Bovine tuberculosis: race against time for vaccine as bovine TB emerges in new UK areas, including North Wales

The devastating disease behind the case of Geronimo the alpaca is springing up in new parts of the country, exclusive analysis suggests.

A killer cattle disease is spreading fastest in parts of the country which have previously been least affected, analysis shows.

Areas of England officially deemed at ‘low risk’ from bovine tuberculosis (TB) saw a 20% jump in the number of infected herds in the year to March.

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And the Welsh Government has been forced to bring in infection control measures at new disease hotspots, after the number of TB-hit herds in its low-risk areas jumped by a massive 56% over the same period.

A spokesperson for the National Farmers’ Union said the disease “continues to devastate farming families across the country”.

The UK Government this week announced controversial badger culls would be extended to seven new parts of England.

While these are planned for English counties with historically higher levels of bovine TB, the Government insisted it had “rigorous controls in place within low-risk areas”.

Bovine TB, which hit headlines this summer as the disease behind the case of Geronimo the alpaca, can be devastating for farmers’ livelihoods and costs taxpayers around £100m a year.

Transmission to humans is very rare but possible, for example through unpasteurised milk from an infected cow.

A vaccine for cattle is in development but is not expected to be rolled out until at least 2025.

Efforts to identify and contain the disease differ in intensity depending on whether farms are in a low or high-risk area of the country.

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Analysis of official figures by NationalWorld shows that while the war against bovine TB may be being won in the hardest hit areas, the disease could be springing up elsewhere.

While the number of cattle herds struck by bovine TB in England’s high-risk areas fell by 2% in the year to March, they rose by 20% in those deemed low risk.

Places which saw large spikes include Lincolnshire, where the number of affected herds rose from 15 to 21 in the year to March, and North Yorkshire, where herd infections reached an eight-year high of 17.

And it is part of a longer-term trend: in the past 20 years, the number of TB-hit herds in England’s low-risk areas has increased seven-fold, from 12 to 85.

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A similar pattern has emerged in Wales.

While the overall number of infected herds remained stable across Wales in the year to March, the number in low-risk areas grew by 56%, from 27 to 42.

The Welsh Government said its epidemiologists had identified new TB hotspots in the country’s low-risk area “which need to be addressed quickly to stamp out the disease”.

They have now agreed a suite of disease control measures and are working with local farmers to introduce these, a spokesperson said.

She said the spike in infection in the Denbighshire and Conwy Valley area of north Wales “appears to have been driven by cattle movements into the area from holdings in higher-risk areas”.

‘This is a terrible disease’

The National Farmers’ Union said every part of the country would have its own unique challenges in the battle against bovine TB, which is why it was so important to have a strategy to work towards the complete eradication of the disease.

A spokesperson said: “Farmers are acutely aware of the need to do all they can to protect their herd from bovine TB.

“This includes regularly testing cattle, enhancing biosecurity on farm to prevent contact between wildlife and cattle, and cattle movement controls.

“This is a terrible disease which continues to devastate farming families across the country, causing huge strain emotionally, mentally and financially.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the changes in infection rates in England’s low-risk areas were within the fluctuations they would expect to see from year to year.

A spokesperson said: “Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that the UK faces today, causing considerable trauma for farmers and costing taxpayers over £100 million every year.

“We have rigorous controls in place within low-risk areas such as mandatory post-movement testing of cattle moved into the low-risk areas from higher TB risk areas alongside more frequent annual surveillance testing of certain low-risk area herds.”

The spokesman said the Government was also accelerating elements of its bovine TB strategy, such as the development of the cattle vaccine, “so that we can eradicate this insidious disease as soon as possible”.

The alpaca which captured hearts

Britain’s battle against bovine TB saw 37,835 cattle and 270 other livestock and pets slaughtered in 2020.

Geronimo the alpaca was killed at the end of August after testing positive for bovine TB, despite a high-profile campaign to save its life.

Veterinary nurse Helen Macdonald with the alpaca Geronimo at Shepherds Close Farm in Gloucestershire on August 25, 2021.

The case sparked public protests and saw Geronimo become a household name.

Owner Helen Macdonald said on Wednesday that the alpaca did not have bovine TB at the time of its death, according to the initial findings of a post-mortem.

Her claim has been disputed by Defra.

Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Christine Middlemiss said a “number of TB-like lesions were found” on the animal which were undergoing further investigation.

RSPCA brands badger culls ‘inhumane and ineffective’

Programmes to cull badgers - a protected species known to transmit the disease to cattle - have long drawn fierce debate.

Natural England’s announcement this week of culls in seven new areas of England provoked a furious reaction among animal rights organisations.

Four of these culls will be in areas classed as ‘high risk’ while three will be in parts of the country bordering the worst affected zones, branded ‘edge’ areas.

A further 33 cull licences are to be extended, with the RSPCA saying up to 75,000 badgers could be shot this year.

Adam Grogan, of the charity, called the culls “inhumane and ineffective”.

He said: “It is appalling news that the cull is to be extended to another seven regions, given the Government's welcome announcement earlier this year that it would move away from culling towards badger vaccination, the development of cattle vaccination, more frequent and improved cattle testing, better management of cattle movements and incentives to improve biosecurity.

“Vaccination of cattle and badgers is key.”

The Government has already said no new culls will be licensed from 2022 onwards.

Across the UK

Scotland is officially designated as TB-free due to its relatively low and stable number of cases.

This trend continued in the year to March 2021, with 31 afflicted herds at March 2021, a rise of just two from the year before.

Rates of bovine TB in Northern Ireland are high, with the disease found in about one in 10 herds tested.

TB rates are measured in a different way than in Great Britain so cannot easily be compared. The number of affected herds fell by 3 per cent in the year to March, from 2,135 to 2,081.