Bovine TB, the badger cull and hunting hounds – the plot thickens

With Dr Iain McGill

In March 2017, it was revealed that between 25 and 50 hounds had been killed by the Kimblewick Hunt in Buckinghamshire, following a bTB outbreak in the hounds in December 2016.

BovineTB is a devastating disease which has led to thousands of cows being slaughtered and prompted the controversial badger cull. The appetite for finding a solution is huge. An outbreak of the disease among a pack of hunting hounds which ranges across six counties and numerous farms must surely warrant serious consideration?

Apparently not.

Kennel with biosecurity warning

The outbreak was only made public by accident, thanks to members of Hounds Off, two months after it had happened. The local vets involved are members of the hunt; the government’s Defra Minister is Lord Gardiner of Kimble – a member of the hunt.

Since then, more evidence has emerged. New official figures show that there were 55 new bTB cattle herd outbreaks within the Kimblewick hunting area in just the first four months of the year.

There are currently 90 recorded ongoing outbreaks in the area – meaning the number has more than doubled since the Kimblewick infection.

It’s hard not to imagine that if these figures were attributed to badgers, farmers around the country would be grabbing their shotguns.

It seems though, hunting hounds are a different animal (not to state the obvious).

Map showing the number of bTB outbreaks in England and Wales from January to April 2017. Note the '55' which equates to the Kimblewick area and environs. A similar map showing all recorded outbreaks has the figure at 90 - meaning the number of outbreaks has more than doubled in just the first few months of this year

State of secrecy

Despite several FOI requests put in by the League, Defra have refused to release information about the Kimblewick outbreak, or other outbreaks in hound packs which may have happened elsewhere in the UK.

Defra also refused to reveal details of communication with the Kimblewick Hunt, citing privacy laws, even though bovine TB is a notifiable disease, not a private matter. Conversation with the local vet in charge of the outbreak suggests that it was hunting authorities who prevented publication of the data, fearing a “PR disaster” for hunting with hounds.

Which suggests they know this is a major problem.

Knowns, unknowns, and known unknowns

All of this prompts many questions, which if I was a farmer within or near a bTB area, I’d be asking urgently.

? Why did Defra initially claim bTB in hounds (effectively ‘canine TB’) was not a notifiable disease – then change its position once the outbreak became public?
? How did the hounds catch the disease? Best guess is that it came from the carcass of a cow from a local farm, though it could have been picked up from slurry.
? If the former, was the farmer involved aware that his cattle has TB? Were the hunt? Is the farm under restrictions? Is anyone actually worried about this??
? If the latter, was it wise to allow hunts from other areas to use the Kimblewick hunting area, potentially allowing more dogs to pick up the disease – and carry it back to their own areas, and their own packs?
? It is believed that three dogs tested positive for the disease. bTB in dogs is largely treatable – so why kill 50 or so dogs?
? The reason given by Defra for euthanasia was that the TB infected hounds were a risk to their handlers. The Master of Fox Hounds Association said the Kimblewick hunt immediately suspended their hunting activities “to protect farmers and landowners”. This suggests that there was indeed some risk from having the hounds on land with livestock, or in close contact with people.
? One of the main arguments given to justify badger culling in 2013 was that pet dogs could catch TB and transmit it to their owners. But now, Defra says the risk of TB infected hounds transmitting the disease to other animals or humans is ‘low’.
? What’s changed? If there is no risk to humans, then has that removed one of the key justifications for the badger cull? But if there is a risk, as initially stated, then why are they underplaying the potential impact of this outbreak?

Not the first time

According to Dr Iain McGill, former MAFF and ZSL scientist whose work revealed the new pattern of outbreaks in the Kimblewick hunting area, there is evidence that earlier research on hounds catching diseases from the consumption of carcasses has been suppressed.

“I have confidential evidence that the first hound survey from English hunts in 1990 with which I was intimately involved as a MAFF scientist, was censored, then watered down and then dropped, along with a decision made for the convenient destruction of all the pathological samples.

This was despite clear evidence that BSE in hounds had been detected four years before the first case was detected in cattle, and 13 years before the first human case of vCJD. The research was published by Cambridge academics under the nomenclature “Hound Ataxia” in 1981, with a clear risk factor being the consumption of raw offal or “paunch” from fallen stock.

Hounds clearly act as sentinels for infectious agents in cattle capable of jumping the species barrier, as they consume raw bovine tissues, and research should have been stepped up, not ignored and then dropped.”

Despite evidence being submitted to the Phillips BSE Inquiry on this hound work by Dr McGill and others, the final BSE Inquiry Report failed to mention the 1990 Hound Survey.

Dr McGill asserts that there is a pattern of cover ups when it comes to bTB and hunting hounds. In 2011, then Defra minister James Paice and current Welsh CVO Christianne Glossop responded to a suggestion from VIVA that no work has been done on the risk of hounds in terms of bTB. They both cited “no evidence”.

No evidence? What about the paper published in Vet Record 2009 which showed that two hunting dogs had previously contracted bovine TB?

What about the study in Ireland in 2010 of hunting hounds killed by their hunts, showing the presence of severe bTB lesions in one hound. The severe pathology is consistent with active excretion of bTB bacteria into the environment.

“No evidence, of course, was precisely the same argument MAFF used for years about BSE, whilst actively hiding evidence,” said Dr McGill. “There is a pattern of a clear cover up on hound data and disease risks.”

Mapping the disease

In February, mapping of the Kimblewick hunt area – which ranges over six home counties, from Oxford across to Luton and down to Basingstoke – showed a marked increase in the geographic spread of bTB herd breakdowns in cattle within and around the hunting area.

Map of the Kimblewick Hunt country and the Bovine TB outbreaks in the area

Later maps show that this spread has continued at a notable rate. The location of cattle bTB outbreaks in the Kimblewick hunt area are in a crucial Edge area for bTB control.

The Govt has claimed that High Risk Areas have fallen by 7%, but the important take home message is that cases in edge areas are up by 5%, meaning geographic spread into new, previously bTB free zones. Meanwhile in Wales, bTB breakdowns have fallen 14% without badger culling.

Btb outbreaks to April 2017

In a letter published in The Veterinary Times on 5th June (McGill et al 2017) 25 veterinary professionals state:

“Repeal of the Hunting Act could increase the risk of spread of infectious disease agents. Indeed, it was over just such biosecurity fears that hunting with hounds was stopped during the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001. Biosecurity in the countryside needs to be taken seriously and a reinstatement of hunting with dogs would be totally inappropriate. Whether or not there is any change in hunting legislation, we recommend the risk from hounds spreading disease among livestock, wildlife and people is urgently analysed.”

What’s next?

Given their responses so far, it is highly likely that Defra and the Master of Fox Hounds Association will be hoping that the matter of the Kimblewick Hounds quietly goes away.

But the inconvenient truth is that for the sake of our countryside, our cattle and our badgers – and potentially our own health – the full impact of hunting hounds on the spread of bTB must be investigated appropriately.

We estimate that there are more than 3,000 hunting hounds in the England bTB epidemic zone alone, which may be out in the countryside an average of two days a week during the six-month hunting season. There are hunts in every area where there are bTB outbreaks.

Yes, it’s a possibility that hounds are not spreading bTB. But it’s also a possibility that they have been a secret conductor of the disease all along.

Soon, the badger cull will start again, the much maligned and scientifically unproven attempt to slow the spread of bTB by killing thousands of healthy, protected animals.

At the same time, hunts will be active once more, taking part in ‘Autumn hunting’ (that’s cub hunting, to you and me), and the hounds will be out and about across our green and pleasant land.

Common sense suggests that if we want to stop bTB, we need to look at every possibility. At the moment, ‘common sense’ seems to have been replaced by secrecy, denial and ulterior motives.

Read more about the badger cull

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