NFU deputy president Minette Batters has urged Defra to consider scrapping its interactive bovine TB (bTB) map if it ends up being used by activists to target farmers involved in badger culling.
The warning comes amid growing concerns among farmers about how the ibTB map, which can be viewed here, was already being used by opponents of the cull.
With culling set to resume in the Gloucestershire and Somerset pilots in the next few weeks and other areas awaiting the results of licence applications, activists have confirmed they intend to use the maps to help identify farmers likely to be taking part.
Defra first published the ibTB map with minimal fanfare at the end of June. It enables users to zoom in on any part of England to identify the location of farms that have suffered breakdowns in the past five years.
By clicking on icons users can see when a farm went under restriction and when, if at all, it went clear. While the map does not provide names, addresses or holding numbers, the icons provide fairly detailed locations of farms.
Defra said the map was a ’valuable tool for sharing information about local bovine TB risk, allowing farmers to make informed decisions and reduce the risk to their herds of contracting the disease’.
But opponents of the cull appear to be deriving as much benefit from the map as farmers.
Stop the Cull’s Jay Tiernan, one of the most prominent figures in the anti-cull movement, told Farmers Guardian activists intended to use them to target farms once culling resumed.
"From a point of view of advertising where the breakdowns are, you can see on the maps that have gone up so far it would be quite easy to say ’this farm’ because you can zoom right in and can give postcodes for all of them.
"You could put a crosshair on those maps and reproduce that," said Mr Tiernan, who faces legal costs of £120,000 after losing an appeal against his conviction for breaching the NFU’s injunction protecting farmers in the cull zones.
"The maps will provide us – and have provided us - with a far better idea of where we should prioritise looking after badger setts, because where there has been a breakdown those farms are far more likely to not only have signed up for a badger cull but more than likely will be out there shooting the badgers themselves.
“That doesn’t mean other farms won’t be looked at. But there will be more attention paid to those that have had a TB outbreak."
Mr Tiernan then insisted the maps ‘won’t make any difference’ as some farms in the zones had already been mentioned online.
But he later added: “One person has come back to me saying all the keenest cullers in their area are on that bTB map.”
He defended the tactics used by activists, saying farmers and their families in the cull zone could expect to be followed if they left their house at night time ‘because it is assumed they are going to be shooters’. But he insisted there had been no actual violence in the cull zones, such as ’people being pulled out of their cars and attacked’.
“I don’t care about them (farmers) worrying. We should be judged by what has actually happened,” he said.
The ibTB map is already being used to scrutinise individual farmers involved, or potentially involved, in culls.
The Badger/Killers Stop the Cull website draws on it to analyse the current TB status of a prominent farmer who had spoken out about his experience of bTB in the proposed Dorset cull area and challenge his claims about how his farm became infected.
It also publicises the TB status of a neighbouring farm and publishes satellite images denoting, it claims, who owns the land around the farms, prompting a detailed online discussion among users of the website about the farm, including the posting of close-up pictures.
Mrs Batters said the NFU, which according to Defra provided, along with others, ‘positive input’ into the map’s development, was ‘always our concerned about the data protection aspect’.
“We know the level of intimidation and harassment that has gone on in the cull areas. If that is getting worse due to the interactive map, the site needs to be taken down.
“We would have to bring an end to it. You can’t allow farmers to go through it. They have got enough to deal with disease, let alone the thought they are going to be targeted and their families harassed.”
Mrs Batters said she could see why farmers in the ‘clean area’ wanted the information but pointed out there was no similar service for other cattle diseases like BVD, Johnes, IBR and Leptospirosis.
The Wiltshire beef farmer said she already provided information on the TB status and testing record of her herd at her local auction market but insisted ‘putting data out there that in everybody’s domain is a different matter’.
The map was the only thing Defra had produced on bTB since the election, as other elements of the 25-year TB Eradication strategy appear to have ground to a halt, she added.
The ‘Bovine TB Blog’ also reflected farmer concern that their personal data was being shared ‘without consent’ and risked being used ‘in such a way to cause harassment, intimidation - or worse’.
A recent post urged farmers to lodge complaints about the use of their data to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
“Defra have now made any cattle farmer unlucky enough, through no fault of their own, to suffer a TB breakdown, a sitting duck target for Animal Rights anarchists to shoot at and then chew over,” the post said.
A Defra spokesperson said: "We are not aware of any security risk to farmers as a result of ibTB.co.uk and no personal information is accessible through this website."
The map complies fully with the 1998 Data Protection Act and 2014 Tuberculosis Order, Defra said.
The Save Me Trust, Brian May’s animal welfare charity, and the ‘Badger Killers/Stop the Cull’ website have also sought to use the maps to refute claims made by former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson in last week’s Farmers Guardian.
Mr Paterson had hailed the ‘extraordinary success’ so far of the Somerset pilot in particular, citing anecdotal evidence on the number of herds inside the zone that had gone clear since culling started.
The anti-cull campaigners sought to counter this by using the maps to compare the situation in the Somerset and Gloucestershire cull areas between August 2013 and June 2015, which they said clearly showed ‘the culls have clearly made the situation worse’.
They highlighted in particular an apparent rise in cases surrounding the Somerset area.
They also published maps showing the number of restricted herds falling in the proposed Dorset cull area, suggesting this showed no need for a cull.
However, there is considerable uncertainty over the accuracy and completeness of the maps and question marks over their reliability as a comparative guide, particularly as it excludes long-term outbreaks.
Stop the Cull later acknowledged ‘a number of breakdowns’ from the start date maps are missing’ but said the maps still showed Mr Paterson's claims were 'entirely false'.