Frequent testing of cattle is a far more effective way of controlling bovine tuberculosis (TB) than culling badgers, research suggests.
A new computer simulation showed that vigilant cattle testing can eventually eradicate the disease whether or not badgers are culled.
Badger culling alone did not lead to TB eradication, according to the model.
The research also suggested that housing cows in large sheds over winter potentially doubled the number of infected animals in a herd, greatly increasing the risk of bacterial transmission.
Professor Matthew Evans, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “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.”
The simulation showed that in a region containing about 1.5 million cows, including 3,000-15,000 that might have TB, badger culling prevented just 12 cases of the disease.
Reducing the length of time between cattle tests by one month cut the number of animals infected by 193.
The study, published online in the journal Stochastic Environmental Research and Risk Assessment, involved the first large-scale computer model of TB in cattle and badgers that took account of infection being passed in both directions between the two species.
It successfully mimicked altered patterns of bovine TB in the UK, including the changes seen after controls were reduced during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2002.
The scientists investigated the impact of different interacting factors, including the movement and life cycles of badgers and cattle, the way cattle are moved and housed, how frequently cows are tested, different types of badger culling, and infection rates between animals.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 14 Jan 2015.