Private Eye 3-16 Aug 2007

Down on the Farm
AS MEDIA soap opera, the drama over Shambo certainly took some beating. On the one hand was the chorus of Hindu monks chanting that their sacred bull was doing no harm to anyone and that killing it would be sacrilege. On the other were the grim-faced officials of the Welsh Assembly, supported by a rival chorus of angry Welsh farmers proclaiming that if any of their cattle were found to be infected with TB, they would have to be slaughtered and there was no reason why Shambo should  be     excepted. Hadn't the tests proved beyond doubt that the animal was infected?

Well no, actually, interjected virologist Dr Colin Fink of Warwick University. The "skin test" showing Shambo as positive for TB is unreliable for diagnosing TB in individual animals. Not only does it throw up "false positives", but it can fail to spot an animal that is genuinely sick.

The fact remains that it was never definitively established whether Shambo was infected with TB or not. The only technique that could have proved this beyond doubt is PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, based on analysing DNA. But this our officials refuse to allow because it might lead to the unravelling of their entire policy on TB in cattle and badgers.

The government knows that the only way to halt the TB epidemic in Britain's dairy herds is to allow selective culling of the hundreds of thousands of TB-infected badgers that spread the disease to cattle (and vice versa). It knows that until the 1980s such culls effectively eliminated TB in cattle, and that this was more recently confirmed in Ireland, where badger-culling reduced TB in cattle by up to 96 percent. It admits that the cost of the unchecked epidemic is now so vast that within seven years the bill for compensating farmers for destroyed animals will reach 2bn.

But so reluctant is the government to allow a cull of sick badgers that it falls back on the only argument left to it: that there is no reliable way of identifying which badgers and setts are infected.

By allowing PCR, which could identify infected sets, the government would lose its only remaining excuse for not eliminating the wildlife reservoir of disease that is threatening the survival of Britain's dairy industry. Much better to remain in ignorance and let taxpayers fund the destruction of 20,000 cattle a year.

After all, it is only when one of those animals happens to belong to some Hindu monks that this vexed issue reaches the headlines. And the one thing our officials are really good at, as we know, is killing animals. So long as they are not badgers or foxes, who cares?                Muckspreader'