A new study by scientists at the University of Exeter may help the British farming industry, which is struggling with the impacts of bovine Tuberculosis (bTB).
The study recognises the “significant economic burden” of bTB and aims to “explore the potential for landscape management to contribute to bTB control.”
Since 2002, half of British dairy farmers have had to pull out of business, with those left having larger herds. Between 1996 and 2014, average herd size increased by 77 per cent.
According to the ground-breaking research, which analysed data from over 1,300 farms, intensive farming practices – such as large herds and feeding of sileage – increased the risk of a bTB outbreak.
Farms were 50 per cent more likely to encounter outbreak if herds had 150 or more cows, compared to farms with herds of 50 or less.
The paper, published in the Royal Society Journal Biological Letters last week, also showed that features which bring infected badgers closer to cow herds had an impact.
bTB risk increased by 20 per cent for every 10 hectares of maize, which is consumed by badgers.
Associate Professor in Mammalian Biology Dr Fiona Mathews, one of the leaders of the study, discussed how improved health as a result of lower intensity farming “offers a sustainable long-term strategy in high risk areas”.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) deputy leader Ms Batters commented: “It is unclear what has led to the comment that lower intensity means better animal health.
“It is not about the scale of the farming operation but the levels of stockmanship and care that impact on animal health.”
Dr Betina Winkler, Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and the co-leader of the study said: “Ours is not the only article that found an effect of herd size on bTB.
“What we wanted to highlight in the article is that the landscape/habitat composition of the farms and farming practices play a role in the transmission of bTB and should be taken into account.”
The spread of bTB has previously been largely blamed on badgers, hundreds of which have been killed despite concerns over the validity of culling.
A statement from Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) encouraged the industry to “take all necessary precautions to protect their herds from bovine TB”.
They also restated the department’s intention to cull badgers in certain areas, a commitment fraught with scientific and moral controversy.