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Bovine TB spreads, blighting the lives and livelihoods of farmers

Pressure mounts on government to act against destructive disease

Steven Morris
Monday June 27, 2005
The Guardian

For dairy farmer Roland Uglow, the worst thing is having to hold down bull calves, healthy and full of life, to give the man from the knacker's yard a clean shot at them. "You don't want to be there, you'd rather be miles away, but someone has to keep them still," he said. "Seeing it happen over and over changes you - it makes you harder."

Mr Uglow is one of thousands of British farmers whose lives and businesses are being blighted by the disease bovine TB, which is spreading with what their leaders say is alarming speed.

In six years he has lost 130 cows to the disease as well as about 25 bull calves which, though uninfected, cannot be sold because of restrictions put on farms where TB has been found.

Mr Uglow admits he has come close to giving up his farm on the Cornish coast, which has been in the family for 150 years. "The problem is constantly there, eating at you," he said. "You've got this disease and can do nothing about it. You can't plan, you don't know when you're going to be clear. It's always there."

Pressure will begin to grow on the government this week to take action to tackle bovine TB.

Today the National Farmers' Union council meets to discuss a document drawn up by its bovine TB experts setting out the science which, they argue, proves a link between the spread of the disease and wildlife, especially badgers.

The document also sets out a plan of action which it says would lead to the eradication of the disease. If the NFU council, made up of 88 delegates from across the country, ratifies the document it will reveal its plan tomorrow and send it on to the environment minister, Ben Bradshaw.

In recent weeks farmers' leaders have been ratcheting up the rhetoric. Anthony Gibson, regional director of the NFU in the south-west, a hotspot for the disease, characterised the problem as a "whirlwind waiting in the wings".

The NFU also seized on a report from Exeter University which spelled out the problems faced by farmers hit by bovine TB. While they are compensated by the government for the animals they lose, the report suggested that more long-term problems were being created.

Almost one in three farmers in the south-west interviewed for the report, for instance, said they had cancelled or postponed investment or expansion. One in five had cash flow problems. Twenty per cent of calls to the Rural Stress Information Network related to bovine TB. Many farmers claimed bovine TB could be more destructive to the industry in the long term than the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

The government's figures make grim reading. Almost 10,000 cows were slaughtered after reacting to the TB test between January and April this year, compared with just over 7,000 in the same period last year.

As of April 30 the movements of almost 6,000 herds, more than half in the south-west, were being restricted because of the disease.

The government said it would look carefully at the NFU's new plan and the farmers believe Mr Bradshaw is becoming more sympathetic to their point of view - though he continues to rule out an immediate cull.

However, wildlife campaigners will line up to argue it is the movement of cattle around the country that is spreading the disease and will fight tooth and claw against any plans to exterminate badgers.

Mr Uglow also describes himself as a nature lover. He plants barley at Trecarne Farm in Delabole, near Camelford, to provide a habitat for the scarce corn bunting; he loves to see deer on his land; unlike most farmers he even has a soft spot for the fox.

But he is convinced that it is the badger that is spreading bovine TB - after all, he ran a closed herd: in other words he did not bring in new animals but bred his own.

He said: "Badgers have to be caught and checked. If they are positive we have no choice, we have to get rid of them. We destroy infected cattle - surely we have to destroy infected badgers as well."

In early 1999 a badger was found in the yard of Mr Uglow's farm. "It must have been diseased - they don't come near if they are well," he said.

In March 1999 his farm underwent a routine test and TB was found.

Mr Uglow thought seriously about culling the herd of 100 milking cows. "But I couldn't do it," he said. "They are part of the family. I know them all - the awkward ones, the gentle ones. They are like people, they all have their own characters.

"I felt the farm would be empty without livestock - it's about keeping up tradition, a way of life. Besides I have always wanted to be able to pass on the farm to my sons, if they want it."

Trecarne Farm was placed under restrictions - cattle could not be moved from or to it except under the most stringent restrictions, though milk produced there could still be sold.

In 2002 Mr Uglow, 56, who works the farm with his wife, Mary, 53, had one clear test. Farms need two clear tests before being judged to be free of the disease.

"I thought seriously at that point of getting out - of selling the cows and concentrating on something else if the second test was clear," he said.

He had not made up his mind what to do when the second test showed that TB was still present, taking the decision out of his hands.

Mr Uglow's story has a happy ending, at least for now. Earlier this month he learned Trecarne was finally clear of TB.

"I wake up and am happy," he said. "It takes me a few moments to think why and then I remember."

Six months ago, however, another badger was found dead in the drain in the farmyard. "We are clear for now and it is a chance for us to move some animals but we know that next time we are tested the disease could be back."