A farm that has lost its herd to bovine TB has been hit by an earthquake. The shocked family in the empty yard will remember all their cows – often a lifetime’s work of genetics and breeding that they have nurtured, tended and milked from well before dawn, every day of the year – now slaughtered in one brutal stroke: healthy and unhealthy alike. The government compensation is never enough, particularly with pedigree cows, to allow the herd to be replaced. TB is spreading, the number of incidents is increasing: a quarter of farms in the South-West have been placed under quarantine and 25,000 cattle were killed in Britain last year. Now Cumbria, which has been almost free of TB, is under threat.
We had one incident near Penrith two weeks ago, and another two months ago. On each occasion, we may just have caught it in time. But we are perhaps the greatest milk field in the country – with 200,000 cows in Penrith and the Border alone. If TB ever becomes entrenched in our wildlife – badgers or deer – it will be almost impossible to eradicate. I have always believed that there are too many bureaucratic restrictions on farmers (my father complains his cows need more passporting, tagging and inspection than his children) and that the best way of stopping the spread of TB is to cull TB-infected badgers. But when a farmer asks how to prevent TB in Cumbria, the answer can’t just be “less restrictions and less badgers”. Our latest TB outbreak did not come from badgers (there was no evidence that we then had TB in our badgers) but from TB-infected cows, meeting over fences. And these cows had almost certainly come to Cumbria from TB-infected areas of the South-West.
There are a number of ways in which this could happen. First, the pre-movement test for cows from an infected area is only seventy per cent accurate. Second, dealers can leave the cows for a short-time in a non-infected parish and then sell them in the auction mart, as though they had always been in a clean area. And it is still possible, it seems, for a farmer to link a Cumbrian field to a field in Gloucestershire, as a single holding, and thus get round the necessity for pre-movement testing at all.
We need to stop all of this. We must prevent linking of holdings more than thirty miles apart, and improve TB tests pre-movement. Blood-testing seems to be more reliable than skin tests. Auction marts know from the cow’s passport where it has been all its life, but they generally only reveal the last movement. We should call on Cumbrian marts to reveal whether the cow has been in an infected area, not in the last six days, but in the last six months. Few Cumbrian farmers would buy such potentially infected stock, and dealers would no longer be able to pass off infected stock as ‘clean’. The marts might forego money in the short-term, but by protecting Cumbria from infection, they stop their trade from collapsing entirely. I am confident, therefore, that Cumbrian marts would agree to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct: and we should make this happen as soon as possible. But we must be tougher still. In Scotland, cattle from infected areas are not only pre-movement tested, they are also kept in isolation and post-movement tested two to four months later (because cattle take a long time to develop signs of the disease). We should make this compulsory in Cumbria as well.
The Secretary of State’s recent decision to introduce limited badger culling was unpopular with many of the public, but popular with farmers: this will be unpopular with many farmers. They are already struggling under bureaucracy and red-tape: the last thing they want is even more onerous testing and moving regulations. Even today, farmers with healthy herds can be unfairly restricted because of TB four miles away at the other end of their parish. Greater restrictions would make it even more difficult to sell their cows. Some – including Cumbrian farmers who are currently in ‘one to two year testing’ hot-spots – could be put out of business. So could some dealers. Cumbrian upland farmers, who need to buy specialist replacement cows, would find it more difficult to do so at an affordable price. And it would be very difficult legally, practically and politically to draw a line around a county.
But the threat from endemic bovine TB is now so severe that I’m afraid the time has come to be tough. Cheshire has seen the number of cases treble in 5 years. And TB is like the plague: it is far too virulent to simply hope that self-regulation, and rough and ready testing, is going to keep it out. In the long-run the answer lies in vaccines, but for now, I cannot see any alternative to getting agreement from farmers, and pushing the Secretary of State to introduce post-movement testing in Cumbria. If we don’t, TB could soon be devastating our farms, our animals and our livelihoods.