be restricted. Some veterinary businesses which currently rely heavily on cattle testing might see a drop in income. There will inevitably be winners and losers.

But mass vaccination could obviate the need for the hugely damaging and expensive test-and-slaughter policy and wildlife interventions, which are currently resulting in the massacre of domestic and wild animals on a gigantic scale.

Surely this would make the sacrifices worthwhile.

And surely the veterinary profession, with its professed focus on animal health and welfare, should be at the forefront of calls for us to use Brexit to our advantage, to grasp the nettle, and to adopt a new, more animal-centric approach to this seemingly intractable problem, instead of doggedly propping up a system that is failing animals, failing farmers, and failing taxpayers.

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