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Foxes and hounds spread TB as well as badgers, study claims, prompting calls for greater hunting scrutiny

Call for packs to be reined in as research deepens row between wildlife cull supporters and opponents 

Jane Dalton
Sunday 01 July 2018 22:25 BST
Hunts are at the centre of debate after research showed foxes - and hounds - are susceptible to disease
Hunts are at the centre of debate after research showed foxes - and hounds - are susceptible to disease (Getty Images)

Fox-hunting is poised to face greater scrutiny following arguments over the recent badger cull after a new study showed that foxes can also spread tuberculosis in the countryside.

And a leading wildlife campaigner called for a moratorium on hunting on the grounds that bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is also spread by packs of hunt hounds.

French government scientists published the evidence showing foxes can also carry and transmit bovine TB.

The research has further widened the divide between Britain’s animal-welfare groups and supporters of the badger cull, which was rolled out across most of England just weeks ago in an effort to reduce bTB.

The government and farmers have long argued that badgers, which carry TB, pass the disease to cattle that come into contact with them so eliminating the nocturnal animals will halt the spread.

But opponents of the badger cull claimed the French evidence undermined arguments for the cull, while others feared it could even prompt ministers to order widespread official extermination of foxes, as they have frequent contact with badgers.

If UK foxes are infected, eradicating bTB would be almost impossible, The Sunday Times reported.

"Infection in wild red foxes was found in southern France, where livestock and other wildlife species are infected," said researchers from the French food and environment agency, in a paper in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

"Foxes frequently interact with cattle but have been underestimated as a reservoir of M bovis [the bacterium]. Our results suggest a possible role of the red fox in the epidemiology of bTB."

The French researchers examined six wild foxes and tested each exhaustively, finding four were infected, and warning that the animals often had few visible symptoms.

In Britain, no foxes have been tested for at least a decade.

Domnic Dyer, head of the Badger Trust and wildlife expert, said hunt hounds running around rural areas were also spreading the disease, in their faeces and urine, in the same way as badgers and foxes, and should be stopped.

In January, the League Against Cruel Sports issued a major report claiming that hunt hounds pose a serious risk of spreading infectious diseases in the countryside and to visitors to public events such as Boxing Day hunt parades and county shows.

Earlier this year the Kimblewick Hunt culled 25 of its own hounds after an outbreak of bTB.

Prolific wildlife photographer Richard Bowler said he feared the new research could prompt a backlash against foxes, writing on Facebook: “We should I suppose think that the news coming out of France vindicates our claim that that badger cull is unscientific and needs to stop now.

“However, the news that foxes can carry and transmit bTb I fear will not halt the badger cull but be a catalyst for a mass extermination of foxes. After all no licence or permission is required to kill a fox, already down in numbers by 30-40 per cent.”

Mr Dyer pointed out that in areas where badgers have been cleared, fox, weasel and stoat number have risen, raising the risk of the spread of infection.

A range of animals, from foxes and deer to alpacas, dogs, cats and rats carried TB, he said, and even if all wildlife were killed it would not eradicate bTB in cattle, insisting the disease should be tackled at source.

“Bovine TB is a form of industrial pollution from intensive livestock production which spills over into many wildlife species. We could wipe out all the foxes and badgers in England and still have TB in cattle,” he said. “If all we’re doing is seeking to eradicate other animals it’s preposterous.

“We don’t believe the government have done enough research.”

He called for new, more accurate TB testing techniques to be brought into use as well as more frequent testing.

However, a group in favour of the badger cull, called The Badger Cull Support Our Farmers, insisted foxes do not spread TB, saying: “It is a non-existent threat. Sheer hyperbole.”

The group added: “The badger is the super-emitter of billions of TB bacilli - the best emitter in the whole wide world. And it's destroying our cattle. It should never have been given total protection. It desperately needs culling to reduce TB.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “Bovine TB is a slow-moving, insidious disease that presents many challenges. It is difficult to detect and there’s no single measure that will provide an easy answer, and that is why we are pursuing a wide range of interventions, including cattle movement controls and a cull of badgers where they are linked with herd breakdowns.”

Defra says dealing with the disease costs taxpayers more than £100m each year and in 2016, more than 29,000 cattle had to be slaughtered in England to control the disease.

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