Relentless creep of bovine TB hits last farm in disease blackspot
The last remaining TB-free herd in a blighted part of the Westcountry has tested positive for disease the first time.
Farmer Richard Foss received the grim news that his farm, at Start Point in the picturesque South Hams, has fallen victim to the relentless creep of bovine tuberculosis (bTB).
Mr Foss is convinced that badgers have infected his herd, which is closed to outside animals apart from stud bulls, which are routinely tested.
He says badger numbers in the idyllic holiday spot have spiralled tenfold in the past decade and now pose a threat to crops and wildlife as well as spreading the disease.
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The National Farmers Union (NFU) said it was a "bitter irony" that bTB had now befallen a farmer who has done "more than most" for wildlife through his chairmanship of the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) partnership.
He says the badger problem is now "bigger than just TB" and wants more widespread culling to go ahead much more quickly.
And despite concern he will be targeted by extreme elements of the animal rights movement, he wants to "put his head above the parapet" to stand up to the "ill-informed" roster of B-list celebrities who he feels are dominating the debate. "Two of my cattle have tested positive – I am waiting for the lorry to come and pick them up," he said.
"I expect to lose 10% of my herd and this will affect me financially for the next two years, if I come out of it quickly. The disease is devastating farmers around here but this badger problem is bigger than just TB – they are the lion and tiger around here – the top predator – so why are we are allowed to shoot foxes and rabbits but not badgers?
"It is a horrendous disease for cattle and badgers and we have to eradicate it however tough it may be."
The 63-year-old, the fourth generation of a family to work the land as well as a South Hams district councillor, said the diagnosis was "inevitable" as half a dozen of neighbours have gone down as well as dozens nearby.
Mr Foss says badgers are now destroying residential gardens, flattening cops and decimating populations of skylarks and hedgehogs.
However, he does not believe that the "grey men in grey suits" have the wherewithal to tackle the nasty side of farming.
He added: "I have signed up to agri-environment schemes here for the last 15 or 20 years so I use only the prescribed amounts of chemicals, artificial fertiliser… I leave margins for wildlife but if you are going to manage the countryside then you need to manage the whole. What Defra and Natural England have tended to do are the nice bits, the easy bits, the fluffy bits but what they have got to realise is there are also nasty bits and one of those is having to cull predators.
"The badger is a problem and we need to cull it. If the protection was lifted the problem would be solved within 12 months because the farmers would get their marksmen in and sort it out. You would have a smaller, healthy population of badgers. The ministry would get rid of the TB through the tests. It would probably take ten years.
Mr Foss, who has 150 head of cattle, 200 sheep and around 150 acres of wheat oats and barley at Down Farm, now faces an agonising, rolling 60-day testing programme and the loss of more animals.
He thinks the Government's TB-free target of 25 years is "totally and utterly ridiculous" and would like to see the culls speeded up, ideally through the lifting of their protected status.
"The idea that farmers want to annihilate the badger is ridiculous," he added.
"You couldn't do that with the SAS and the Army out there for weeks as they are very tenacious animals "We just want to get them to a sensible level like they were before.
"My biggest frustration is the whole line of B-list and C-list celebrities which a certain guitarist from a band I have always appreciated has managed to recruit. They probably don't really know what they are signing up to. And yet here I am as an individual farmer stuck down the bottom end of South Devon with very great difficulty getting any voice. I cannot get the publicity they get.
"Yet they are so ill informed. What do they think they are doing? They think they are helping but they are not.
"Are they helping the badgers, who are down dying in their holes. Are we doing them any favours? I don't think so."
The NFU Devon county chairman Colin Rowland said: "It is an inevitable tragedy that yet more cattle will be lost to this disease and yet another farm business is under severe pressure as a consequence because nothing has been done about contagion from badgers.
"Unfortunately, whether some celebrities like it or not, it is inevitable that at some time in the not too distant future something is going to have to be done about badger numbers which have got to be reduced to bring some balance back to nature."
Slaughter costs for bTB cattle is £160m
The Government have been urged to “get on top” of bovine TB as new figures show that the cost of slaughtering cattle that have tested positive for TB over the last five years stands at more than £160 million.
Figures from Defra show that in 2012/3 the compensation costs associated with slaughtering cattle in England believed to be affected by TB, rose to £34.1 million – the highest in the previous five years.
Total expenditure on compensation, haulage costs, slaughter costs and disposal costs in England over the last five years is £161.78 million.
It comes as controversy about two pilot culls due to get under way shortly in the South West continues, with protest groups urging the Government to abandon the trials and farming groups insisting that the action is necessary to reduce the spread of bovine TB.
If the trial culls are successful, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has already said that culls would be rolled out to ten other areas in 2014 but campaign groups, including celebrities such as Brian May, Dame Judi Dench and Joanna Lumley, remain vehemently opposed to the idea.
Compensation of £30.2 million was paid to farmers in 2011/12, with £28.6 million in 2010/11, £30.6 million in 2009/10 and £28.6 million in 2008/09.
Bill Harper, who farms on the Cornwall and Devon border and is the chairman of the National Beef Association’s TB committee, said: “We’re not at all surprised by the figures. The Government really do have to decide whether they are serious about reducing the disease or whether they are going to continue as they are, otherwise, what will happen is that they will need to be paying compensation for the next 25 years which is going to be a bigger problem every year.
“The danger then is that they will lash back at the industry and hit them with more costs.”
Mr Harper said that he would be prepared to take legal action if the Government made any moves to reduce compensation levels to farmers. “We would argue that because the Government has failed to control the disease they have a liability and a responsibility to fully compensate for the animals,” he said. “They (the Government) will argue that they are fully compensating but they are just compensating for the value of the animals and not the loss of future income which is not a proper reimbursement.
“There are so many obstacles being put in front of efforts to control the disease – we’re in a very difficult position.”
Andrew Butler, NFU Devon county adviser, said: “Over that time, not only have reactors gone up but also the price of beef and cattle. More cattle are being slaughtered because the disease is getting worse and worse and the cattle are worth more and more.
“These are only valuations and, unfortunately, there are farmers who will lose out quite significantly. The compensation for TB is only compensation for the animal it’s not compensation for the breeding valuation of for the loss of milk in dairy cattle.
“Clearly TB costs the Government. The Government is looking to cut costs on its animal health budget and one way to do this is to get on top of TB by rolling out the culling programme. There would be substantial benefits to the farming industry and the Government.”
As well as the cost of compensation to farmers for the animals that are killed, Defra has also paid £1.19 million in 2012/3 to cover slaughter and haulage costs. At the same time, the money raised by Defra from the sale of carcasses that are found to be free from TB has also increased from £3.6 million in 2008/9 to £10.2 million in 2012/3.
May says cull is 'return to Dark Ages'
The figurehead of a campaign to oppose a cull on badgers has said if one went ahead it could lead to a return to the Dark Age practice of burning supposed witches at the stake.
Queen guitarist Brian May has also suggested that attacking the RSPCA for pursuing animal cruelty prosecutions was like arguing paedophiles should not face trial.
May, 66, the vice-president of the animal charity, was speaking in response to criticism of it for its political agenda.
On Wednesday, Two Fat Ladies cook and countryside campaigner, Clarissa Dickson Wright, urged people to stop donating to the charity until it returns to helping domestic animals and abandons its pursuit of people suspected of animal cruelty.
It has been reported that calls have been made for the RSPCA to be stripped of its prosecutor role following allegations, which it denies, that it has increased the number of cases brought to court so as to boost fundraising.
But May, in a statement, said the charity’s detractors were pro-cruelty and formed a small but powerful group of rich, well-connected and “utterly ruthless” people. He also suggested the true motive of supporters of the planned badger cull was to bring back “despicable blood sports”
He said: “There is no reason to suppose that it would stop there. We may see a return to legalised badger-baiting, bear-baiting, and even the burning of supposed witches at the stake.
“Britain at this point either allows (Prime Minister David) Cameron’s government to propel us back into the Dark Ages of barbarism, or we all stand up and cry ‘No!’”