Bovine TB - The story continues….
I wrote in the Spring of 2001 of our problems with bovine TB which had arrived within the very 'holistic' situation that Defra advise farmers to adopt to prevent it.
We have a closed herd of home bred cattle and the farm is ring fenced by roads and woods with no 'foreign' cattle contact. We followed Defra advice, and hung cattle minerals on the gates at 85cm. instead of feeding on the ground. What a waste of time (and taxpayer's money). Defra already have research results from Dr. Roper of Sussex University which showed photographs of badgers eating from cattle troughs at 115cm - that's nearly 4 feet in old money and too high for most cattle to use. And it was the small, skinny sick ones who made it to this highest level. With our metal gates, we might as well have given them a ladder. On anything wooden, Dr. Roper's team filmed them climbing to 5m - 16 feet.
Badgers cannot distinguish between home bred cattle like ours and bought in, nor do they choose to ignore organic or rare breed herds in favour of so-called 'factory farmed' cattle. And despite 12 consecutive 60 day tests, our problems didn't disappear in the winter. This was the opposite of the classic situation described to me both by affected farmers, and by members of the Badger Panel. This group which used to meet 4 times a year, to authorise badger removal after cattle TB breakdowns. In their experience, many herds would test clear when housed over the winter, only to experience re-infection at spring turn out, and over half the breakdowns were in herds with no bought in cattle.
Farmers are entitled to feel seriously let down when they realise that not only is Defra's bio-security advice totally flawed, Defra has the research which tells them it is.
We had no back up advice from Defra on any probable source of our TB problems. Just the depressing regularity of 60 day tests and more dead cattle. We were getting a relentless drip feed of exposure to m. Bovis which has culminated this spring, with the loss of half a group of in calf heifers some of whom had never been out to grass. When two of these proved to have early lesions, Defra shot 7 more under the more 'severe interpretation ' of the skin test. They were quite happy with this result commenting "This proves it was TB all along, even if you'd never had it confirmed by lesions or culture before". The "huge undiscovered reservoir" of cattle TB which is fuelling John Bourne's reported cattle to cattle spread of bovine TB, is just 72 confirmed slaughterhouse cases so far this year, which had slipped the testing net, but Prof. Bourne still blames farmers, and cattle to cattle spread for the problems. Well these youngsters could see their mothers, and their grand mothers, but the nearest 'foreign' cattle they could see were a mile away. But late in 2002, Dr Roper's team produced film showing badgers visiting cattle sheds at night to share feed areas. And despite having sheeted gates, and using chemical deterrents this had happened to us with devastating results.
All around us our neighbours had TB problems, some for the first time in forty years. For us, it was just a matter of time, as the farm became a spaghetti junction of 'badger motorways'. Every field had at least one run, some several and of 200 acres only 5 fields had no latrines to mark boundaries. We used to have 2 badger setts and several partridge and pheasant, lapwing and skylark. Now we have 9 setts and no ground nesting birds at all. This area is in the Re-active zone of a Krebbs trial, which was described by Prof. Bourne to participating farmers as " Having a follow up cull of all badgers after confirmed outbreaks of bovine TB". What was not explained was that by trapping, only 80% of their target group would be caught, with a realistic 60 % more likely. So for every 6 badgers caught Defra would leave us 4. The word 'all' was at best misleading, and at worst a lie. Also the activists had a TB takeaway in the form of a trussed up badger in a holdall to 'rescue' and relocate to another area. They didn't have to catch it and it couldn't bite. Devastatingly easy.
But what we were not told was that the promised badger removals in these Re-active zones would be irregular, if at all. In this area, farmers waited 3 years and lost hundreds of cattle. They deserve better.
In 1988 the UK was almost clear of bovine TB. Just 100 farms under restriction, and 782 cattle slaughtered. Then came the progressive sanitation of every bit of research the Ministry had funded. Gassing was replaced by trapping, which was not only inefficient, but left the infected sett as a timebomb, ready to re infect incoming badgers. The area Ministry teams were allowed to trap was reduced from 7km to 1km and then only 'on land cattle had grazed'. So if the infected sett was not on the farm's grassland, no removal operation could be authorised. Compare the indecent haste with which contiguous herds were slaughtered during FMD, and infected premise's addresses flagged up on Defra's website and in the press, with the complete concealment behind the Data Protection Act afforded to farms affected by TB. There is no urgency whatsoever to ring fence an area and test neighbours quickly to establish if the cause is a wildlife reservoir, or a bought in cow, and no information allowed on contiguous problems. Suggestions to flag up the date of the next due TT test on cattle movement papers, and so block any possible exposure of either cattle or wildlife to a bovine animal incubating TB have been ignored. And of course, with the exception of Krebbs areas, and since that £1 million donation to this government in 1997, no badger culling to remove arguably the most successful host of bovine TB.
The result is an exponential rise in cattle TB with over 24,000 slaughtered last year. Some counties now have nearly half their cattle under restriction, and there are approaching 30 major 'hotspots' of infection, right up to the Scottish borders, and 4410 herds under restriction out of 97615. Over 4.5%
In 1997, Professor Stephen Harris of Bristol University was urging the clearance of the final 7 'hotspots'. He also predicted the resultant chaos of Krebbs after the abandonment of all previous control measures and the huge and unnecessary rise in cattle TB if this happened. As farms under restriction approach 4500, and the mountain of dead cattle rises to an estimated 30,000 this year, Prof. Harris says it gives him no pleasure to say "I told you so".
But while affected farmers grapple with overstocking, milk quota allocations awarded (or not) restrospective of the year in which they are needed and the inability to trade anything except slaughter stock at realistic prices, the heavy hand of the Treasury is threatening to fall on the cost to the taxpayer of this carnage. How that will contain the problem is not made clear, as insurance companies having seen a haemorrhage of their farm business through TB payouts, are in many instances withdrawing cover. In our case we lost 15 cows over 2 years, but the failure of the Krebbs team to honour their contract, has added another 17 in just 3 months this spring, as the infection load in these lethal, uninvited vermin spilled over into our cattle sheds. Experienced vet, John Gallagher told me that just one infected badger could bring down half a herd all on its own. Having followed Defra's advice on bio security, I did not expect them to be ours.
I do not call Defra's payouts 'compensation'. And it is no exchange for seeing good young cows loaded up to be shot, completely unnecessarily. It should be described as the compulsory purchase of an animal that would not normally be for sale, will probably be heavily in calf, and whose TB test reaction has closed down our business' ability to trade normally. Over the last 3 years we have shot over 120 bull calves which we couldn't sell. Most of the reactor cattle have been in calf - some very heavily so two lives were lost. We've seen 3 abortions during testing, and after stressed out cattle were kept penned tight for several hours, extended our annual caving index by an average 20 days, as early embryos were quietly shipped out. The hours of farm labour used up on 60 day testing add up to 180 over a year. All of it non-productive and unpaid. These are all hidden costs conveniently ignored.
Defra's TB compensation budget should be described as 'hush money'.
When the Krebbs men eventually arrived in May this year, nearly 3 years after their last visit, they caught 72 badgers down this valley. The last 2 individuals accounted for were horrors. One a sow the size of a tank had a massive abcessed bite wound on her back, and the second was a "mangy bag of bones" which the men said in their experience were probably the likely cause of most of the area's problems. Was it worth it? The extended and infectious lives of these 2 have probably led to the deaths of many hundreds of cattle on our farm and those of our neighbours, at vast cost to the taxpayer.
Farmers have been treated with utter contempt by this administration who know full well that they are wasting taxpayers' money by allowing a wildlife reservoir of TB to envelope the countryside.
In many ways it's worse than FMD. It is relentless, demoralising and expensive. Each test is Russian Roulette for cattle. But more serious likely results of allowing this pathogen to flourish in the wild, plastering the countryside while at the same time encouraging the Right to Roam will inevitably be an increase in human TB in the longer term, while short term, the UK's 'TB free' trading status is vulnerable. The seriousness of the situation will only be brought home to Defra when the employment of a TB liaison team in the primary areas of rural tourism, and the number of farms under restriction selling 'farm assured' products is flagged up on the front page of the tabloid press. And then it will be too late.