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11:00 - 13 January 2006 Farmers pledge to snub Government

EXCLUSIVE Peter Hall Farming Editor

FARMERS are threatening a rebellion over Government plans to tackle cattle TB which could see a mass cull of badgers on their land.

More than 60,000 cattle a year are now having to be destroyed after catching the disease, with the Westcountry a particular hotspot.

Badgers are widely blamed for spreading it through herds, and, after many years of lobbying by farmers, the Government has conceded it may be necessary to cull diseased badgers in a bid to halt the spread of TB.

But it has indicated farmers would have to carry out the killing themselves, and many are worried this could leave them the targets of animal rights protesters.

Now, at a private meeting of 60 of the most influential names in the Westcountry beef and dairy industry, farmers have said they will refuse to co-operate, unless the cull is carried by officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with their help, and they adopt the humane cull method of gassing.

Brian Hill, a Mid-Devon farmer who has made a study of badgers' involvement in the spread of bovine TB over many years, told the meeting: "Shooting and snaring were public relations disasters waiting to happen, particularly in holiday areas.

"Organised the right way, a cull could clear TB in two years, and you would still be able to enjoy having fit and healthy badgers on your land at a sensible level of population," he said. Trapping would only catch healthy animals - the territory markers, he warned.

"It is a lot better if the sick badgers simply go to sleep underground from the fumes of a tractor exhaust," he added.

And veteran farmer Ian Pettyfer, from Crediton, said using carbon monoxide exhaust fumes was the correct and by far the most humane way to kill badgers. "If we do it properly we shall carry the public with us on this," he said.

One problem is that Defra is currently looking to make 60 Westcountry wildlife officers redundant, as part of budget cutbacks.

Farmers at Wednesday's key meeting at Bovey Tracey, South Devon, were reluctant to go on the record over their fears that they could become the targets of animal rights extremists over any cull.

But last night, one of the wildlife officers due to be made redundant said farmers involved in trials looking at whether a link between badgers and bovine TB could be confirmed, had been subjected to having their fences cut, gates removed and paint daubed on their buildings. There had even been threats to torch their barns. He said: "We feel very sorry for the farmers - particularly as we are in a position to do the necessary culling ourselves."

At the Bovey Tracey meeting, farmers insisted that as well as Defra officers carrying out any cull, they should adopt gassing, using tractor exhausts, as the means of destruction. At present, the Government has indicated it would want farmers to kill the badgers themselves using traps and shooting.

The meeting of the Livestock Forum was called by the Devon branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) as part of a consultation process requested by Defra over what to do about bovine TB. The meeting unanimously rejected two proposals made by Defra: to introduce a new compensation scheme for cattle slaughtered due to TB infection, which would reject local valuation of animals in favour of assessing them using a list of 47 categories drawn up by the Government; and to introduce pre-movement testing of cattle - to be paid for by farmers and scheduled to begin on February 20 - which would not allow cattle to leave farms if they test positive for TB.

The NFU is currently challenging both the pre-movement testing and the compensation tables legally - but at the meeting the farmers resolved that neither would happen if they did not get the badger cull by gassing.

The meeting sent a clear message to the Government that the mood was militant - and that it was the Government's fault that bovine TB had got out of hand to ravage cattle herds throughout the region. Devon county NFU chairman Paul Griffith said: "Defra doesn't seem to understand what happens in the real world of agriculture."

A Defra spokesman said yesterday: "It has been made clear in the consultation that pre-movement testing and a badger cull could be used to control and defeat bovine TB. We want to work with the farmers, not against them and we hope that will be what happens. We think we shall get their full cooperation."