Pioneering TBFree Chair steps aside after 15 years
The Canterbury TBfree committee is embarking on a new era after Malcolm Gilbert decided to step aside as Chair after 15 years.
North Canterbury based Mr Gilbert, who farms deer and goats, bowed out with no regrets and the satisfaction of knowing his local committee was at the forefront of building more awareness around wildlife vector and their potential to spread bovine tuberculosis (TB) rapidly.
“It’s been a big part of my life, I got involved back in 1992 when it was the Canterbury Regional Animal Committee. After the final meeting as Chair, it suddenly dawned on me this was the end of an era in my life,” he says.
Mr Gilbert remembers the initial TB control effort was ad hoc and dependent on the efforts and determination of affected local farmers.
“Back in the day, there was no national strategy, so we started up voluntary farmer vector control groups which encouraged herd owners to manage and control their own properties. At its peak, there must have been around 40 farmer voluntary groups involved.”
Malcolm oversaw 21 of these groups, a forerunner to the Locally Initiated Programmes (LIPs).
“It was only circumstantial evidence we had at the time, but the then Animal Health Board (AHB) backed us and provided resources and funding for toxins and traps.”
He and the committee were instrumental in convincing the AHB to research the impact the large ferret population was having on the TB cycle in arid North Canterbury.
The turning point came when the AHB implemented a regional strategy in 2000, effectively blanking out areas from the coast to the hinterlands. Thereafter, livestock infections markedly decreased as more farmers got involved in vector control promoting the importance of TB management in their communities.
“We rolled out many initiatives as a committee and targeted the hunting community, as we discovered pig waste was another route for ferrets to get infected and this was a threat to the blocks of land we had got under control.
“We supported pig hunts and went on a crusade to educate and inform hunters of wildlife vector control and how they could play their part,” says Malcolm.
Nowadays, TB infected herds are rapidly declining throughout New Zealand with fewer than 30 herds affected, down from a historical high of around 1700 in the 1990s. In North Canterbury, there is currently only one herd.
“There used to be 167 in our region, so we’ve made significant progress. Still, we have a way to go nationally. It’s important not to forget the ‘hard times’ so that the younger generations stay on track to reach those milestones and objectives.
“That’s the challenge, as farmers tend to focus on the here and now.”
Mr Gilbert believes the current Mycoplasma bovis response could benefit from following the model the TBfree committees have adopted. He says farmers need to be involved in decision-making and be engaged often with straightforward messaging.
“TBfree management has been a success because farmers got involved early. If you don’t engage farmers directly, they’ll get disenfranchised and not respond. The Committee set up ensures farmers’ voices are heard and it can act as the middle man for transferring information between the farmgate and government.”
A keen salmon fisher and hunter, Mr Gilbert intends to continue deer velveting for a few years. He has no aspirations to get involved in further farmer politics but does not rule it out.
“I do have a habit of questioning things, it’s just me, you just never know.”