Change Way We Test and House Cattle to Control Bovine TB?

This piece of research sounds quite plausible.  Much larger numbers of cows are now housed together than in years gone by.

Change way we test and house cattle to control bovine TB, says new research.

According to new research, the culling of badgers will potentially reduce the number of Bovine TB infected cattle by just 12 out of a herd of 15,000. However, reducing the interval between TB tests on cattle by one month could reduce the number of sick cattle by 193.

The Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) research found that regular and frequent testing of cattle could eventually lead to the eradication of the disease, whether or not badgers were culled, and despite the current test being at most 80 per cent accurate.

Badger culling alone, however, did not lead to TB eradication in the study and is therefore thought unlikely to be a successful control strategy. The model also suggested that housing cattle in large sheds over winter could potentially double the number of infected animals in a herd, because under such conditions there is a much greater chance of TB being passed between cows.

This is the first large-scale model of TB in cattle and badgers that has included the possibility of the infection being passed in both directions between the two species. The model successfully mimicked the changing patterns of TB in the UK, including the changes seen after TB controls were reduced during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2002.

Researchers Dr Aristides Moustakas and Professor Matthew Evans, of QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, used state-of-the-art computer modelling to understand how the interaction of different factors impacted on infection rates.

Such factors included the movement and life-cycles of badgers and cattle; how cattle are moved and housed; how frequently cattle are tested; different types of badger culling; and the infection rates between animals.

Dominic Dyer, of the Badger Trust and Care for the Wild, says: “This research is large-scale, objective, and takes into full account the possibility of badgers being responsible for bTB infections in cattle – yet still it concludes that the answer to beating this disease is to focus on the cattle. This is the message we at Care for the Wild and the Badger Trust, and many others, have been hammering home over the last couple of years, so maybe now the government will feel the need to actually listen.The role badgers play in spreading this disease has been massively exaggerated, and the impact of culling them has been completely misunderstood.“

“The fact that keeping large numbers of cows in winter sheds can lead to a doubling in the number of infected animals shows again the simple truth that bTB is caused by cattle spreading it to other cattle.

“The impact of more frequent testing simply highlights the issue that many infected cows are currently being missed, and are thus spreading the disease without anyone realising. Find the infection, you’ll beat the disease.”

Professor Evans says: “Of the available Bovine Tuberculosis control strategies we believe that how frequently cattle are tested and whether or not farms utilise winter housing have the most significant effect on the number of infected cattle.”

“TB is a complex disease and modelling it is difficult but we’ve successfully used our model to replicate real world situations and are confident that it can be used to predict the effects of various changes in the way we tackle the disease. Our modelling provides compelling evidence, for those charged with controlling Bovine TB, that investment in increasing the frequency of cattle testing is a far more effective strategy than badger culling.”

New figures from the Welsh badger vaccination programme also highlight a lower impact from badgers than had been expected. In 2014, 1,316 badgers were vaccinated and all were returned to the wild in good health. None needed veterinary treatment in view of poor condition, none were found to have visible TB lesions.

After three years of the five-year vaccination project, over 3,500 badgers have been vaccinated. None have been found to have visible TB lesions, no badgers have been removed and euthanised. Between June 2013 and April 2014 the Welsh Government undertook a road kill survey of badgers in the Intensive Action Area (ie high risk TB area where vaccination was taking place). Thirty badgers were collected and tested for TB, but only two were found to have the disease (early stage, no visible TB lesions).

Dominic Dyer adds: “A poll in the Gloucester Post showed that two out of three people are against the badger cull being rolled out across the rest of the country. But this figure would be much higher if people weren’t being given the impression that huge numbers of badgers are infected, and weren’t told that culling them is vital to beating the disease.”

“Huge numbers of badgers are not sick, and as we’ve been saying, and as this new research tells us, culling them is not vital, and in fact is not even useful.  Wales has improved testing and cut the number of animals slaughtered for bTB by 50 per cent – the answer is staring us in the face.”

Biodiversity v Intensive Farming; Has Farming Lost its Way?

Biodiversity v Intensive Farming; Has Farming Lost its Way?

Posted on January 16, 2015 by journalofanimalecology

Modern intensive farming produces plentiful, cheap food but is reliant on heavy use of agrochemicals and is a major driver of the ongoing collapse of wildlife populations. Taxpayers pay billions each year to support this system, with the bulk of this money going to the biggest, richest farming operations. In this blog I examine how we got to this unhappy position, question the need to further increase food production given current food waste, and suggest that we need to move towards a more sustainable, evidence-based farming system, with a source of independent advice for farmers, rather than allowing the agrochemical industry to shape the future of farming.

It is not politically correct to criticise farmers or farming. We are brought up on stories about the adventures of a playful piglet who lives on a farm with a sheepdog, half a dozen chickens and a smiling cow, all presided over by a rosy-cheeked farmer, his wife and their two children. Farmers might also be portrayed as custodians of the land, where the countryside that they look after is filled with the sound of skylarks singing, bumblebees buzzing amongst the hedgerows, and butterflies flitting across sunlit, flowery meadows.

Farming is of course the most fundamentally important of human activities; without farms and farmers, we would quickly starve. Going back to hunter-gathering is not an option. What is more, the human population is growing, and therefore we must increase food production. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared in 2010 that we must double food production by 2050, and this rationale is used to justify the drive for ever-increasing yield. One might argue that we should focus all our research on increasing yield at all cost, else our grandchildren will starve.

These are two quite different views of farming, the former obviously wildly inaccurate, but in both the farmer is the hero. Of course there is a contradiction between the two, a fundamental conflict. The drive to increase food production has resulted in an intensive farming system that is scrubbing wildlife from the face of the land. In Europe, we have good long-term data on populations of birds, butterflies and moths, and the overwhelming pattern is that most species are in retreat (e.g. Fox et al. 2014 J Appl. Ecol. 51: 949-957; Inger et al. 2015). Rather few larks are still singing, and most of the butterflies are gone. A recent study by Inger et al estimates that bird populations in Europe have fallen by 420 million in the last 30 years. Groups for which we have less precise data, such as bees and beetles, also seem to be going the same way. For the UK this depressing pattern is summarised nicely in RSPB’s 2013 “State of Nature” report, which makes bleak reading. In short, farmland wildlife underwent massive declines through the twentieth century and in the twenty first century is still in rapid decline. Indeed, recent data for butterflies suggest that declines in many farmland species are accelerating.

This continued decline is, on the face of it, puzzling. In Europe very large sums of tax-payers money are spent on agri-environment schemes: money paid to farmers to implement mechanisms to increase wildlife[1]. On the whole, farmers do not grub out hedgerows any more, or plough up ancient hay-meadows. They are more likely to replant hedgerows and attempt to restore flower-rich grasslands. Yet this does not seem to be working, for wildlife continues to disappear. What has gone wrong?

I would argue that there are two explanations. The first is that much of the funding for agri-environment schemes is wasted. The basic entry-level greening measures are so unambitious that a lot of farmers have to do next to nothing to qualify. There is little policing of what they actually do, and implementation of some schemes often fails. Wildflower strips on field margins are a good example – intended to support pollinators, they often don’t establish well, and end up containing nothing but coarse grasses. There are some shining examples of farmers who have successfully implemented a range of such schemes with measurable benefits for wildlife, but they are few and far between. [Note that these schemes have recently been revised in Europe, but overall funding has been cut and many farmers currently in the higher level schemes will soon find themselves getting no agri-environment subsidies at all, so it is unlikely that there will be a net improvement]

The second relates to the way crop production systems have developed. Forty years ago there was substantial government funding for agronomic research. In the UK, we had many state-owned experimental farms where scientists developed new crops and devised integrated pest management programs. Rachel Carson’s famous 1963 book “Silent Spring” had highlighted the potential dangers of over-reliance on pesticides, and there was great interest in biological control agents, trap crops, rotations, cultural controls, use of resistant varieties, and so on. Today, most of those experimental farms have gone, or become essentially privatised, in attempts at cost-saving by successive governments. Industry has stepped in to fill the gap, shaping agriculture to its own ends. Now, agronomic funding comes almost entirely from the private sector – particularly the big companies that manufacture pesticides and develop GM crops. Most of the agronomists that advise farmers work for agrochemical companies (the figure is 71% in the UK[2]). Most arable farms in the UK use a minimal rotation –wheat, wheat, oilseed rape. Crops are commonly treated with ~20 different pesticides in a season[3], many of them applied prophylactically. [Ask yourself this: if you were growing veg in your garden for your family to eat, would you be comfortable spraying them with a cocktail of 20 different insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and molluscicides? If the answer is no, why are you happy buying food from the supermarket?]. The principles of IPM seem to have been discarded along the way. We have allowed current farming systems to be moulded by industry, and their goal is not to feed poor people in developing countries. Nor is it to look after wildlife, or worry about the long-term sustainability of production systems. It is to make the biggest profit that they can. Minimising pesticide use would be good for the environment, good for the long-term sustainability of farming, good for the farmer, and good for the consumer. But it won’t make big agrochemical companies rich.

Consideration of the current risk assessment procedures for new agrochemicals sheds some light on the failure of the current system. Typically, the safety of agrochemicals is examined by conducting acute toxicity tests for each compound on non-target organisms such as rats and bees, and comparing the response to plausible exposure scenarios in the field. So long as the animals are unlikely to receive a dose in the field anywhere near that which produces harm in short-term lab tests, all is regarded as well. These data are generally not made public, so they cannot be inspected or evaluated by independent scientists. There is currently no requirement to demonstrate that the new product provides a significant improvement in yield; such trials are presumably conducted by industry (well, one would like to think so), but are not made public. Under the current system, once a new product is on the market, farmers have little in the way of reliable, independent information available to them as to either the environmental risks posed or the efficacy of each product. They are largely reliant on the companies that manufacture the chemicals to advise them as to which ones they should use, with competing manufacturers providing conflicting advice, and all with a strong incentive to prescribe more use than may be necessary.

The current agrochemical regulatory system is clearly woefully inadequate. In the real world, non-target organisms living in farmland are chronically exposed to multiple agrochemicals throughout their lives, not one at a time in a single dose. We know that these chemicals do not always act additively; for example some fungicides, while being of very low toxicity to insects in themselves, can greatly increase the toxicity of insecticides when an insect is simultaneously exposed to both. Such interactions will only be discovered when the chemicals have been approved and are in widespread use, which is far too late if one wishes to prevent environmental harm.

Interactions between agrochemicals, and the consequences of chronic rather than acute exposure, are just two important aspects that the current regulatory system fails to capture. Complex interactions also occur between agro-chemicals and other stressors. For example, low doses of pesticides which would produce no measurable effect in a lab toxicity trial can impair the immune system of honey bees, rendering them susceptible to viruses. Hungry animals (such as bees in flower-poor intensive farmland) are also more susceptible to both toxins and disease than well-fed lab stocks. In short, our current regulatory system does not come anywhere close to approximating the complexities of the real world, and as a result we have failed to adequately protect biodiversity from the many stressors imposed by modern farming.

Of course it would never be possible to conduct realistic, long-term tests on every plausible combination of chemicals and other stressors. Perhaps we simply have to accept that modern, intensive farming is necessary if we don’t want to starve, and that loss of our wildlife is an unavoidable price that we have to pay?

I would suggest that there is a way forwards, but that we need a radically different, holistic and transparent approach based on scientific evidence. We need long-term farm-scale studies of crop production systems, comparing both the yield, profitability and the consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services of different systems (e.g. conventional versus a reduced input, “Integrated Pest Management” approach versus organic). Such studies need not be enormously expensive, for the farms would still be productive. Surprisingly few studies have simultaneously compared profitability and biodiversity benefits across farming systems, yet this is the fundamental trade-off in food production. Indeed, for most agrochemicals there is currently little publicly available evidence as to what yield benefits they individually provide[4]. If a new chemical, crop or farming system were to be proposed, and provided that it passed some basic safety tests, it could then by trailed alongside existing approaches. Only if a new product significantly increased yield, or was found to have positive benefits for biodiversity, or both, would it be approved. Such a system would evaluate new products in the context in which they would be used in the real world, rather than highly unrealistic trials as currently used. New agri-environment schemes could be evaluated using the same framework. All such studies should be open access. This has parallels to the laudable move to “evidence-based medicine” whereby new drugs or therapies are only approved following trials demonstrating that they provide a significant improvement over existing treatments. At present, our farming systems are not evidence-based, and what evidence that is available is hidden.

I would also argue that we should question the drive towards further yield increases. People are not starving because we don’t grow enough food. In India, obesity is now a bigger problem than starvation. We grow more than enough food, but estimates suggest that nearly half of what is grown goes to waste, and many of us eat far more meat and many more calories than is good for us. In the developed world we spend less on food, as a proportion of income, than we ever did – food is cheap. It is a disgrace that anyone is still starving, but it has nothing to do with food production. Indeed, if one could largely eliminate food waste then every farm in the world could go organic and, even with the concomitant reduction in yield, there would still be more than enough food to go around.

Without a radical overhaul of farming systems, and of the way agronomic research is funded and conducted, there is no doubt that we will lose a significant portion of our biodiversity. Even for those that don’t give a damn about wildlife, this ought to be a major cause for concern because we depend upon wildlife to deliver the ecosystem services that underpin food production. We should be focussing on sustainable production of healthy food, not on producing more cheap, pesticide-laced food and then throwing half of it away. In our rush to increase yields, based on an ill-conceived notion that this is needed to feed the world, we run the risk of irrevocably damaging our environment and hence our food production system, so that our grandchildren really do starve.

Dave Goulson (twitter: @DaveGoulson)

[1] The EU gives out €59 billion per year in total in subsidies to farmers. Most of this is dished out as single farm payments, which are more-or-less payments simply for owning the land. There is currently no cap, so some major landowners receive millions in subsidies. For example in France, the 160 biggest farm holdings receive €123 million between them. The UK fought hard, and succeeded, in blocking EU proposals to cap subsidies at €300,000 per farmer. The vast majority of this money does not go to poor farmers in marginal areas who might be deserving of support. One might question why such extra-ordinary sums of tax-payers money should be given to rich people or corporations to enable them to continue to farm in a way that is destroying our natural heritage.

[2] This figure was provided by an independent agronomist, Caroline Corsie, but I am unable to find official figures.

[3] I have quoted this figure before, and it has been heavily criticised. It was originally based on surveys of arable farms in East Sussex in south east UK, which applied between 18 and 21 different pesticides to each wheat or oilseed rape field in 2013 (some of them multiple times). I’ve heard it said that we must have found the most intensively farmed fields in England. However, Defra’s own statistics demonstrate that this is spot on – their PUSSTATS website is open access, and one can obtain information on the total area of arable crops in Britain, and the total area treated with pesticides. The latter is almost exactly 20 times the former, demonstrating that the average arable field receives 20 applications. This average includes organic farms, so the mean for conventional farms must be higher.

[4] This was recently highlighted by an astonishing revelation from the USA Environmental Protection Agency. They revealed a number of studies showing that application of neonicotinoid seed dressings to soya beans has zero impact on yield. At the advice of agronomists, farmers had been routinely applying neonics to soyabeans over 30 million ha, at an annual cost of $240 million. This seems to refute the oft-used argument “Farmers aren’t fools – they wouldn’t waste money on pesticides they didn’t need”.


Week Ending January 17th

Monday, January 12th.  Following another gale, I was out the door after breakfast to check the state of the two electric fences down on the coast at Beachy Head and Birling Gap.  They required a little attention to ensure they remained stockproof.

Tuesday, January 13th.  The River Uck in its upper reaches was this morning, very swollen and flowing at quite a speed.                                                                         Anna and I spent the day re-aligning part of the electric fencing at Beachy Head where we have 15 ponies grazing.  This involved working towards the top of very steep slope, we having somewhat sore feet by the end of the day!  At about mid-afternoon, a cold front passed through, which coincided with moving the truck along a little at the top of the slope.  The wind must have been in the region of Storm force and with the slight lean of the truck on the slope, I was unable to open the door so having to exit through the passenger door!  With the views, the angry sea and the wind, it was something of a memorable day.

Thursday, January 15th.  Anna was on site at Beachy Head soon after dayl.ight only to find that the electric fencing had been trashed by yet another gale overnight – it probably coming in from a more southerly direction so the fence took more of a pounding.  After several hours she had put the fence back in order.  In the meantime, she had called me to ask if I’d check the ponies and fencing at Birling Gap.  All well that ends well, for neither of these two groups of ponies had escaped.                                                    After another night of rain on the already-saturated ground, the River Uck at Uckfield stretched across its berms to both banks.  The Cuckmere was much the same with lots of fields covered in water near Horsebridge and much of the lower valley near Litlington under water.


Microfibre Pollution of Waters

The Great Lakes Are Teeming With Tiny, Plastic Fibres, Scientists Say.

By John Flesher.  Posted:  01/10/2015

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Scientists who have reported that the Great Lakes are awash in tiny bits of plastic are raising new alarms about a little-noticed form of the debris turning up in sampling nets: synthetic fibres from garments, cleaning cloths and other consumer products.

They are known as “microfibres” – exceedingly fine filaments made of petroleum-based materials such as polyester and nylon that are woven together into fabrics.

“When we launder our clothes, some of the little microfibres will break off and go down the drain to the wastewater treatment facility and end up in our bodies of water,” Sherri “Sam” Mason, a chemist with the State University of New York at Fredonia, said Friday.

The fibres are so minuscule that people typically don’t realize their favorite pullover fleece can shed thousands of them with every washing, as the journal Environmental Science & Technology reported in 2011.

Over the past couple of years, Mason and colleagues have documented the existence of microplastic litter – some too small to see with the naked eye – in the Great Lakes. Among the particles are abrasive beads used in personal care products such as facial and body washes and toothpastes. Other researchers have made similar finds in the oceans.

A number of companies are replacing microbeads with natural substances such as ground-up fruit pits. Illinois imposed a state-wide ban on microbeads last year. Similar measures were proposed in California and New York.

But microfibres have gotten comparatively little attention. They’ve accounted for about 4 percent of the plastic litter that Mason and her students have collected from the Great Lakes. The group drags finely meshed netting along the lake surfaces, harvesting tens of thousands of particles per square mile, and study them with microscopes.

About three-quarters of the bits they’ve found are fragments of larger items such as bottles. Smaller portions consist of microbeads, Styrofoam and other materials.

But when Mason’s team and a group from the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program took samples from southern Lake Michigan in 2013, about 12 percent of the debris consisted of microfibres. It’s unclear why the fibres were three times as prevalent in that area as elsewhere in the lakes, although currents and wave actions may be one explanation, said Laura Kammin, pollution prevention specialist with Sea Grant.

Ominously, the fibres seem to be getting stuck inside fish in ways that other microplastics aren’t. Microbeads and fragments that fish eat typically pass through their bodies and are excreted. But fibres are becoming enmeshed in gastrointestinal tracts of some fish Mason and her students have examined. They also found fibres inside a double-crested cormorant, a fish-eating bird.

“The longer the plastic remains inside an organism, the greater the likelihood that it will impact the organism in some way,” Mason said, noting that many plastics are made with toxic chemicals or absorb them from polluted water. She is preparing a paper on how microplastics are affecting Great Lakes food chains, including fish that people eat.

There’s also a chance that fibres are in drinking water piped from the lakes, she said. Scientists reported last fall that two dozen varieties of German beer contained microplastics.

Because microfibres are used so widely, there’s no obvious solution, Mason said. Persuading people to stop wearing synthetic clothes likely would be a tougher sell than the idea of switching facial scrubs.

But pollution prevention remains the best way to protect the lakes, Kammin said.

“It’s very hard to remove these microplastics once they’re out there,” she said.

Climate Change Activists Blame Government to Make Global Warming National Priority

Climate change activists blame Government for ‘colossal failure’ to make global warming a national priority.

Tom Bawden , Environment editor, The Independent.

Monday 05 January 2015

The Government has been accused of a “colossal failure” to educate the British public about the risks of global warming, after official data confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year in the UK since records began.

The average temperature last year was 9.9C, some 1.1C above the long-term average and eclipsing the previous record set in 2006, according to the Met Office. The new data means that eight of the UK’s top ten warmest years have occurred since 2002, and five of the six rainiest years have been this millennium.

National weather records began in 1910 – but the extremity of recent trends is confirmed by regional records dating back centuries. The 2014 temperature in Central England was the hottest since records there began in 1659, according to separate figures. Britain is also enduring more rainfall, with 2014 the fourth wettest year since 1910 – a trend that fits with scientists’ models for the impact of rising global temperatures.

Despite the unequivocal evidence of a changing climate, research indicates that many Britons are still unaware of the threat posed to the UK by extreme weather. Leading climate activists blamed the Government for failing to make global warming a national priority.

“The lack of awareness of the UK public of how climate change is already affecting them represents a colossal failure by the Government and its agencies, including the Environment Agency and the Met Office, to communicate with the public about this issue,” said Bob Ward, policy director at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Institute.

“In particular, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has utterly failed to invest enough resources in communication about climate change even though it has lead responsibility for ensuring the UK becomes more resilient to its impacts. “Indeed, the Department was, until recently, headed by a Secretary of State [Owen Patterson] who even denied the risks of climate change,” he added, in reference to former minister Owen Paterson, who was known for his climate scepticism.

Mr Ward pointed to research showing that a majority of people who live on a floodplain do not believe that they are at any risk of flooding, and a recent survey indicating that the average person thinks the risks of heatwaves is decreasing rather than increasing.

Simon Bullock, senior climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Our political leaders must wake up to the climate change threat and agree a binding international action plan to slash emissions in Paris this year – with wealthy, developed nations taking the lead. Without action to cut our use of fossil fuels the world is going to keep warming – with ever-increasing risks of climate disasters.”

A Defra spokesman said: “Building our resilience to climate change is important for everybody, which is why we developed the first National Adaptation Programme published last year setting out actions for government, businesses, local councils and communities.

“We are committed to addressing the risks from climate change – by increasing awareness and making far-sighted decisions we can address these risks, save money and safeguard our homes and communities for the future,” he added.

Badger Culling Could Take 20 Years


Fiona Harvey, The Guardian. Wednesday 7 January 2015.

Culling badgers will not get rid of bovine TB in the UK for more than two decades, the environment secretary told farmers on Wednesday.

The controversial cull is part of a package of measures championed by the coalition government, including controls on the movement of cattle and better monitoring. But these are still unlikely to bring the disease under control for many years.

Elizabeth Truss, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said: “This government is taking action to deal with this disease. This is not something that can be achieved overnight. Our strategy is focused on eradicating it by 2038.”

She defended the cull, telling the Oxford Farming Conference: “It is not easy, but we will do the right thing even if the protest groups don’t like it. Our comprehensive strategy involves cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas and culling where the disease is rife. We know from the experience in Australia where the disease has been eradicated, and in Ireland and New Zealand where it is being dramatically reduced, that this approach works.”

Truss also promised dairy farmers, the main victims of the bovine TB outbreaks, that the government would target more support at the dairy industry, including longer contracts with buyers, new capital investment for monitoring animal welfare and improving the energy efficiency of cattle housing.

Europe’s Olive Trees Threatened by Spread of Deadly Bacteria

Europe’s olive trees threatened by spread of deadly bacteria

Arthur Neslen, Brussels.  Thursday 8 January 2015.

First it was Europe’s ash trees under threat from disease. Now it’s the continent’s olives in the firing line. A killer pathogen that has established itself in southern Italy is now “very likely” to spread, posing a major risk to European olive trees, according to an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa).

Xylella fastidiosa, also known as olive leaf scorch, has taken hold in the Apulia region at the southernmost tip of Italy, where several thousand hectares of olive plantations are now affected. The bacterium kills infected plants by preventing water movement in trees, causing leaves to turn yellow and brown before falling off, their branches following soon after.

Its “establishment and spread in the EU is very likely,” the scientists’ report says. “The consequences are considered to be major because yield losses and other damage would be high and require costly control measures.”

The disease’s impact comes on top of a particularly bad year for Spanish and Italian olive growers in 2014 due to pests and the weather, with harvests in Italy down 40-50%. Spain and Italy account for 70% of Europe’s olive output, leading to warnings that olive oil prices will rise.

“The outbreak in Apulia is very severe,” said Giuseppe Stancanelli, one of the report’s advisors. “The bacteria is deadly and many plants in Lecce province are dying because of it.”

Xylella is an exotic pathogen common in the Americas and the Middle East, which is thought to have been brought to Europe by infected insects carried with plant commodities, or travelling as stowaways.

“There seems to be a link between the changing patterns of global trade and the spread of this disease,” Stancanelli said.

Once established, the bacteria spreads via fluid-feeding insects and its varying strains have a notoriously large alternative host plant range, affecting oak, sycamore, citrus, cherry, almond, grapefruit, peach, oleander and forest trees.

Combating its advance is difficult because insecticides used to kill hosts have their own environmental impacts, the Efsa panel say. Apulia’s centuries old olive trees are also highly valued by Italian farmers, many of whom have resisted eradication programmes.

“There is serious concern that this disease could spread from the Apulia region as it has been increasing in the last few months,” Enrico Brivio, a European commission spokesman told the Guardian. “We will evaluate the situation and decide if additional measures are necessary at a standing committee meeting on the 19-20 January.”

Last November, the commission earmarked €7.5m (£5.9m) for fighting several pests, including Xylella. Some €751,000 of this went to Italy, with the Italian government providing the same amount. The EU will consider new funding to fight the bacteria at the January meeting.

Quantifying the rate of the bacteria’s expansion has been made more tricky by the time lag between a plant’s infection and the appearance of symptoms. Emergency measures have already been put in place creating infection and buffer zones to prevent Xylella’s spread and mandating surveys on the bacteria’s prevalence.

But the Efsa report recommends the introduction of screened greenhouse production and certification schemes for plants grown in nurseries, along with the eradication of infected insect populations, and specific insecticide treatments for imported plants.

Unusual Number of UK Flowers Bloom on New Years Day

Unusual number of UK flowers bloom.

By Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst.

Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day. They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom. It raises further questions about the effects of climate change during the UK’s warmest year on record.

“This is extraordinary,” said Tim Rich, who started the New Year’s plant hunt for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. “Fifty years ago people looking for plants in flower at the start of the year found 20 species. This year the total has amazed us – we are stunned.  During the holiday I drove along the A34 south of Newbury and saw half a mile of gorse in flower when gorse is supposed to flower in April and May. It’s bizarre. We are now in our fourth mild winter. Normally flowers get frosted off by Christmas but this year it hasn’t happened.”

He said 368 species in flower is an unprecedented 15% of the flowering plants in Britain and Ireland – an “amazing” total. The high count was partly due to the growth in the number of volunteers – but mostly due to climate change, he said.

Dr Rich said it was possible that plants in unseasonal flower might be badly hit if February brought very cold weather.

The Met Office has confirmed 2014 as the warmest year on UK record, with the wettest winter and the hottest Halloween. It is also the warmest year in the Met Office’s Central England Temperature series, which dates to 1659.

Their blog said: “Human influence on the climate is likely to have substantially increased the chance of breaking the UK and CET temperature records. Estimates from the Met Office suggest that it has become about 10 times more likely for the UK record to be broken as a result of human influence on the climate.”

The most commonly recorded plants in flower were daisy and dandelion, each of which was recorded in 115 lists (75%).

The mild south and west of Britain had the highest numbers of species still in flower, but there were 50 species identified in the east and north of England, and 39 species flowering in Edinburgh. In absolute numbers, Cardiff won with 71 species in flower and Cornwall came second with 70 species in flower.

Ryan Clark, who co-ordinated the New Year Plant Hunt, said: “It was astonishing to see so many records flooding in, from Guernsey to the Moray Firth and Norfolk to Donegal. Ireland had consistently high numbers of plants in flower too, with the average of about 20 – almost exactly on a par with Britain.”

“The highest count in Ireland was 40 species flowering on Bull Island, in Dublin Bay. The west of Ireland also fared well, with Strawberry Tree in flower near Killarney, Co. Kerry.”

Government Bodge on Badgers & Bovine Tb

Name: UK government. Animal ecology test score: 0

Posted on June 23, 2014 by journalofanimalecology © Andrew Byrne

Every now and again animal ecology findings make it into the news. Press coverage often focuses on cases where a species is on the edge of extinction, has erupted to plague proportions, or exhibits some quirky behaviour. One of the positive things about such coverage is that the public appreciates that animal ecology is a mature field of study that uses high-tech methods of data collection, cutting-edge statistical methods and mathematically elegant models. But all too often animal ecology stories are little more than a curiosity, chosen to fill the ‘And finally…’ slot. Occasionally animal ecology research influences government policy – something that has happened with the control of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. However, this particular case is not a good news story – sound animal ecology advice is being ignored by the current UK government. The reason? A cynic might speculate that it is because following best animal ecology practice might lead to conclusions at odds with what the government seems unjustifiably determined to do.

I believe that policy should always be guided by the best possible evidence available. If I am offered policy based on science, or policy based on conjecture, anecdote and innuendo, I will go with the science-based view as long as it is ethical and humane. I suspect that such a position is considered rather extremist by the current, and recent, British administrations, but I consider it defensible.

Everyone I have spoken to on the issue of TB in cattle wants it eradicated. I have not spoken to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about it. This is perhaps a little surprising. I was a member of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) appointed to assess the efficacy, humaneness and safety of the badger cull by the Secretary of State’s department – Defra. In retrospect, I think the IEP should have had access to the Secretary of State so we could present our findings and discuss them directly with him. He might have found it useful. I won’t agree to serve on such a government committee again without agreed access to the appropriate minister.

So what were the culls about? Previous research in England had convinced the government that a reduction in badger numbers of at least 70% would be sufficient to eradicate TB in cattle. But how best to achieve this? Gassing, trapping or shooting at night? Gassing was not an option since it was banned for being inhumane decades ago. So that left shooting and trapping. If badger numbers could be humanely reduced by 70% by controlled shooting then a workable solution to TB in England would have been found. So two areas were identified – one in Gloucestershire and one in Somerset – and planning for the multi-year pilot culls commenced.

The first job of the IEP was to devise methods to assess efficacy and humaneness. The methods needed to be robust to fraud by anti-cull protesters making the cull look less effective than it was, and by contractors returning badger carcasses shot elsewhere to make the cull look more effective. The IEP came up with the following method to assess effectiveness: hair traps were used to sample the badger population in the pilot areas, with individuals uniquely identified through genotyping. Hair samples were also taken from culled animals and individually identified with the same genotyping methods. The proportion of the original sample among culled animals gives an estimate of the effectiveness of the cull. Robust estimates of population size can also be obtained using our approach. The method does make assumptions, and we devised a suite of statistical analyses to check for biases and to estimate uncertainties. Once the cull was over, and all analyses were conducted, we were able to say with 95% confidence that the culls failed to deliver anywhere near the 70% target. The probability of either cull having achieved the requisite 70% or more reduction in badger numbers are similar to me – a middle-aged, overweight, unfit Brit – being selected to captain the Brazilian football team in the World Cup. Zero. The culls were not effective, and we can say that with strong statistical support based on the analysis of high quality data.

The assessment of humaneness is a little less certain, but was based on survival analysis with censoring of animals that were shot at. There is greater uncertainty around our conclusions of this analysis. However, we were able to conclude that it was highly improbable that the culls met Defra’s humaneness target of no more than 5% of badgers taking more than 5 minutes to die.

The IEP also made several recommendations on improvements to the way the cull is delivered that the government accepted. For example, we made recommendations on the way that contractors are trained.

So that was year 1 of the pilot culls. Year 2 is approaching. Given the success of the animal ecology methods used, presumably the government would continue to use these tried and tested methods? Methods that are hard to cheat. Methods based on mark-recapture analysis, which is arguably the most innovative statistical development in animal ecology in the last 25 years. Surprisingly, not, despite the IEP recommending it. The government has not announced exactly what they are going to do, but they will not use methods that allow the effectiveness of the continuing pilots to be assessed in year 2 in the same way they were assessed in year 1. Any results they do achieve will be incomparable. If one of my undergraduate students made such an elementary mistake in an exam essay they would be heavily marked down. A change of protocol half way through an experiment reveals such a limited understanding of the scientific method that I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane. They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.

In addition to changing the protocols, there is to be no more independent oversight of the ongoing culls. So who will oversee the analysis of data and the interpretation of results? The same folk that have decided to change the protocols half way through the experiment? I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Bayesian, but this is a case where I think I might be justified in working with a well-informed prior that the conclusions will be unlikely to stand up to scrutiny.

Government agencies are stuffed full of very competent scientists. Presumably the concerns that they must have raised are being wilfully ignored by government. I wonder why? I wonder if the government no longer wants to know the answer to whether their ongoing pilot culls will deliver the required outcome. I wonder if conducting the pilot culls is the easiest way for the government to look as if it is tackling the awful issue of bovine TB, even though a large body of animal ecology has concluded it is unlikely to be the solution in England? I fear we may hear that the second year is a success once it is over. But such a statement would be hollow.

Not all government policy can be based on science. Often ministers need to work out how to carve up funds. There may be no right or wrong answer on how to do this, and the decision may be based on who shouts loudest, or what seems ‘right’ given the minister’s philosophy. But when animal ecology – and more generally science – can inform a policy debate, scientific approaches must be used and scientific conclusions should not be ignored. The government’s decision to ignore best scientific practice has not been justified by the Secretary of State. I’d be surprised if he changes his mind. U-turns are seen as a sign of weakness. But what is incredibly sad about the whole sorry affair is we are missing an opportunity to assess whether the pilot culls that the government implemented can solve the dreadful scourge of bovine TB. The existing evidence strongly suggests that culling is not the solution in England, and that the ongoing culls were on course to add more evidence in support of this view. The government’s recent actions rob us of this evidence. And this means we will be delayed in solving the TB problem, that farmers will continue to carry the cost of this dreadful disease for years to come and that badgers will be culled without justification. The issue is not the badgers moving the goalposts as the Secretary of State famously claimed. It is the government. But why they have moved them to make it so easy to score an own goal in the fight against TB is beyond me.

You can download the IEP report here. If you want animal ecology to be relevant to policy, and not just a curiosity used by the media for a bit of light relief, speak up for it! Writing to your MP about it and being vocal on social media is an easy way to make an impact. If enough ecologists speak up for their field, future governments perform better in the use of animal ecology evidence.

Tim Coulson

Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology

(twitter: @tncoulson)