Has bTB been spread by hunting hounds? New evidence

Evidence that bTB – the devastating disease which has caused thousands of cattle deaths and led to the controversial badger cull – could be spread by hunting hounds is mounting following the release of new government figures.

An outbreak of bTB occurred at the Kimblewick Hunt kennels in Buckinghamshire in December 2016. Concerns that the hounds could have spread the disease into farms across the six counties covered by the hunt were quashed by Defra – however new official figures show that there have been 55 new bTB cattle herd breakdowns there in just the first four months of the year. There are currently 90 recorded outbreaks in the area – meaning the number has more than doubled since the Kimblewick infection.

The startling figures have caused veterinary scientists and animal welfare charities to raise the issue with Defra – however FOI requests have been stonewalled, leading to concerns that information is being withheld.

Other aspects of concern include the fact that Animal Welfare Minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble is a member of the Kimblewick Hunt, as are the two local vets who dealt with the Kimblewick outbreak.

Vet Dr Iain McGill, Director of the Prion Interest Group and former MAFF and ZSL scientist, and animal welfare charity the League Against Cruel Sports, are calling for all hunting to be suspended until an independent inquiry has taken place to discover if hunting hounds are spreading bTB.

Dr McGill said: “As a vet and a scientist, I’m extremely concerned that the government is ignoring significant evidence that this disease is being carried by hunting hounds. Because of TB, cattle are being slaughtered, badgers are being culled and now hunt hounds are being euthanized – we have a responsibility to examine every possible explanation for the spread of the disease, and that isn’t happening.

“Causality may be difficult to prove, but can Defra prove that they have done the research to rule out the possibility that the entire bTB epidemic in cattle is being spread and amplified by hunting hounds? Conversely, I have evidence that research on diseases of hunting hounds has been suppressed and not pursued by the Government for 27 years”

Cover up?

Eduardo Goncalves, CEO of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “If the government doesn’t set up an independent inquiry into the potential spread of bTB by hunting hounds as a matter of urgency, they are playing fast and loose with the lives of animals and the livelihoods of farmers.

“Mapping of hunting areas and bTB outbreak zones reveal concerning trends. There are hunts present in every area in which bTB has spread in cattle. The sudden leap in new outbreaks in the Kimblewick hunt area – 55 in the four months since the hounds were diagnosed compared with under half that pre-dating their infection – cannot be written off as a coincidence without evidence.

Left: Map showing hunts (blue dots) and areas with biggest outbreaks of bTB in cattle (red dots)

Right: bTB outbreaks in 2017

“The League has tried to get to the bottom of this but to no avail. Defra have refused to release information about the Kimblewick outbreak, or other outbreaks in hound packs elsewhere in England. 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. Conversations 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. I think the UK’s farmers would prefer a PR disaster for hunts rather than further devastation of their herds.”

Dr McGill added:

“One of the Chief Veterinary Officer’s main arguments for badger culling in 2013 was that pet dogs could catch TB in areas where TB contamination of the environment was high, and then transmit TB to their owners. By contrast, now Defra considers the risks and dangers presented to other animals and humans by TB infected hounds as ‘low’. So there is a change of opinion from Defra, and an absence of evidence to support such a conclusion.”

Risk to humans

Because of the latest outbreaks in the Kimblewick area, bTB – which can lead to TB, particularly in immunocompromised humans – is encroaching on London.

The reason given by Defra for euthanasia of the Kimblewick hounds was that they 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.

Although immunosuppressed humans are at risk from M bovis, human deaths from bTB are currently low in number. However, it is the contrast between the stance in 2013, which played up human health risks, to Defra’s ‘low risk’ assertions now, which are of major concern. Both positions simply cannot be correct as they directly contradict each other.

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For more information or interview requests please contact the League Against Cruel Sports Press Office on 01483 524250 (24hrs) or email.

Notes to Editors

1. We can provide further information on each of the key points of the story, along with detailed maps showing the location of outbreaks and full text of the FOI exchanges on request.

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