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17 June 2005

A Cornish couple who have been battling an outbreak of bovine TB among cattle on their farm face losing their livelihood as the Government refuses to test badgers in their area.

Jeffrey and Margaret Miles, of Trewollack Farm, near St Mawes, have lost nearly half of their dairy herd since the disease was detected in October last year.

This has resulted in a loss of more than 30,000 in milk sales, which they say is making their herd unviable.

Another five cows, some with calf, have been culled since their last test on May 9.

They have managed their closed herd on the remote Roseland Peninsula for 40 years, but now bovine TB has taken a hold - and a rising local badger population appears to be the only source. Despite repeated requests from the couple, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is refusing to test badgers on the farm, leaving the source of the disease unconfirmed.

Mrs Miles, 64, yesterday sent her second letter to Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw questioning the way in which the Government is handling the outbreak, which she warns is "spiralling out of control".

She said that the numbers of badgers on the farm had increased considerably, and since last summer they had found several dead or dying badgers.

"If the badgers were tested for TB this would at least give us an indication of where the disease could have come from," she said. "It is Defra policy not to test badgers dead or alive from any farm, only road kill. We found dead and injured badgers on our farm during the 12 months before our test failure, and could not get them tested.

"Even if badgers are tested as road kill we are not allowed to know the results. Slaughtering our cattle would seem pointless without efforts to eradicate reservoirs of infection in the wildlife."

According to Defra, no reliable test for live badgers is yet available.

Mrs Miles said the reliability of the test used for cattle itself should be questioned when assessing the reliability of existing tests for badgers, as results often showed fake positives and negatives in cattle.

"Defra are content to have that level of unreliability for cows, but not for badgers - that is unfair," she said. "If they are waiting for a test that is 100 per cent accurate they will never get there.

"We could say the cattle test is unreliable, but we have to use it."

In the meantime, Mr and Mrs Miles also have a movement restriction in place on their farm, meaning that they cannot sell anything until the herd has passed two clear tests.

When the area was clear of TB there was annual testing of cattle. But now, despite cases of the disease spreading, testing is only carried out every two years.

"Two years gives plenty of time to incubate," Mrs Miles said. "It would be much better to catch it at an early stage and prevent the devastation we are experiencing."

Once cattle have been diagnosed with TB, they say they have to wait a month before Defra takes them away to be slaughtered. With the numbers involved, they find it difficult to isolate them satisfactorily.

The remaining herd are now tested every 60 days, a task which itself takes two days. Mrs Miles said they expected to lose even more animals the next time around.

"We are frustrated, we cannot plan for the future," she said. "It looks almost inevitable we will have to give up milking, even though it is all we have done for 40 years. We would like to continue with a beef herd, but it does not look as if it would be viable. Financially we are going to lose out."

The family, including their two sons who help on the farm, have all tested negative for TB, but have stopped drinking fresh milk from the farm as a precaution.

They are now concerned that the disease will spread to other animals. We are not anti-wildlife," Mrs Miles said. "We have always enjoyed the wildlife on the farm. We want a healthy wildlife and countryside, and this cannot be any good for the badgers."

Defra says Government scientists are working on a live test for badgers, and testing dead badgers in counties worst affected by the disease, including Cornwall.

A spokesman said: "Those advocating badger culling need to acknowledge that, if carried out now, it would inevitably mean killing healthy as well as infected badgers.

"The Government has not ruled out badger culling. We are conducting culling trials in Cornwall and elsewhere, and examining the results of recent trials in Ireland.

"The key questions are whether a badger-culling policy could be cost effective, sustainable and viable as part of our overall efforts to control TB."