Network epidemiology of cattle and cattle farms in Great Britain

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Biosciences


Bovine tuberculosis is probably the greatest challenge in animal health policy and practice in the U.K. and has a large and generally increasing economic and social impact. The disease costs British taxpayers GBP100M p.a. and resulted in the slaughter of 37,000 cattle in GB in 2012. Control is a high priority for Ministers in Defra, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive, though each of these administrations is adopting its distinct policy for disease control in cattle and wildlife. Because of the involvement of badgers, policy in this area has become fraught with difficulty and conflict among stakeholder groups. It looks likely that the disease problem will continue to worsen, while conflict around its management intensifies.

The control of endemic and zoonotic infections of livestock, such as bovine TB, is central to the BBSRC theme of Animal Health, which aligns with strategic priorities in Agriculture and food security and Bioscience for health. Bovine TB undermines the sustainability of the UK livestock industry and affects international trade. This research will help inform the development of intervention strategies for combating this disease.

A recent modeling study has identified the important role of a small minority (approx 10%) of farms in the generation of the large majority (approx 90%) secondary cases of bovine TB (Brooks-Pollock et al Nature 2014 doi:10.1038/nature13529). These farms contribute both in terms of movement of infected animals that have avoided detection during testing, and by being disproportionately important in terms of local spread via the environment. Thus these farms merit attention in terms of a) the trading, husbandry and testing patterns they adopt for cattle and b) the local environmental risks they are exposed to and how these are propagated.

The goal of this project is to assist in controlling bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in Great Britain by analyzing the epidemiological role of super spreader farms in and by asking whether and how disease control measures could be modified and/or targeted on these farms and whether this will help control the national bTB epidemic. This is largely an analytical project that will have access to a valuable range of national datasets on cattle and wildlife. This means the project is low risk but high gain.

The student will be undertaking epidemiological and statistical analysis of putative super-spreader farms and will develop novel risk assessment approaches using innovative modeling techniques, that can deal with large data sets and work with uncertainty. They will be supported by a well-established collaborative team at the University of Exeter and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. The team comprises expertise in TB biology, disease ecology and management, national cattle databases and epidemiology. They will receive training in a range of analytical techniques while being based at the University, with supervisors in biology and mathematics/statistics, and at the AHVLA, with supervisors in TB biology and surveillance. By being closely associated with a government agency, they will also be able to join in practical aspects of disease testing and surveillance, ensuring that their training is grounded in practical experience and join in on policy activities by undertaking mini placements with TB policy teams.

Overall, this studentship project is very timely and, because of its use of large-scale datasets, it is challenging but reliable. It provides a broad and deep training opportunity within a well established partnership in a strategic priority area for BBSRC.


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Fielding HR (2019) Contact chains of cattle farms in Great Britain. in Royal Society open science

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M015874/1 30/09/2015 29/09/2019
1622526 Studentship BB/M015874/1 30/09/2015 30/10/2019 Helen Fielding
Description The work funded through this award has outlined how farms might be able to 'superspread' bovine tuberculosis in Great Britain. It has shown that the cattle farms in Great Britain are well-connected by a vast network of cattle trading. It showed that this network, not just direct connections, can influence the risk of bovine tuberculosis on each farm in GB. The work showed that cattle contacts within farms can be detected via novel use of RFID technology, and that contacts vary in daily patterns. It has shown that those patterns are related to the location of the herd, indoors or outdoors.
Exploitation Route This work has evaluated the role of cattle movements in bovine tuberculosis infection, providing new findings. This is an area with direct application to the current epidemic in GB and therefore could form the bases for future policies and further research.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink


Democracy and Justice

Description Farmers and practitioners have been made aware of the potential risks associated with buying cattle from herds connected to the greater GB network. This might allow more evidence based decision making in this area.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Societal