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The health of livestock and honeybees in England

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has successfully tackled recent outbreaks of Avian Influenza and Foot and Mouth Disease in livestock, concludes a National Audit Office report today.  But in regions where diseases or parasites have become well established within the country, such as Bovine Tuberculosis affecting cattle or the Varroa mite affecting honeybees, the Department has been less successful in managing them.

The Department and its Animal Health agency successfully contained outbreaks of Avian Influenza and Foot and Mouth Disease in 2007, which were both restricted to a limited number of farms. The estimated £33 million expenditure by Animal Health in 2007-08 on dealing with these exotic disease outbreaks has represented good value for money when compared to the economic costs of these diseases becoming more widespread.

The control of some of the more serious endemic diseases has been managed less successfully. Good progress has been made with the control of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), Scrapie and Salmonella.  Bovine Tuberculosis is a longstanding problem in the South West of England, and the disease has continued to spread.  In 2007-08, tackling Bovine Tuberculosis accounted for 39 per cent of Animal Health’s total expenditure.  Herd restrictions are applied immediately when disease is identified, but compliance with the requirements for routine testing to detect disease is not rigorously enforced.

There are no national standards on farm biosecurity to minimise the risk of diseases spreading. The Department, Animal Health and other inspection bodies, such as local authorities, do not systematically collect and share information about biosecurity risks.  More effective planning and collaborative working would enable better control of endemic disease.

Beekeepers have reported unusually high losses of honeybees in recent years and, now that the Varroa parasite is endemic, honeybee colonies are more vulnerable to other diseases. Controlling Varroa and monitoring of other diseases is hampered by the limited inspections of colonies carried out by the Department’s National Bee Unit. An estimated 20,000 beekeepers are not known to the Unit’s inspectors and are less likely to notify the Department of any diseases.

“Defra eradicated outbreaks of Avian Influenza and Foot and Mouth Disease in 2007 before they could spread further. But Bovine Tuberculosis and the Varroa parasite continue to pose significant risks to the livelihoods of farmers and beekeepers. The Department could tackle disease more effectively by working with farmers and their vets to improve farm biosecurity, and by enforcing compulsory testing as well as encouraging beekeepers to register.”

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors

  1. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ lead delivery body is Animal Health. Local authorities share the responsibility for enforcing animal health and welfare legislation with the Department.  The Department spent £381 million on animal health and welfare in 2007-08, of which £107 million went to Animal Health.

  2. Endemic parasites and diseases are those always present amongst domestic animals or wildlife.  Exotic diseases are not always present.

  3. There are currently 34 notifiable exotic diseases which may threaten kept animals.  In 2007 there were two separate outbreaks of Avian Influenza which affected poultry, an outbreak of Foot and Mouth which affected cattle, sheep, goats and pigs and an incursion of Bluetongue which infected cattle and sheep.

  4. The National Bee Unit, which is part of the Central Science Laboratory, oversees the health of honeybees in England and Wales.  It received £1.3 million funding in 2007-08 from the Department.

  5. Varroa is a parasitic mite which affects honeybees.  The mites feed on both adult bees and brood, weakening them and helping to spread viruses.  Infested colonies usually die unless they are treated.  Since its discovery in England in 1992, Varroa has become endemic in the UK.

  6. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.

  7. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Tim Burr, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 850 staff.  He and the NAO are totally independent of Government.  He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.


PN: 14/09