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Trying to take the politics out of an emotion-charged rural crisis

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 12, 2014

HazelGould

Hazel Gould with the TB-affected stock

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It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for anyone even remotely connected to the vexed issue of cattle, badgers and bovine TB. Philip Bowern asks where we go from here.

Meurig Raymond knows his livestock. And as he stood in Westcountry dairy farmer Paul Gould’s yard this week, his admiration for the quality of the heifers nonchalantly chewing at the hay was clear.

The NFU president, who has his own dairy herd on the family farm back home in Pembrokshire, has the Welsh gift with words. But he was temporarily reduced to the brief but moving description that all of us gathered there could see for ourselves. “Beautiful, well-bred, well-cared for livestock.” It just about summed it up.

But the 31 British Friesian heifers, all due to give birth to their first calves in August, had the tell-tale lumps on their necks. All had tested positive for bovine TB. All will be going for slaughter on Tuesday. All, the Gould family and their vet believe, contracted the disease from infected badgers on the farm.

But if Mr Raymond kept his heartfelt praise for the quality of Mr Gould’s heifers brief and to the point, he had plenty to say about this coalition Government’s attitude towards tackling bovine TB, on the farm and in the wild.

And it was possible to detect, in some of the barely concealed bitterness about Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s failure to announce last week a roll-out of the cull to Dorset, a change in the NFU’s mood.

A month ago the stage looked set for an announcement that the badger cull would indeed be extended.

But delays in the publication of the experts’ report into the two pilot culls and suspicions that some in the coalition were getting twitchy about killing badgers, started nerves jangling among livestock farmers, desperate to get the disease under control.

Then on April 3 two things happened. The Independent Experts Panel report into the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilots was published and the Secretary of State made a statement to the House confirming the culls would continue only in those two counties. Not, at least, an abandonment of the cull policy, but far from what most farmers were hoping to hear.

Mr Raymond is pretty sure he knows where the blame lies. The Lib Dems, junior partners in the coalition have been claiming credit for what they called a “victory” in delaying the roll-out. Nick Clegg, apparently anxious to mark his party out as different from the Conservatives as we enter the last year before a general election, refused to sign off on a cull extension. The result is stalemate.

So is Mr Raymond confident the policy the NFU has successfully worked with Government to achieve, a cull of badgers in TB hotspot areas, will be carried through despite the setback? In the Goulds’ farmyard at West Stour, where the latest TB victims await their fate, he admitted to concerns.

“In politics you can never be totally confident,” he said. “No roll out of the cull is desperate news for farming families in areas where TB is endemic but keeping the plan alive is so important. I just wish the politics had not got involved.

“An election is getting closer and the Lib Dems have put out statements to the effect that they prevented the roll-out of the cull. It must be extremely worrying for their rural MPs, people who have been supportive of the policy, like David Heath [Somerton and Frome MP and former Farming Minister].” Then, looking around the Gould’s farm, with its closed herd, but badger setts in almost every field, Mr Raymond shook his head. “This disease has come from one place – and one place only.”

So what happens next? The two pilot culls will re-start, probably in the autumn, and those involved are convinced we will begin to see TB rates in both areas decline. Looking further ahead, the challenge is to develop vaccines that can be effective and in Mr Paterson’s words, develop “a targeted approach” to culling badgers. Killing healthy as well as diseased wildlife is the aspect of the cull programme that makes it hardest to sell to the public. Testing badger faeces to determine whether a sett is infected is not thought to be good enough – yet. But work is ongoing. Might all sides be able to back a policy that targeted only sick and suffering badgers? Surveying the sad scene at the Gould’s farm last week everyone who cares about livestock and wildlife must hope so.

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9 comments

  • beaelliott  |  April 14 2014, 4:46AM

    Imagine how much grief would be spared if ranchers just stopped breeding/killing dairy cows and other "livestock" cattle?

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  • barney2  |  April 13 2014, 8:46PM

    mmjames You are assuming that Welsh farmers are the same type of person that you are. I expect that some are but not enough to explain the success they are having.

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  • Clued-Up  |  April 13 2014, 7:57PM

    @WillWalker If I owned a business threatened with non-survival (as the Goulds do), I'd be trying all the relatively cheap, totally safe ways of curing the problems facing it. I'd know each technique I tried would reduce at least some of the risk to my business even if it didn't wholly cure the bTB problem (eg getting in the vet consultant might result in improvements to the herd milk yield even if he / she couldn't suggest anything helpful about the bTB) . All sensible business owners would take this approach.

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  • mmjames  |  April 13 2014, 6:51PM

    The naivety of those of you who keep promoting the way Wales is dealing successfully with zTuberculosis is akin to your understanding of the disease itself.

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  • barney2  |  April 13 2014, 6:26PM

    In 1998-1999 in the Republic Of Ireland after about 15 years of badger culling achieved nothing they had 2 very bad years so they rolled out a new testing regime nationwide that enabled them, to detect and remove infected faster, numbers of infected cattle then started to reduce......... In Wales a similar testing regime was used so they were also able to detect and remove infected cattle faster but without killing badgers. Using this testing method Wales has seen a drop of 48% in Btb numbers in the last 4 or 5 years...... During this time cattle were removed not badgers, a fair indication that the disease was/is being passed from cow to cow not badger to cow....... We do not know how many badgers are infected, had the badgers killed in the culls been tested for the disease we would have a much better idea but Paterson would not allow this or allow any outside organisation to test the badgers at no cost to the government, why ?. If the numbers of infected badgers been high it would have added fuel to his argument but of course if the number had been low or zero it would of had the opposite effect. Perhaps he was concerned about the possible outcome, I can think of no other reason..... Getting on for 5000 badgers have either been killed or vaccinated but nobody has actually produced an infected badger. Those vaccinating badgers are told that obviously sick badgers have to be killed but so far have not had to kill any in fact they are reporting that our badgers are vary healthy. All our scientific experts that are not employed by the Government are against the cull and tell us that killing badgers will make little difference and the possible small gain is not worth the money it would cost, they have also said that it could make the situation worst, so who should we listen to, our scientific experts or Paterson and the NFU ?....... As for badger numbers, despite pro cullers trying to convince us that we are overrun with them we have no idea how many there are, increased numbers of sets do not necessarily mean increased numbers of badgers. The killers could not find enough to kill during the culls even after Paterson reduced the original target numbers by about 50% and increased the duration of the culls by several weeks, but I guess pro cullers will put that down to interference from protesters..... We are told that Btb can survive in the soil for up to 2 years so I find it hard to believe that even on farms known to be suffering with Btb there are still allowed to spread animals waste on there fields.

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  • WillWalker  |  April 13 2014, 3:37PM

    The comment by "Clued-Up" warrant a simple answer! Full investigations into bTB can only take place by examination of ALL possible vectors on the farm. This must include badgers and other wild-life. You say that "There's NO objective evidence that local badgers have anything to do with the Gould cattle bTB problem." Of course not! How can there be when it is illegal to trap and test badgers.

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  • Clued-Up  |  April 13 2014, 2:59PM

    It would be so much more helpful to cattle farmers and the rest of us if the Gould farm bTB tragedy could be covered more intelligently. It's NFU propaganda that badgers must be to blame but the UK's scientists don't agree (they say cattle controls alone are sufficient to end the bTB problem). There's NO objective evidence that local badgers have anything to do with the Gould cattle bTB problem. WHEN will journalists start questioning the Goulds about what investigations they've ordered to find out the causes of their 7 year long struggle with cattle bTB on that farm? The current bTB test misdiagnoses 20% (or more) cattle - have the Goulds used the more sensitive, more accurate bTB blood test to find out whether there are any infected cows left unidentified to pass on their disease to their herd-mates? Have they brought in a vet consultant specialising in cattle bTB removal from farms suffering repeated breakdowns? Have they brought in a bio-security expert to help them remove any disease risks on their farm? The cost of a single bTB breakdown dwarfs the cost of buying in such expert help to prevent it.

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  • elmag  |  April 13 2014, 12:38PM

    Sorry - not sure what happened to the third sentence of the previous post. I meant that the BVA has said that the public ought to be told the real facts about the state of present vaccines - ie that they leave a lot to be desired both as far as administering them and their efficacy. If a badger with latent disease is captured and vaccinated the stress involved can cause active disease to develop. Stress is an important factor with bTB. Cattle to cattle spread is much more rare than the public have been told. The bacteria can be spread only when a bovine host has developed fully blown disease either from lesions in the lungs or from milk from infected udders. (Apologies for the rather garbled beginning to the post below.)

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  • elmag  |  April 13 2014, 12:27PM

    Excellent and sad article. Those poor heiffers - and how utterly miserable for the farmer and his family. The BVA s - either from lesions in the lungs or from milk iay that it is important that the public be educated about vaccination - but they also perhaps need to be told by someone with scientific prestige that cattle to cattle spread is not as likely as they think. Only cows with full blown disease are able to spread the bacterium either from cioughing from infected lungs or giving milk to calves from infected udders. But the vast majority of cows who are killed because of "lumps" from the skin test have been healthy enough to resist the disease. Their antibodies are what causes a positive skin test. So it's rare for a cow to get to the stage of being infectious. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the poor old badgers. They are very infectious when they get bTB and they wee indiscriminately in the fields where they forage. This means silage can spread the disease as well as the grass itself. Many of us are tired of the fury of those who want to stop any control of badgers or who think that present vaccines will do the trick. They are just not yet good enough - although we all hope they will be one day.

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