Hunting hounds – the (not so) secret reason farmers can’t control disease
We’ve all seen crime programmes on TV where the police spend all their time focussing on one suspect, while the real culprit is still causing mayhem when no-one’s looking? This is exactly what’s happening in the countryside right now.
The crime – disease among farm animals, which causes death and financial loss on a huge scale. The main suspect? Badgers. Thousands are being culled because of circumstantial and flimsy evidence that they spread bovine TB (bTB) to cattle. Poirot would take one look at the evidence and let the badgers go.
So who’s the real culprit?
The truth is, there’s a lot of disease in the countryside. Most people will have heard of bTB, the disease which has led to well over 250,000 cattle being killed since 2008, with a cost of around £500m to the British taxpayer. bTB can spread in various ways, but most independent experts believe that cattle-to-cattle transmission is the main cause. bTB remains in the soil for a year, so one infected cow could cause a new outbreak 12 months later without anyone realising how it happened. ‘Muck’ spreading only adds to the problem.
But bTB is by no means the only problem. Accumulated scientific evidence shows that farm animals can die of a huge range of diseases. But as with bTB, not enough is being done to prevent them spreading.
One way that disease can spread has been identified as a problem for many years. Traditionally, fox hunts in the UK have offered ‘a service’ to farms to take away livestock that has died. These animals – known as ‘fallen stock’ – are then fed to the hunts’ packs of hounds. This saves the farms money as they don’t have to incinerate the bodies, and it saves the hunts money on dog food. However, there’s a problem.
It’s been known for decades that fallen stock contains disease which is then passed onto the dogs. Many of these diseases will then be put back into the countryside as the dogs do what dogs do while running across farm to farm on a day’s hunting.
For some diseases, such as equine hydatidosis, feeding hounds on raw meat and offal after the Second World War was the major factor leading to a dramatic increase in both the prevalence and distribution of the disease. For diseases such as ovine hydatidosis and sheep tapeworms that cause a major economic loss to farmers, hunts make a significant contribution to maintaining and spreading the infections.
Twenty years ago the EU’s Scientific Steering Committee said that, because it was impossible to determine the cause of death for each animal, fallen stock should not be fed to hounds.
It’s therefore known to be a problem – potentially hundreds of thousands of deceased animals are fed to hunting hounds. Examples of diseases which can be spread between livestock and dogs include Neosporosis, Sarcocystosis, Cysticercus ovis, Johne’s disease and Toxoplasmosis to name but a few. Most of us won’t recognise these diseases – but farmers will know exactly the damage they cause.
False Alibis and Cover ups?
It’s clear that the feeding of fallen stock to hunting hounds poses a clear and present danger to the health of both livestock and dogs. So why has it been allowed to continue?
There are perhaps two answers – it could be because of continual ineptitude, or it could be for a somewhat more disturbing reason. Or a bit of both.
Take the outbreak of bTB among the Kimblewick Hunt hounds early last year. We’ve now discovered, via an independent report from researchers at Edinburgh University, a lot more about the outbreak, and the reaction to it. For example:
- The number of dogs put down was 97, not 25, as originally admitted by the hunt, which suggests a deliberate attempt to play down the outbreak. The number of recorded bTB outbreaks in the Kimblewick Hunt’s territory almost doubled to 90 in the four months after the disease was discovered in the kennels.
- Government statements about the outbreak gave the impression that there was no real threat of disease spread by hunting hounds – while at the same time they amended regulations to restrict the feeding of offal to hunting hounds. If there was no threat – why change the regulations?
- The condition of the Kimblewick kennels – a typical hunt – is described as ‘suboptimal’, with dogs being kept in dirty, unhygienic conditions which are a breeding ground for disease.
- Some biosecurity measures were introduced at the kennels once the infection had been confirmed. However, this backs up evidence that basic biosecurity measures at hunting kennels are generally low or non-existent.
All very concerning, and a nice combination of ineptitude and disturbing. Disturbing because many of those involved in the treatment of, and investigation into, the outbreak, were connected to the hunt. Including Lord Gardiner of Kimble, an honorary member of the hunt as well as being Parliamentary Under Secretary for Defra, which manages things like this.
Too many questions, not enough answers
In response to the Kimblewick outbreak, the government have simply repeated that ‘there is no evidence to suggest dogs play a significant role in the persistence of bovine TB in England or that hunting with dogs contributes to the spread of the disease in cattle.” This though is somewhat misleading, as you only get evidence if you actually test for it. Here’s some questions I’d be asking if I was a farmer or a journalist:
- Are hunting hounds routinely tested for bTB? (Hint – no, extremely rarely. On one of those rare occasions, a pack in Ireland were tested – and yes, they had bTB).
- If there’s no evidence that hunting with dogs contributes to the spread of disease – why did Defra introduce new regulations after the Kimblewick outbreak to stop them being fed offal? (Note, having a regulation stopping offal being fed to hounds won’t stop the problem.)
- A survey in Scotland this year reveals that 40% of farmers in Scotland believe their livestock has caught diseases from dogs – doesn’t this suggest a more serious problem than the government is admitting?
- Are hunts forced to follow even basic biosecurity measures before travelling from farm to farm or showing their dogs at country shows? (Hint – no they’re not).
- Is fallen livestock routinely tested for disease? (Nope).
I could go on, but the picture this paints is a simple one – there is overwhelming evidence that hunting with hounds maintains and/or spreads several livestock parasites and pathogens that have a major economic impact on British farmers, not to mention posing a significant health risk to humans.
The dogs, by the way, are as much the victims here as the livestock. While all dogs can carry disease, hunting hounds are far more prone to catch, carry and spread disease for several reasons. They are fed on fallen stock, they are kept in poor kennelling, they aren’t given the same level of veterinary care received by pets, and they have access to multiple farms in a single day’s hunting without close supervision. These poor dogs are living, walking disease carriers.
To return to the crime analogy, a good detective always asks one question about a crime – who benefits? If disease spreads among farms but it’s kept quiet, then it’s not the farmers who benefit. The government are turning a blind eye, but I’m not sure if they benefit. The hunts? They currently get free food for their dogs, and access to hunt across a lot of farmland. They’d lose both of these if farms demanded better biosecurity and if the government rigidly enforced testing regimes.
Hmm. Elementary, My Dear Watson?
- Read the full evidence in this report: 'Hunting with hounds and the spread of disease'
- Charity calls for Wolsingham Show hound event to be cancelled