Revealed: livestock MRSA found in supermarket pork

A special Ecostorm / Guardian investigation has today revealed how a new pig superbug – LA-MRSA CC398 – is spreading onto our plates and into our bodies. Watch the disturbing results of our food tests in four of Britain’s biggest supermarkets, where the superbug has been found in pork. It’s not deadly – but factory pigs overdosing on antibiotics is the latest twist on the long road that, microbiologists warn, will make antibiotics so useless that more of us will be die from antibiotic-resistant drugs than from cancer by 2050


Poultry investigation wins Derek Cooper award

Ecostorm’s joint investigation with The Guardian into hygiene failures in the UK poultry sector has won the 2015 Derek Cooper Award for investigative and campaigning journalism at the guild of Food Writers annual award ceremony. The investigation, using undercover footage, photographic evidence and information from whistleblowers revealed in 2014 how strict industry hygiene standards to prevent the contamination of chicken with the potentially deadly campylobacter bug can be flouted on the factory floor and on farms.

More info on the awards:

What’s the real cost of our cheap salad?

An army of modern-day “slaves” are being used to grow the salad and winter vegetables that fill Britain’s supermarket shelves, a major new investigation by Ecostorm and Channel 4 News has revealed. The allegations are made by politicians and workers interviewed in Spain who say migrants employed to pick salad for companies whose produce ends up on the shelves of top British supermarkets are routinely mistreated, forced to work weeks on end, cheated out of wages and exposed to pesticides.


New film to launch paperback version of Farmageddon book

Ecostorm has produced the latest in a series of special films commissioned to accompany publication of Farmageddon: the true cost of cheap meat, a major new book written by Compassion in World Farming chief Philip Lymbery and journalist Isabel Oakeshott. The film has been released to coincide with the paperback edition of the title and builds on material which featured in an earlier series of short films examining different aspects of factory farming.

Fascinating and terrifying in equal measure, Farmageddon documents an investigative journey behind the closed doors of the factory farming industry. It busts the myth that factory farming is needed to feed the world. With stories from the UK, Europe and the USA, to China, Argentina, Peru and Mexico, the book shows that none of us are safe from the factory farming machine.

More info:

Royal Television Society award for Romanian tunnel film

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Channel 4 News and Ecostorm won the Royal Television Society’s independent award for a “remarkable” film about the world of Bucharest’s homeless underground society. The film, first broadcast in May 2014, exposed the desperate lives of hundreds of men, women and children living in squalid conditions in a network of tunnels and sewers under the Romanian capital Bucharest. In shocking scenes, the tunnel-dwellers are seen injecting drugs and inhaling paint fumes. Most of the people in the tunnels have HIV and a quarter have TB. Some look like children yet are teenagers, stunted by the drug abuse. Just a few feet above them life continues as normal.

This parallel universe is presided over by a man known as Bruce Lee, in honour of his past street fighting days. A tattoo on his leg reads Bruce Lee, King of the Sewers. He agreed to show reporter Paraic O’Brien and the Ecostorm team around his hellish underground kingdom. In awarding the independent award the RTS said: “The jury thought this film told an absolutely compelling story and exposed a horrible reality. “It took many months to set up, and although other journalists have tried before to tell the story of the weird world of the men, women and children living in the sewers of Bucharest, this was a quite remarkable film with brilliant pictures and great storytelling.”

New evidence of Gadhimai festival slaughter

Ecostorm investigators this month joined a team documenting the Gadhimai festival in Nepal in which thousands of animals are slaughtered. The festival, which happens once every five years, sees animals corralled into an open air pen where they are beheaded. An estimated 250,000 animals met this fate at the last festival several years ago. The team, working on behalf of Compassion in World Farming, obtained video and photographs vividly revealing the brutal nature of the event, which has attracted widespread criticism from around the world.

For more info:

Two awards for Bruce Lee, King of the Sewers

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Deep under the streets of Bucharest – in Europe, in the 21st century – there is a network of tunnels and sewers that is home to hundreds of men, women and children stricken by drug abuse HIV and TB. Ecostorm’s Jim Wickens, working with Channel 4 News, travelled to Romania to investigate further. The resulting news film – Bruce Lee, King of the Sewers – has won two prestigious media awards, an Amnesty media prize in the TV news category, and a Foreign Press Association award for TV news story of the year. Read the original reporting at

Food watchdog admits chicken plant breached hygiene rules

BtQluFZIEAAdRnBThe government’s food watchdog has been forced to admit that an initial inquiry which cleared one of the UK’s largest poultry processing plants of hygiene failings was misleading.

Instances of chickens being dropped on the floor then returned to the production line, documented by an Ecostorm/ Guardian investigation into failings in the poultry industry, constituted a “breach of the legislation”, the Food Standards Agency has now acknowledged.

Read the full follow up report, including fresh allegations from whistleblowers, here


Poultry industry’s dirty secret

BtQluFZIEAAdRnBA joint Ecostorm/Guardian undercover investigation exposes conditions inside the chicken factories that supply some of the biggest supermarket and fast-food chains in the business, including KFC, Tesco, Aldi, Asda, Marks & Spencer and Nando’s. Find out why the drive for cheaper chicken is making more than 250,000 of us sick every year.

Full investigation:  Revealed: the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry


What’s really in our shopping baskets?

Animal suffecologist-guide-to-food-complete-cover-1ering, human rights abuses, the destruction of ecosystems, pollution, waste … these are issues we tend not to associate with our food. However, as a major new book, The Ecologist Guide To Food,  reveals, much of our food comes with a hidden price tag.

Drawing on The Ecologist’s unique archive as well as containing much material based on original Ecostorm investigations carried out over the past decade, the Ecologist Guide to Food – written by Ecostorm co-founder and director Andrew Wasley delves behind the labels to investigate the often-unpalatable truths about the foodstuffs we consume each day.

Among the Ecostorm investigations featured include:

The Ecologist Guide To Food is published by Leaping Hare Press. Download the full press release here

Farmageddon – the true cost of cheap meat

Compassion in World Farming CEO, Philip Lymbery has joined award-winning journalist Isabel Oakeshott to tell the story of our global farming system gone mad. The result? A major new book (and film series) called Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Ecostorm helped plan and carry out many of the investigative components contained in the book, and produced a hard hitting film series to accompany the book’s launch. You can see some of these short films here. For more info see here.


Revealed: horror of Peru’s secret dolphin hunt

In a major investigation released today undercover reporters from Ecostorm and The Ecologist Film Unit expose the brutal hunting and killing of dolphins for use as shark bait off Peru’s Pacific coast. Experts interviewed as part of the investigation claim it is the first time that the Peruvian dolphin hunt – by far the biggest such hunt in the world – has been documented.

Working undercover, the journalists spent a week onboard a shark fishing boat 100km out at sea, enduring rough seas, basic living conditions and a near-death shipwreck incident, in order to film the hunt.

The investigation shows the fishing crew sharpening a large steel harpoon before pursuing – and eventually spearing – a dolphin, whilst bow riding in front of the vessel. The dolphin can be seen struggling on a rope before being hauled aboard and skinned. Sliced into fine pieces, the bloody dolphin meat is then mixed with fish bait before being skewered onto hooks for catching sharks, which are sought for their meat and fins.

Jim Wickens, who undertook the investigation, said: “Despite the incredibly challenging conditions we had to go through to tell this story, the footage we obtained casts a damning spotlight on this illegal practice where dolphins are killed for use as shark bait. With hundreds of boats operating in this way every day in the Pacific, the death count for the this threatened species of dolphin is truly staggering.”

Though illegal under Peruvian law, the practice of hunting dolphins, claim fishermen and campaigners, is an increasingly common practice. It has been estimated that as many as 500 boats are involved in shark fishing in Peru, with as many as 10,000 dolphins believed to be killed to be used as bait.

Hardy Jones from conservation chartity Blue Voice said: “The killing of dolphins for shaark bait in Peru is a travesty and must be stopped by the Peruvian government. What remains to be seen is whether Peru will enforce its own laws and comply with international norms.”

The investigation also reveals the cruel practice of sharks being killed by having their heads sliced off whilst fully conscious, and then pregnant blue sharks being sliced open and live baby sharks spilling out onto the deck.

A feature length piece documenting the extroadinary investigation can be exclusively viewed here

Sumatran elephants suffer in the palm oil gold rush – dispatch

360781Everyday we read about the tragic death of another African elephant slaughter, the world watching in horror at the sight of dessicated carcasses, dried pools of blood and crudely-hewn stumps where tusks once were, writes Jim Wickens; snapshots from distant crime scenes feeding a ghoulish market for ivory in the Far East. The African ‘elephant wars’ make comfortable viewing for Western audiences who assume a moral superiority over the slaughter – a narrative where the rest of the world outside of Africa and China plays little role in the wildlife tragedy unfolding there on a daily basis.

There are around half a million African elephants currently left in the wild, but, by contrast, just 2500 Sumatran elephants remain today. It is – by far – the most endangered elephant in the world, but it is animal whose fate is largely unreported to the outside world. Coincidence perhaps, or an uncomfortable truth? On my journey into the forested lands of Aceh in Sumatra, I’ve found that it is not poaching that is driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction, but palm oil expansion, and we are eating it, washing with it, and smearing it on our faces every single day.

Palm frontline

Crouching low in the vines, I can smell the diesel fumes wafting up from the chainsaw that whines away just metres away from us. The sound stops, a brief pause followed by a towering crash as an ancient hardwood plummets through the canopy. This is the frontline in the struggle against palm oil, a shifting frontier that is eating away at the most biodiverse forest on the planet, and it’s a dangerous place to be. Whispering so as not to be heard, our guides urgently beckon us away. To be spotted could be lethal – loggers here are frequently armed, a melting pot mafia of community members, freedom fighters and army personnel whose rule is the law in these remote stretches of Aceh, the Northern most province of Sumatra. This rarely-visited corner of Indonesia is home to the last great forest habitats of the Sumatran elephant in the world. And it is being destroyed for palm oil.

For years, the land here has remained relatively untouched, with oil palm expansion and road-building spurned amidst a bitter civil war that reaped a bloody toll until a ceasefire gradually came into place after the tsunami in 2001. Because of this isolation, Aceh is the last real stronghold for healthy herds of critically endangered Sumatran elephants, who live alongside rhinos, tigers and orang-utans in significant numbers; a far cry from the isolated, genetically-starved herds further south, whose inter-connected territories have been cut off by palm oil companies and paper concessions into tiny, token national parks. But all this is beginning to change. With peace has come opportunity, and palm oil companies are rapidly moving into the Aceh lowlands, squeezing elephants out of ever-diminishing forests and into conflict with local people.

Communities returning home after the Aceh ceasefire have found themselves facing a new threat to their livelihoods; crop damage caused by roaming herds of elephants, opportunistically-eating their way through croplands and antagonising families already brought to their knees by decades of civil war. And the death toll on both sides of the species divide is rising every month.

Ransomed in frustration

Nicknamed Raja by the people who fed him, the baby elephant cuts a pitiful sight, straining for food at the end of a rusty padlock and chain. Caught in a plantation in Aceh Utara last month, the villagers said they were keeping him here by force. Government vets have tried to remove him, but they refused, demanding compensation for the damage that elephants do to their land first. Farmer Sabaruddin, showed us chewed up banana leaves, missing coco pods and a hut verging on collapse, all surrounded by tell-tale feet marks of thieving elephants, that he says are drastically impacting on the livelihoods of the community here.

‘The people are angry when the elephants destroy the fields, because it is not just one or two years waiting to harvest, but sometimes for many years. when we are about to harvest the elephants had already come and destroyed the field. We plant again and then just when it’s about time to harvest, it’s destroyed again’, he said. Deprived of full time veterinarian care, Raja died two weeks later at the end of his chain. He is not alone.

In Geumpang further North, a village chief took us up a winding lane to the sight of fresh mound of earth. It is all that remains of a young male elephant that was electrocuted by a low hanging cable over crops two nights earlier. It’s not the elephant’s death that worries him however, but the fate of his people.

‘There was a conflict here in which one of our people was killed because the elephant stepped on him when he tried to chase them away…Imagine, he has three children, now they don’t have any more education.’ ‘If we talk about the future of elephants, we have also to prioritise the importance on the future of the people. If the future of the people is good, then, the future of the elephants may also be better’ he warned.

Problem elephants

For years the government response to crop-raiding elephants has been to capture and contain animals deemed as ‘problematic’. We visited Saree elephant camp, a government-run containment centre in Aceh, to observe conditions. Despite the best efforts of staff labouring under sparse resources, these holding centres are effectively prisons: barren sites where elephants deemed to be problematic are forcibly taken from the wild and subjected to a life of chained captivity, with no hope of release and little chance of enrichment to break the monotony. Dozens of elephants are living out a life of containment in these camps across Sumatra.

I watched in the dying heat of the day as mahouts barked instructions and scrubbed elephants kneeling to their every word, fearful perhaps of the sharp-pronged bull hooks tucked into the trousers of their masters. One elephant seemed psychologically scarred, repeatedly swinging its head back and forth as it gazed out over rusty barbed wire at life on the outside of the camp.

Elephant containment camps are cruel, say welfare campaigners, but the real tragedy for the elephants may not be so much that individual elephants are contained, but rather that these critically endangered animals have to be removed from the wild, and a rapidly-shrinking gene pool, in the first place.

Eaten alive

The question, ask conservationists, is not how to keep wandering elephants away from communities croplands, but why these critically endangered herds are venturing out of their forest homes in the first place.

Mike Griffith’s is a leading conservationist in Sumatra and until early 2013, was the deputy director of the Aceh government department that was charged with forest protection.

‘We have a major problem and the only way to save the elephants, I believe, is to separate the elephants from the actions of man, that means oil palm, gardens and the impacts of roads and so on, that is why you have national parks, the is why you have reserves, that is why you have the Leuser ecosystem.’

A jagged line of towering peaks that run across much of Aceh, the Leuser ecosystem is the most biodiverse forest in S.E Asia, 2.2 million hectares of forested hills that stretch across Aceh and the only place on earth where orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos are found together in the wild. It is a cornucopia of biological richness and a sanctuary for hundreds of elephants who live amidst it’s hills and hidden valleys that are protected from development under Indonesian law. But it’s being eaten alive.

Working closely with local rangers from Aceh, we drove close to the Leuser frontier, keen to get a sense of this wildlife sanctuary famed around the world. Hours of driving through endless palm plantations brought us not to forests but to mud-stained hillsides clogged with debris and freshly torn tree roots.

Bulldozers had taken on where chainsaws had done their work, relentlessly bashing through logs and stumps to drive terraces into the hillsides. Navigating our way through the quagmire, we passed two motorbikes, wildlife traders waving cheerfully on their way to check bird traps that they had laid the night before on the newly-penetrated forest edge. Two howler monkeys clung to a tree stump, silent and motionless, overlooking a thousand hectares of devastation. The only green to be seen were tiny seedlings, their leaves fluttering quietly along the newly-cleared terraces. Oil palm.

It was a sight that left the team, the rangers even who deal with destruction on a weekly basis, speechless. A week earlier these rolling hills had been rainforest, home to many of the rarest large animals on the planet. ‘When you replace these forests with oil palm plantations, you create green deserts… Nothing lives there except cockroaches, mosquitos and rats.’ says Mike Griffiths.

In the silence we took in the destruction, a line of brown dotted by bulldozers, a silence broken only by the ceaseless whine of chainsaws eating their way deeper and deeper into the Leuser forest refuge. This expansion is a relentless onslaught taking place every day in Aceh and across Sumatra.

The sticky palm oil trail back to Britain

We eat it as vegetable oil, wash our clothes with it as detergent, we use it in cosmetics, we wash with it as shampoo and soap; soon we will even be burning it in our cars. There are over 30 names for palm oil derivatives, many used daily in the home. According to Leonie Nimmo from Ethical Consumer, companies use palm oil because it’s cheap and incredibly versatile. It is an industrial wonder ingredient which has rapidly been incorporated as an invisible fat and filler into dozens of products that permeate our every day lives.

Under pressure from campaigners, food companies have begun to refer to a plethora of terms which suggest the palm-derived ingredients within are ‘sustainably’ sourced, endorsed by the Rountable for Sustainable Palm oil (RSPO), an industry-dominated – and heavily criticised – certification body working on palm oil issues.

But this investigation has found that much of the palm oil sold under the guise of sustainability is actually sourced from palm plantations which may not even have passed the weak certification criteria. Two of the four certification methods operating under the RSPO remit allow food companies to use oil from uncertified plantations in food products that are allowed to be mixed or ‘offset’ from plantations that tick the right boxes elsewhere.

Confused? You are not alone. The RSPO is a mess, say campaigners, misleading consumers and allowing multinational brands and industry-backed NGOs who work within the RSPO process to paint little more than a green tinge over an inherently destructive industry.

‘It is criminal that consumer industries are able to hide behind this gross illusion of “sustainable” palm oil when its production is persistently fuelling the wholesale destruction of the world’s most vital forests,’ says Jo Cary-Elwes from the conservation organisation Elephant Family. Lowland habitats in Sumatra – the only areas where critically endangered elephants can survive in the wild, are the same sought-after areas exploited and planted over in palm oil.

Unless palm oil expansion is halted and reversed, conservationists say, it will be game over for the Sumatran elephant, which, alongside the rhino and tiger, teeters close to the brink of extinction. But you wouldn’t know that from palm oil labelling. When you buy organic tomatoes, you get organic tomatoes. When you buy free range eggs, you get free range eggs. But when you buy palm oil labelled as sustainable in some way there is a good chance that what you actually get is  oil which has been produced from a plantation built over the habitat of some of the most endangered animals in the planet.

A resistance movement is born

Graham Usher is a man on a mission. We meet on the side of a muddy track high up in the midst of another freshly-planted palm concession that lies within the protected confines of the Leuser ecosystem. Crouching under a tent in the blistering midday heat alongside local rangers, he is busy putting the finishing touches to a an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone, that he is using to map out fresh incursions into the forest. With a shout and the briefest of run-ups, the self-made drone is in the air and recording high-resolution footage that shows the scale of fresh cuts in the lush trees.

‘It’s a never ending job,’ he says. ‘It takes them half an hour to chop down a 400yr old tree, but if you want to guard it, it’s 24hrs a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year… the use of a drone is a game changer,’ he says. ‘This sort of work, this collection of evidence, provides us with a much stronger case when you go to decision makers and say, look, this is what is going on, these are your laws, why isn’t action being taken?’

Faced with dysfunctional governance and a spineless certification system, local communities in Aceh, fearful of floods caused by land clearance upstream, are fighting back. In 2012 over a thousand hectares of illegally grown palm oil was confiscated and chain-sawed down, the terraces bulldozed back into their natural shape. Within two months elephants had returned; within 2 years, orangutans, says Taesar, one of the rangers leading the regeneration project, ‘and we have over 5000 hectares more that we are trying to win back at the moment.’

It’s heartening to hear that the tide of forest clearance can be slowed, and even turned around, albeit it not by the multi-million dollar ‘responsible’ palm industry or conservation groups based in Europe and the USA who work so closely with the industry, but instead by grass-roots activism and local communities, many of whom are volunteers.

Despite these efforts however, at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The Governor of Aceh recently issued a controversial ‘spatial’ plan for Aceh, a dryly-worded policy document concerned with reclassifying land use across Aceh. But the details within, say conservationists, are terrifying. The plan effectively green-lights environmental roll-back and decades of forest protection. It’s a carve-up of much of the remaining low-lying forest in Aceh, opening the way for mining and hundreds of thousands of hectares of further palm plantains”.

‘When you look at the needs of the Sumatran elephant, they need lowland forest to live in every time you disturb them, every time you put in plantations, you put in farming, you get conflict. Who is the loser out of that? It is always the elephant, they will disappear if we do not have large areas of lowland rainforest protected for them…’ says Graham. ‘If we don’t take urgent action a few year down the road we will be looking at the leuser ecosystems and saying my god, why didn’t we do more when we had the chance?’

In response to our request for a statement on the Spatial Plan, a spokesperson for the Indonesian government said the plan is a mess, stating that it is largely driven from political interests in Aceh itself. But he stressed that the authorities in Jakarta are trying to balance the needs of the environment with the livelihood needs of 250 million Indonesians.

Death by chocolate

On our last day in Aceh, the news come through that two more elephants have been found dead further south. Our cameraman flies through the night and arrives to record the grizzly scene. The images show two carcasses that seem to writhe amidst the shadows on the forest floor, an army of maggots feasting upon the flesh of the dead elephants that lie there. Elephants disappear quickly in the jungle. A convenience not lost on the oil palm plantation workers who are accused of frequently lacing chocolate bars with rat poison or phosphates, dropping them temptingly on elephant paths that meander close to valuable oil palm plantations.

The young male and female animals we filmed were one of three elephants poisoned in Sumatra last month, the latest casualties in the ever-growing elephant conflict.

Eclipsed in the media by the slaughter of African elephants for Asian ivory consumption, the fragile fate of the Sumatran elephant remains out of sight, hidden amidst the dark recesses of the rapidly disappearing forests that they call home.

It’s not poaching, but palm oil which remains the principle threat to the survival of the Sumatran elephant in the wild. Industrially-produced palm oil from Sumatra is a ‘liquid ivory’, and everybody reading this article inadvertently consumes it every day. Eating, bathing and washing ourselves in a fruit that has displaced forests in the last place on earth where the Sumatran elephant can survive.

Walking away from the chainsaw gangs in Leuser, our ranger turns and confronts me. ‘The world must see this destruction, the world must know what is happening now… see the destruction everywhere, we have to rise up and prevent all of these things from happening before it is too late. What people need to do, people from every part of the world need to think smart, think creatively and never to use any product that contains processes palm products. Palm oil destroys the forests’, he said. Time perhaps to heed his words.

Dissident farmers speak out against UK badger cull – dispatch

imagesA growing number of farmers are now questioning the nature of the cull and its effectiveness. And some are blaming poor biosecurity and intensive farming for the spread of TB in the UK cattle herd. Andrew Wasley and Sarah Stirk report

To passers-by, the red-brown earthy mound rising up from the path would probably warrant little more than a cursory glance. It looks like part of the steep bank which flanks the footpath cutting through this quiet corner of the Gloucestershire countryside.

But the mound is actually a badger sett. Home to an unknown number of the stripy nocturnal creatures. Someone has crudely blocked most of the sett entrances with soil and stones. Spade marks are visible. So too are footprints. Tree branches and undergrowth have been chopped back. Tyre tracks from a quad bike – they’re too narrow for a land rover – cut through the vegetation.

Who blocked the sett, and why, remains unclear – police are investigating a number of allegations that badger setts in and around the village of Forthampton, near Tewksbury, have been illegally blocked in recent weeks.

But the badgers here – and across west Gloucestershire – are facing another threat: this area is one of the two pilot zones chosen for the UK’s controversial badger cull that will imminently see up to 5000 animals shot as part of an experiment into tackling the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB) in English cattle herds.

Badgers are blamed for carrying (and thus spreading) the disease, and the trials are expected to pave the way for a much larger cull– up to 100,000 animals – in the next few years.

Bovine TB devastates affected farms – and those who live on and manage them – because current policy dictates that after a positive test, a farm must effectively be locked down, with infected cattle carted off to be destroyed, along with, in many cases, same herd animals who are later found to be clear of the disease. Any notion of normal business is suspended. The financial and emotional toll on farmers is huge.

Supporters of the cull – including the Coalition Government, the National Farmers Union (NFU) and other countryside groups – therefore say it will be a vital tool for trying to limit the spread of this disease and for enabling an assessment of whether badgers can be effectively culled through shooting.

But an investigation by The Ecologist has found that a growing number of farmers themselves – including those whose own farms have been blighted by TB – are now questioning the nature of the cull and its likely effectiveness.

Some believe that administering vaccinations, either to cattle or badgers, should be used instead of ‘free shooting’ with rifles, or ‘cage trapping and shooting’, the two fatal options allowed under the trials.

Others warn of a furious consumer backlash. They fear such widespread killing of wildlife could trigger a ‘PR disaster’ for an already beleaguered industry, particularly following the fallout from the recent horsemeat scandal, not to mention memories of the foot and mouth debacle – with its images of burning carcasses – still lingering in the public’s mind.

And such ‘dissident’ views, according to the farmers we spoke to, are far from uncommon, yet many within the industry fear they will become ostracised or even targeted if they find the courage to speak out.

Bovine TB is a disease caused by the Mycobacterium Bovis (M. Bovis) bacteria. It is highly infectious – and deadly – for cattle. Rates of the disease in the UK have steadily risen in recent decades. Cattle can catch TB from other infected cows, or from wildlife, including badgers.

Infected cattle often don’t show any symptoms initially, meaning that herds need to be tested regularly. The disease has led to over 190,000 cattle being slaughtered in the UK since 2008. Last year, more than 37,000 animals were killed, at an estimated cost of £100 million including compensation paid out to farmers.

Although humans can contract the bovine form of TB from infected animals directly – or by consuming products coming from them – the pasteurisation of milk and dairy products in the UK means the chances of contracting it from food are low.

‘A scar on farmers reputation’

‘I find it difficult that for me to farm I have to rape the countryside. It’s got to be wrong,’ says Dave Purser, sitting in the kitchen of his quintessential Cotswolds farmhouse.

The farmer, who, along with his wife Gill, runs a 48-hectare beef and sheep operation not far from Bourton-On-The-Water, is bitterly opposed to the badger cull and believes that instead of ‘blasting away at thousands of badgers with high powered rifles’, the government and farming bodies should urgently be looking towards a programme of cattle vaccine trials.

‘If you look at the [DEFRA] website we’re this far away from a cattle vaccine’ he says, ‘but there needs to be political will to make it happen.’

He’s referring to the fact that there is actually a TB cattle vaccination available – the BCG (Mycobacterium bovis Bacille Calmette-Guérin) jab – but EU legislation currently prohibits its usage, largely because it interferes with skin testing, the main diagnostic for identifying TB in cattle.

BCG-vaccinated cattle can test positive to this skin test, and thus cannot be declared TB-free for trading purposes. A so-called DIVA test, which can differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals, has been developed, but approval is expected to take up to 10 years.

Dave and Gill argue however that the UK government should be seeking a speedy derogation from the EU: ‘A cattle vaccine has to be trialled, this situation is going crazily out of control,’ says Dave. ‘For those with TB, ring-fence the herd, vaccinate, exclude export but maintain [the herds] integrity’.

The farmers, who are within a TB hotspot but outside of the initial trial zones, are also worried the cull will drive a further wedge between a sceptical public and an undeniably worn down industry.

‘My customers, consumers, have expressed concerns [about the cull]‘, says Dave. ‘If it goes ahead it’s another scar on the reputation of farmers, [with the] same reputational impact as with bankers [following the banking crisis]‘.

He acknowledges that some farmers favour a cull, but says many ‘know it’s not the answer… some understand that it’s a PR disaster. Some get it, some don’t.’

Similar concerns over the cull’s impact are held by Chris Dale (not his real name), based near Ross-on-Wye, on the northern edge of the Forest of Dean. The beef farmer says that the killing, from a public PR point of view, ‘could be the final straw, will they [farmers] keep dairying? They’ll get out of dairy and [go] into another sector.’

Chris believes many in the industry support the cull because ‘it’s the only thing on the table.’ But he also argues that ‘all farmers would vaccinate tomorrow if they could.’ He says: ‘They’re vaccinating for every other [livestock] disease and where TB testing involves [such an] upheaval,making it very stressful – with vaccination, one single vaccination each year [is all it would involve].’

Chris’s own cattle herd was hit by TB several years ago, and he was forced to endure his animals being carted off to be destroyed: ‘You lose money every time… you can’t believe the human cost of this,’ he says.

‘Bad for the countryside’

James Price (not his real name), an organic beef farmer, has also been through a positive TB test on his 100-acre farm in Devon. He saw a number of pedigree cattle shipped off in early 2012, an experience he describes as ‘devastating and stressful, [with] many sleepless nights.’

‘I lost half my herd, eleven in total, with four cows in calf when they were killed,’ he says. ‘But some didn’t have TB.’ This farmer says that a post mortem revealed that some of the animals had been incorrectly diagnosed as TB positive.

‘Twenty per cent of tests, on average, are incorrect… I’ve lost thousands of pounds, and the organic status is not compensated for,’ he says. The government’s compensation package following a positive TB test controversially makes no distinction between conventional or organic cattle, something several farmers complained to The Ecologist about.

‘There could be £30-40,000 lost, and it’s stressful loading your animals for slaughter, [especially] when they’ve not got TB,’ says James. “I’ve had enough – but my father did this for 70 years.’

He believes the impending badger culls will prove fruitless and wants to see a cattle vaccine trialled: ‘It’s not going to work, [around here] there’s thirty to forty per cent more badgers than was estimated… high powered rifles in the dark? Why not vaccinate?’

The farmer, who was a slaughter-man during the foot and mouth crisis, admits that in his area most farmers are in favour of the cull, and that his opposition to the killing has led to tensions: ‘I’ve got a lot of stick at markets,’ he says. ‘But the cull’s not right, for the countryside, for badgers, for cattle.’

‘Badger friendly’ milk

The main anti-cull lobby, made up of animal welfare and wildlife groups including the RSPCA, Care for the Wild and Network For Animals, argue the cull will have little impact on halting TB, could actually spread the disease by dispersing infected animals, and risks an ‘animal welfare disaster’. They want the government to vaccinate badgers – as is currently being trialled in Wales – or to lobby the EU to green light the use of the BCG cattle vaccine.

The opponents accuse the Government and farming lobby of ignoring the evidence from the biggest ever research project into cattle TB, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), commissioned by the previous Labour administration, which concluded that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.

Many believe the decision by the Coalition Government to green light the cull is bound up with the last election, where promises to introduce badger culling were made in an attempt to secure votes from the strategically important farming and countryside community.

Although initially focussed on galvanising public opinion with the ‘cruelty factor’, campaigners have recently evolved their strategy by tapping into consumer concerns – heightening the worry for those that believe the cull could damage the reputation of farming, and farmers.

The RSPCA first stoked the consumer fire last autumn when it called for ‘badger friendly’ labelling to be introduced to milk and dairy products able to demonstrate ingredients were not sourced from farms involved in badger culling. The idea was loosely based on the principles behind ‘dolphin friendly’ tuna, where manufacturers promote fish products not linked to the capture of dolphins in nets.

Pressure group Care for the Wild followed by releasing the results of a survey it claims shows that only three leading supermarkets – Marks & Spencer, Asda and Waitrose – will guarantee to sell milk that doesn’t originate from dairy farms inside the trial cull zones in Gloucestershire and Somerset.

‘Customers should be given choice – a choice to buy cage-free eggs, a choice to buy free range pork, and a choice to buy badger-friendly milk. I think when they are given that choice, many will take it”, Philip Mansbridge, the group’s CEO, says.

The outfit has also turned its attention to organic certification body the Soil Association after it refused to instruct its members not to take part in the badger cull. Campaigners want the association to speak out against the issue, saying most organic consumers wouldn’t support badger killing, but it maintains culling is a decision for individual farmers themselves.

Freedom Food, the assurance scheme run by the RSPCA, last year threatened to drop farmers who take part in the cull – a threat that has been repeated now the trials are imminent.

Despite the growing pressure, major food companies and supermarkets have been careful – so far – not to openly criticise the culling, for fear of antagonising their milk suppliers. Those that have stated they will not sell milk from inside the cull zones have been keen to clarify this is down to the nature of their supply chains, rather than a policy decision to drop milk from farms involved.

And although more than 250,000 people have now signed a petition launched by Brian May, the rock star and animal welfare activist, calling for the cull to be halted, the NFU has hit back by stating the majority of the British public don’t think the cull is ‘a big issue’.

The union cites a recent YouGov survey which revealed that although 34 per cent of people oppose a badger cull, the remaining 66 per cent either support (29 per cent), don’t know (22 per cent) or have little strong feelings either way (15 per cent).

‘Perturbation test’

Nestling on the picturesque South Downs, not far from the East Sussex town of Polegate, Stephen Carr’s sprawling 800-hectare beef, sheep and arable farm lies within a localised TB hotspot. The farmer, who’s been farming in this region for more than thirty years, has seen ‘scores’ of his cattle taken away for slaughter following positive TB tests.

He’s blunt about what this has meant. ‘I had [TB] testing here every sixty days for 1300 cattle for a five year period. [This involved] the cattle gathered from the hills, brought to the yards; it’s debilitating and there’s no reward, only a huge amount of work and effort which cuts into other operations. The cost and disruption [was huge].’

Describing the situation as like ‘being in the headlock of the disease’, Stephen eventually had to take the decision to cut the herd size back from 1300 to 300.

The farmer, who farms both conventionally and organically, agrees that some of his peers are ‘anxious about the image of the industry’, but says his concern about the trial lies with the so-called ‘perturbation effect’, where badgers (which could be carrying TB) are disrupted by a cull, flee onto neighbouring land and in doing so potentially infect more cattle.

Perturbation was flagged during the RBCT which found evidence that during widespread badger culling over areas of 100km2, TB rates in adjoining areas increased.

‘Will free shooting [the main culling method expected to be adopted] achieve culling that avoids perturbation?’ asks Stephen. ‘If it does, then it’s a credible policy, if it doesn’t, and there’s injuries [to badgers], plus the animals are dispersed… then that’s the dodgy thing about this trial’.

‘This cull needs to the pass the perturbation test or it won’t be credible,’ he says.

Those behind the cull have acknowledged the perturbation risk, but say the two initial trials have been designed to run in areas where natural boundaries – major roads, rivers and other ‘natural barriers’ – and other measures will limit its impact.

But a former DEFRA advisor and head of wildlife diseases at the Central Science Laboratory, Dr Chris Cheeseman, dismisses these claims. ‘They say there are so-called “hard boundaries” around the cull areas. The only hard boundary to badger movement is the sea. Roads are no barrier to badger movement – an estimated 50,000 badgers a year are killed on roads. Badgers will readily cross wide rivers and even tidal estuaries.’

Stephen Carr, driving us to see his organic beef herd in the lush Sussex countryside, says that despite his reservations over the looming cull, he is sceptical about those demanding the use of the BCG cattle vaccine. ‘This is not an option anyway since it’s not a British government decision [to allow farmers to use it],’ he says.

He also questions whether campaigners pointing to what’s happening in Wales as an alternative to culling realise that this is only an experiment in its own right, not a proven science. ‘It’s a practical trial in Wales, and not a cure for [already infected] badgers, no one is pretending it will cure badgers.’

In March 2012, the Welsh Assembly Government announced it was abandoning a badger cull in favour of a five-year vaccination project instead. Trials in north Pembrokeshire have seen some 1400 badgers vaccinated to date, but the u-turn has been opposed by farming unions who say the long term effectiveness of the vaccine remains unclear.

They claim the cost will be prohibitive, particularly because, at present, only an injectable vaccine can be administered, requiring animals to be trapped then jabbed – a lengthy process that then needs to be repeated annually. They also reiterate it doesn’t deal with those badgers already infected – believed to be up to 40% of the badger population in some hotspots.

Poor biosecurity

Some farmers argue that more could be done to prevent the spread of TB at the farm level. Steve Jones, a dairy specialist based in the Forest of Dean, says that, instead of killing badgers, the solution to combating the disease is ‘a combination of stringent testing, controlled movements, vaccinations, quarantine and biosecurity.’

‘Biosecurity should be an integral part of any farm management system,’ he says. ‘In this country we have such lax biosecurity. It’s not expensive and it’s the best thing a farmer can do to keep his herd healthy. To clean the cows drinking water, for example. The water can pass infection from cow to cow and from cow to badger. I’ve seen it so many times. It’s just basic biosecurity.’

‘We learned so much about this from foot and mouth. We need to do the same with bovine TB,’ he says. ‘It’s a bacteria and without [these measures] it doesn’t matter how many badgers we cull. Unfortunately farmers are being given the wrong information and are being told that the cull will solve everything. This isn’t true.’

This farmer, who has worked in the industry for 35 years, is critical too of the high number of cattle movements made as stock are repeatedly bought and sold. “We have a bovine merry-go-round in this country. There are 13 million movements of cattle a year, they’re moving them around all the time. This movement also needs to be controlled,’ he says.

The movement of cattle in the rush to restock the national herd following the foot and mouth disaster of 2001 is widely blamed for a spike in TB cases recorded in the aftermath of the epidemic. Most TB testing was abandoned during the crisis, and DEFRA, under pressure to get the sector back on its feet, allowed untested cattle to be moved around freely.

In 2011, a major EU study revealed serious failures in how UK farmers were limiting the spread of TB between herds. The report highlighted weaknesses in cleaning processes on farms, at markets, slaughterhouses and in vehicles, as well as missed targets on the removal of infected cattle from farms, and on follow up testing.

The report was critical of those dealing with the disease. ‘There is a fragmented system of controls, involving a number of responsible bodies. This combined with a lack of co-ordination (particularly with Local Authorities) makes it difficult to ensure that basic practices to prevent infection/spread of disease (such as effective cleaning and disinfection of vehicles and markets) are carried out in a satisfactory way,’ it concluded.

An investigation by the campaigning group Viva! had already earlier highlighted poor biosecurity procedures and practices at a number of Welsh markets. At one location, investigators claimed that no biosecurity measures were in place at all whilst animals were unloaded despite it being classified as a TB ‘Red’ market where TB infected animals can be traded for slaughter under certain conditions.

Campaigners seized on the evidence, along with the EU findings, saying it further undermined the case for a badger cull, although a crackdown on cattle movements and TB testing procedures was announced by the government earlier this year, partly in response to these claims.

‘Cow slums’

In addition to poor biosecurity, Steve Jones argues – controversially – that the TB problem is being exacerbated by the gradual intensification of the dairy industry.

‘The industry is being indelibly drawn, by a lack of sustainable milk prices, towards intensification’, he says. ‘This means that we’re losing small family farms which were the bedrock of the industry, and being pressured by supermarkets to reach high targets at low costs.’

‘The industry is under pressure and impoverished and this makes it hard for individuals to care for such big herds properly. To get by farmers have had to almost double herd sizes from 70 cows in the 1980’s to 140 today. When one man is caring for such huge herds they lose the ability to do it properly and this leads to all kinds of problems and disease including bovine TB.

John Wilson, a hill farmer based in Northumbria, agrees. ‘My observation is that TB is often in regions where you’ve got intensification, cows being intensively raised and more cows on the ground,’ he says. ‘They’re milked harder and harder, becoming more stressed [and] thus more vulnerable to disease.’

But the farmer, who now focuses on sheep but who used to raise cattle over 80 acres, doesn’t believe the blame lies with those running farms: ‘Farmers are under pressure because of the need for cheap milk from supermarkets. Farmers are forced to intensify, it’s market forces, farmers are being squeezed.’

He believes more research into the spread of TB is needed, and looking at ways for the sector to be ‘detensified’.

There have been very few studies examining whether instances of TB can be tracked back to the adoption of intensive farming practices, but those making the links argue it is largely axiomatic.

Robin Maynard, a leading campaigner for sustainable agriculture, says: ‘TB in humans is linked to poor diet, poor housing, people crammed together, which sounds similar to life for many cows… Cows have been turned into skeletons that hold a bag…. you could describe some dairy farms as cow slums.’

Chris Cheeseman adds: ‘Badgers are a distraction from the need for farmers to put their own house in order’.

Not all farmers are convinced that intensification is a major factor however. One tells The Ecologist that the evidence shows that TB shows no respect for the organic status of herds, even with their higher welfare practices. ‘This challenges the claim that intensification of farming is to blame.’

‘You’ve got to look at the practicalities of cross contamination,’ the farmer says. You’ve got a highly intensive unit, with cows [housed in] a concrete building; you’ve got an organic farm where cows are out all year. Which is more likely to suffer an outbreak? Where you’ve got badger latrines [in the fields] there’s cross contamination.’

Ground zero

Back in Gloucestershire, Dave Purser is keen to stress that, despite his opposition to the cull, he ‘empathises with farmers, those affected by TB, those that are seeing their cattle killed and going to [premature] slaughter.’

Nevertheless, he resolutely believes farmers have been hoodwinked into believing that culling will help solve their problems, when in fact it ‘could make them worse.’

Similarly, Steve Jones maintains that ‘not the whole farming community is pro cull. They have been sold the lie that a cull is the answer.’ ‘Unfortunately the cull isn’t going to make the future bright for farmers. It’s a multifaceted problem and needs to be treated as such. I would say the badger cull is the most divisive, political programme to be rolled out on the countryside in recent times,’ he says.

Meanwhile, at Forthampton – the heart of the Gloucestershire trial zone – police are now preparing for an imminent showdown between anti cull activists and marksmen as the killing gets underway. It emerges that further badger setts have been blocked.

The Ecologist is tipped off by one farming source that setts near the village of Hartpury to the south, and north, just over the M5 motorway in the hamlet of Longdon, have also been interfered with.

We locate the sites involved; at one, certainly, the vegetation has again been trampled down, with a clear path made through the woodland in just the last few days. Another appears abandoned, with no fresh signs of badger activity, although our source tells us the badgers here are believed to have been persecuted in the past. It’s impossible to tell.

Either way, this is the cull’s ground zero. Any badgers here won’t stand a chance.

* Some farmers names have been changed at their request

A version of this article appeared in The Independent newspaper

A longer version appeared in The Ecologist magazine