For six years, Louis and Gillian Bothwell’s herd of 150 dairy cows had sailed through their annual TB test.
Then, last November one animal in a consignment of six cull cows tested positive at the slaughterhouse, no surprise in what Mrs Bothwell describes as a ‘bad TB area’ in Staffordshire.
But what happened at the subsequent herd test reading on February 1 shocked the family, including their three small children, to its foundations.
“The vet phoned me at work and said: “You have to come home, there are a lot of cows down. Louis is taking it very badly.” There were 97 reactors. It was just… unbelievable, a complete and utter shock,” Mrs Bothwell said.
The reactors, most of which were in calf, were slaughtered. Given the extent of infection, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) decided to remove the remaining 55 milking cows, a decision the family accepts. They will go in April.
There is an added twist to the Bothwells’ outbreak as their farm is located next to the Football Association’s St George’s Park complex, near Burton on Trent, opened by the the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in October.
The Bothwell and their local vets are convinced the development of the 330-acre site over the previous 18 months or so disturbed the social order of local badger populations, resulting in the massive outbreak on their farm. They believe this could explain how, following six years of clear tests, so many cattle went down in one go.
“I am not sure how we could prove it, but it has got to have had a big impact. My husband has evidence of badgers tunneling under the security fence and we have had badgers on our farm,” Mrs Bothwell said.
Told about the Bothwells’ concerns, a spokesman for the FA at St. George’s Park said: “We are aware of the location where badgers may be populated within St. George’s Park but by no means was there any disturbance of their habitat during the building process.
“Our team of architects worked hard during that period to ensure we were conforming with landscape legislation and we are confident that the surrounding land around St. George’s Park is a safe environment for all local wildlife. “
Whatever caused the outbreak, the Bothwells are now faced with the task of rebuilding a business they have just invested in cubicle housing and a new parlour to expand capacity to 200 cows. They recently purchased 40 young heifers to take the herd up to the new capacity. Kept separately from the main herd, they will be tested in April.
Before they can restock to replace the milking herd, the family will be required to badger proof the buildings, yard and clamps and cleanse and disinfect the farm. AHVLA has stipulated they must restock from clean areas.
The financial implications of the breakdown are massive. “We were struggling as it is but this has really knocked us. We will start again because it’s not an option for us not to dairy farm - we have invested so much in infrastructure. But it is dreadfully difficult,” Mrs Bothwell said.
But it is not the financial hit that has been the main source of the heartbreak and sleepless nights for the couple.
“Losing the animals - to see dairy cows that have lived here all their lives loaded on to a trailer - was more heartbreaking. I can’t get over that we lost all those calves as well. I can’t bear to think of the calves going to the slaughterhouse. That really upset me,” Mrs Bothwell said.
“Louis has taken it very badly – he spent more time with his cows than me. In the first two weeks, I was quite scared. Farmers don’t talk, they keep everything inside.”
Defra Secretary Owen Paterson’s announcement last week that the English pilot badger culls will go ahead this summer has once again sparking fierce debate about the policy.
Amid reports of more whole herd removals across the country and with official figures showing near record TB cattle slaughterings in 2012, Mrs Bothwell wants her family’s story to be told to show the often-forgotten ‘farm side’ of this disease and the devastation it can cause.
“It is all so unnecessary. I just wish something could be done. We just hope our story can help as it often seems so one-sided and you don’t hear the farm side of things,” she said.
“When you tell people, like the mums at our village school, they are horrified you could have this problem and do nothing about the source.”