Westcountry farmers could see compensation slashed for having cattle slaughtered because herds are infected by tuberculosis, the Government has warned as it unveiled a strategy to rid England of the disease within 25 years.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson revealed the plan would include the controversial culling of badgers – which is poised to begin in the region – as well as measures to control the movement of infected animals and develop vaccines for both cattle and badgers.
For the first time, England will be divided up into three distinct disease control areas, with the South West and West Midlands – plus an area in East Sussex – to be labelled a "high risk area", meaning more intense measures will be required to tackle the highest levels of bovine TB (bTB).
Against the epidemic costing the taxpayer £500 million in the last ten years, the strategy suggests "adjusting compensation" to "reward risk-reduction and to penalise risky practices".
It goes on to point out compensation rates in England are "relatively high" – questioning whether 100% compensation is a "disincentive" – and that rates are 65% and 75% under "successful" programmes in New Zealand and Spain.
But former farmer Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, warned the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are "behind the times" as compensation was already being squeezed.
He said: "The disease has spread because the Labour Government did not get on top of it in wildlife. Farmers are not guilty for the sin of TB."
Another former farmer, George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, said: "Farmers affected by TB find the experience devastating and already go to great lengths to mitigate the risks to their herds. It is particularly sad when prize winning pedigree cattle are lost, often at considerable loss to the individual farmer."
But he said if Defra top- sliced compensation they paid, and then used the money to fund other measures such as a badger cull or a vaccination programme, farmers might ultimately be better off.
Farmers will be urged to take more responsibility for disease controls while also being landed with a greater share of the costs.
The strategy also proposes giving farmers more "risk" information about the TB history of cattle before they are sold at market, including on movement and testing history.
Mr Paterson, who wants England to achieve Officially TB-Free status within 25 years, said: "Today we start a countdown towards an England free from this terrible disease."
Of the 28,000 cattle slaughtered in England last year, 20,000 were in the South West. In Devon, which has the highest number of cattle victims in the country, 6,535 animals were slaughtered. The figure was 2,014 in Cornwall.