Frequent testing of cattle is more effective than culling badgers in controlling bovine TB (bTB), research suggests.

Scientists at the Queen Mary University of London used a computer simulation to show vigilant cattle testing can eventually eradicate bTB.

The simulation, which involved the first large-scale computer model of TB in cattle and badgers, mimicked altered patterns of the disease in the UK, including changes after controls were reduced during 2002’s foot-and-mouth epidemic.

According to the model, badger culling alone did not lead to the eradication of the deadly disease and research suggested housing cattle in large sheds over winter potentially doubled the number of infected animals in a herd.

The university’s Matthew Evans said the model provided evidence that investment in increasing cattle testing is more effective than culling.

Prof Evans said: “Of the available bovine tuberculosis control strategies, we believe how frequently cattle are tested and whether farms utilise winter housing have the most significant effect on the number of infected cattle.

“TB is a complex disease and modelling it is difficult, but we’ve successfully used our model to replicate real world situations and are confident it can be used to predict the effects of various changes in the way we tackle the disease.

“Our modelling provides compelling evidence, for those charged with controlling bovine TB, that investment in increasing the frequency of cattle testing is a far more effective strategy than badger culling.”

The simulation revealed that in a region containing around 1.5 million cows, including 3,000 to 15,000 that may have bTB, badger culling prevented just a dozen cases.

Research suggested reducing the length of time between cattle tests by one month cut the number of animals infected by 193.

Findings from the study have been welcomed by anti-cull campaigners, including Dominic Dyer, of the Badger Trust and Care for the Wild.  

He said: “This research is large-scale, objective, and takes into full account the possibility of badgers being responsible for bTB infections in cattle – yet still it concludes that the answer to beating this disease is to focus on the cattle. This is the message we at Care for the Wild and the Badger Trust, and many others, have been hammering home over the last couple of years, so maybe now the government will feel the need to actually listen.  

“The role badgers play in spreading this disease has been massively exaggerated, and the impact of culling them has been completely misunderstood. The fact that keeping large numbers of cows in winter sheds can lead to a doubling in the number of infected animals shows again the simple truth that bTB is caused by cattle spreading it to other cattle. The impact of more frequent testing simply highlights the issue that many infected cows are currently being missed, and are thus spreading the disease without anyone realising. 

“Defra will no doubt dismiss this as irrelevant, because it doesn’t fit with their political strategy. The NFU are trying to claim that the cull has already reduced rates of TB in the area, but there’s no way they can be claiming that. bTB rates are dropping across the whole of the south west – of which the cull zones are an utterly tiny part – and the reason for it can only be the increased testing and better cattle control measures brought in, reluctantly, by the government two years ago.”

The study was published in the journal Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment.

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