The theme of this month’s Westcountry Farmer magazine is education and training in agriculture. With a burgeoning global population, growing concern about UK food security and the science of producing our food and drink moving on in leaps and bounds, there has never been a better time to work in farming or a sector allied to it.
We all need to eat. And as the population grows and developing countries become richer and their citizens develop a taste for a wider range of foods, particularly meat and dairy produce, UK farming has a bright future. In all sectors, from commodity farming to niche production of specialist food and drink, opportunities abound. There are even innovative ideas being developed that will get around the obvious problem for young entrants to farming of sky high land prices.
But for a well-qualified youngster to commit to a career in farming, he or she has to know that they can make a living. And while livestock farming offers excellent opportunities here in the South West, which has a long tradition of producing some of the best meat and milk in the world, thanks to the climate and the landscape, one big black cloud continues to hang over the sector.
Bovine TB is a fact of life for farmers in the Westcountry – or, more accurately perhaps – a fact of death. Across the whole country 14,413 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered due to bovine TB between January and May this year. That may be around 1,200 fewer than were slaughtered over the same six month period in 2013 but it is still an awful lot of animals, each one representing a serious blow to a farmer’s business. The vast majority of those animals were in the western half of the country, most on the farms of the far South West.
There is strong and growing evidence that, understandably, the Government’s priority in the years ahead is to try to prevent the disease taking a serious hold in other parts of the country. Where outbreaks do occur, as they have in some pockets away from our region, Defra are diverting resources to get on top of the outbreak, working on the basis, presumably, that it is more important – and simpler – to keep large parts of Britain TB-free, or almost free, than to clear a hotspot like the South West.
That, however, as chief vet Nigel Gibbens has acknowledged, is having its own negative impact on the Westcountry, a prime cattle rearing area where true expertise in turning out some of the finest pedigree cattle anywhere in the world, is in danger of being lost. Mr Gibbens told a briefing meeting on the Government’s TB stragegy that farmers in the Westcountry were “adapting.” He went on: “Producing high value pedigree animals is a risk and we are seeing a reduction in the number of farmers prepared to take that risk.”
The risk he talks of is not just that they will lose the pedigree animals to TB and recieve inadequate compensation. It is also that they will increasingly struggle to find a market for those animals as potential buyers from across the country – and indeed around the world – weigh up the risks of bringing a potentially infected animal from a known TB hotspot into their herds and decide to look elsewhere.
It is already happening. Paul Frain, whose family keep a small herd of pedigree animals near Launceston, told the WMN last week “The price you get for bulls down here is half what you could get when you move to a different area.” Any youngster embarking on a farming career in the South West is going to think twice about livestock against that sort of background.
That is why the single least acceptable part of the Goverment’s TB strategy is not the badger cull or ever tighter cattle movement restrictions. It is the fact that Defra cannot see the UK going TB-clear until 2038. We cannot wait that long.