Every day livestock farmers like me go about their daily business of producing high quality food for the British public to eat. And every day we do this while facing the ever-present threat of a rampaging disease that could ruin the business we've spent our whole lives building up. That disease is bovine TB.
Much has been said about this disease in the media over the past 12 months. And much of what has been said has given the impression that upcoming pilot badger culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset are simply an excuse for farmers to indulge in a shooting free-for-all to kill badgers that has no scientific basis and no benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth. They're a crucial element of a package of controls designed to get rid of this horrific disease which has a devastating impact on farmers and their families.
Put simply, bovine TB is out of control and is ruining farming family businesses across the country. It can spread between badgers and cattle and there is no cure for it. More than 38,000 cattle were compulsory slaughtered last year because of TB and it has been estimated that TB control in England will cost £1 billion over the next decade if action isn't taken. You can find out more on the TB Free England website www.tbfreeengland.co.uk.
I've experienced the damage this disease can do on my own farm. Nothing prepares you for the heart-wrenching moment when you discover an animal that you've reared since birth has tested positive for TB despite you taking every possible precaution to protect it from the disease.
This is the cost of bovine TB that many people never see. The human cost to the farming families involved. Grown men and women barely holding themselves together as their cattle are loaded into trailers and taken away to be slaughtered after testing positive for TB. Farmers watching helplessly as heifers and cows carrying calves are taken away, or calves are left without their mothers. The emotional impact of this is graphically brought to life through a video called 'The Calf' on the TB Free England website.
Action has to be taken now to stop the impact of this disease spreading farther and wider and tens of thousands more cattle being slaughtered unnecessarily. Government, farming leaders and veterinary experts agree that culling badgers and reducing their numbers in some of the most heavily infected areas will help to break the cycle of infection between cattle and badgers, and reduce TB in cattle.
'Why can't we vaccinate badgers and cattle instead of carrying out a cull?' is a question that's asked repeatedly. Unfortunately, it isn't as simple as that. The NFU is fully supportive of the idea of vaccines for both animals but there is no vaccine available to protect our herds and best estimates from the European Commission suggest it will be ten years before a workable vaccine will be available. Vaccinating badgers is not a viable alternative at the moment either. It's no use if a badger already has TB as a vaccine only helps prevent disease, it doesn't cure it, and it would have little impact in areas where the disease is endemic in the badger population.
It's important to put paid to some of the other myths that have grown up around this issue. The most up to date scientific advice available shows that a programme that tackles TB on all fronts at the same time, including in wildlife, will significantly reduce the problem. What's happened in other countries backs this up. New Zealand has seen a 94% reduction in TB since it started culling possums in the 1990s. And Ireland, which has been conducting a badger control programme for the past 13 years, has seen the number of cattle testing positive for TB fall by a third in the past three years.
The idea that the pilot culls are the first step on the road to a nationwide badger cull is also wide of the mark. This isn't what anyone wants, including farmers, and has never been the intention. But if the pilots show that a targeted cull can be carried out humanely, safely and effectively, by trained professionals under licence, the whole government programme will be rolled out to other areas where TB is endemic and needs to be tackled urgently.
Farmers know this is a highly emotive issue. But among all the emotion we need to keep a clear eye on what is trying to be achieved - a countryside populated by healthy cattle and badgers. Tackling the disease in badgers is one of the central elements of achieving this.
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