West Midland farmers facing a disease which has seen thousands of the region’s cattle slaughtered have accused the Government of lacking strong leadership over its refusal to cull infected badgers.
The question of how best to control bovine TB sparked a heated debate at this year’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham, with farmers from around the country angry at the Government’s decision not to target the badgers which contribute towards spreading the disease.
Farmers have called for the UK to follow the example of other countries and introduce a cull to contain bovine TB, which has put many small farms under severe financial strain as they are forced to send infected animals to slaughter.
The West Midlands, along with the south west, has been particularly hard hit by bovine TB with areas in Herefordshire and Worcestershire proving hotspots for the disease.
In the West Midlands, 7,400 cattle were slaughtered due to TB in 2008 and DEFRA figures for 2009 show about 5,400 were killed until October, with numbers set to rise for the last two months of the year. The NFU expects the figures to further increase this year.
Julia Evans, vice chairman of the West Midland NFU regional board and an organic beef farmer on the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border, has seen first-hand the devastating financial and emotional effect bovine TB can have on a small farm.
Her herd of 75 shorthorn cattle has been regularly reinfected ever since the initial case was discovered in 2002. Over the last eight years she has lost around 35 cattle at a cost of around £2,000 per animal.
“They keep being reinfected because of badgers on the farm,” she said.
“I have lost 35 cattle over the years and that includes cows that are heavy with calves. It also shuts down our business – I’m trying to sell breeding animals but I can’t.”
Farmers like Ms Evans went away from the NFU conference disappointed after environment secretary Hilary Benn said he stood by the decision not to allow a cull of badgers.
He said he believed vaccination was “the way out of this nightmare,” adding that an injectable vaccine for badgers would be available in the summer and an oral vaccination was being developed.
Mr Benn’s refusal to budge angered delegates at the conference, who accused him of lacking the leadership necessary to take the move and being too beholden to a vocal badger protection lobby.
“Farmers are very angry about it and think Hilary Benn lacks strong leadership,” said Ms Evans. “In Herefordshire we can see over the border in Wales where they have got a much more sensible approach – they are hoping to start a cull in April.
“It’s been really difficult and a lot of dairy farmers have given up – as soon as they go clear of TB, they sell the farm.”
“I think there should be a targeted cull of affected badgers,” Ms Evans said.
She added: “It’s also about really strict cattle testing, it’s about good biosecurity, which you can call hygiene, and it’s about targeting all the species that get TB. My DEFRA vet says that, unless the affected badgers on the farm are controlled, we will never be free of TB.”
But Ms Evans feared the vaccination programme proposed by the Government could take too long and was not guaranteed to be successful in eradicating the disease on her farm.
NFU president Peter Kendall warned politicians that increasing levels of TB in livestock would be a major factor in how rural communities would cast their vote in the general election.
Shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert was applauded as he told the conference that a Conservative government would introduce “carefully-managed control of badgers in high TB areas,” because the country could not wait to see if the vaccine worked.
Adam Quinney, chairman of the West Midland board of the NFU and a livestock farmer in Sambourne near Redditch, said farmers in the region were suffering on many levels because of bovine TB.
“The West Midlands is probably one of the prime areas in the country to be affected by TB and it has been getting gradually worse four about four to five years.
“The average cost is £18,000 to an affected farm but it’s not just the financial impact, it’s also a question of high-quality breeding stock.
“Farmers have plans to build up their herd but if you lose your best high-quality genetics, your dreams and hopes for your beef or dairy herd are destroyed.”
Mr Quinney said countries like Ireland had successfully proved that a targeted cull of infected badgers was the best way of dealing with the problem.
“It’s the most effective way of ensuring healthy badgers and healthy cattle,” he said.
He said he was not surprised by the Government’s reluctance to carry out a badger cull, which he believed was caused by a lack of understanding in the general public’s perception of agriculture in the UK.