Defra is facing an angry backlash from farmers over the lack of progress in implementing its 25-year TB eradication strategy, which this week appeared to be grinding to a halt.
NFU deputy president Minette Batters said farmers were ‘angry and frustrated’ the length and breadth of England over the Department’s failure to drive forward its manifesto commitment to implement the strategy in full.
While much of the ire is focussed on the information vacuum surrounding the roll out of the badger cull, the sense of inertia was reinforced this week when Defra postponed a consultation, due to be published on Tuesday, outlining proposals to further ratchet up cattle controls in England (see box below).
All that remained from the planned announcement was the publication of a new interactive map showing the locations of farmers that have suffered breakdowns within the past five years.
Defra gave no indication why the consultation, which would have added protection in the low risk area while increasing burdens on farmers, particularly in the high risk area, had been postponed or when it is likely to see the light of day.
Mrs Batters said the postponement of the enhanced cattle movement control measures consultation would be ‘very frustrating’ for many farmers in the low risk areas and called for Defra to ‘clearly explain the reasons behind this delay’.
She said: “Perhaps they have listened to us about the need to deliver the strategy as a whole. If it looks like you are prioritising one area builds frustration and dissent in other areas.”
Despite repeatedly emphasising their commitment to rolling out the badger cull to new areas where disease is rife before May’s General Election, Defra Ministers, publicly and in private meetings with farmers, have said nothing since about whether roll out is feasible this year and what conditions will be attached to culling in new areas.
There have been indications Defra Ministers do not think it is necessary to do so, believing the onus is now on Natural England to approve or turn down any applications made by groups of farmers in potential new areas.
Mrs Batters said this was infuriating for farmers in the various potential cull areas, which were ‘absolutely good to go’ across England, despite suggestions to the contrary she said.
“The NFU and the farmers on the ground (in potential new areas) have gone above and beyond. Prices are crashing and people have put their hand up and paid big sums of money because they know if we don’t take out this disease in badgers we are not going to get rid of it on farms,” she told Farmers Guardian.
“These farmers that have been down for years have seen other herds go clear in the cull areas and it heart-breaking for them, absolutely heart-breaking.
While Natural England, as the licence issuer, tended to sit on the fence, Mrs Batters insisted ‘ultimately its falls to Ministers to make that decision and explain what farmers need to do to fulfil the licence requirement and what the timescales are.’
“That lack of information is building a huge level of frustration and crippling farmers,” said Mrs Batters, who oversaw a heated debate among NFU council on bTB last week.
She was scathing about the efforts of Defra and the Animal and Plant Health Protection Agency to communicate with farmers about the next steps of the cull and other elements of the strategy, citing APHA’s refusals to divulge the results of TB tests on badgers in the Edge area as an example.
The NFU and other industry bodies are pushing the Government to establish an industry-led TB Eradication Board, which would be responsible for driving the strategy forward and communicates its aims to farmers.
“One thing the (badger cull) pilots have shown is farmers are up for this. They can make it work, they can work in partnership with Government but there has to be a bit of a guide as to what else is needed," she said
“We are waiting and we are waiting. It is delay, delay, delay and now we are hearing the roll out is being delayed. It is just not good enough. Farmers do not have time to wait.
“I am still really hopeful that we will get something this year. But if the Government steps back from it this year you will have very angry, very upset and very frustrated farmers.”
Mrs Batters, a Wiltshire beef farmer, said many farmers across the country felt the ‘process’ of Defra’s TB control regime, including the additional testing was becoming more challenging than the disease, itself.
While farmers wanted to be able trade cattle across the country, there was concerns in the low risk area about the threat posed by ‘risky traders’, who some farmers blamed for the extra testing and associated costs in the low risk areas.
There was therefore some support for risk-based trading measures, such as the new interactive map, that enabled people to learn more about the TB history of the cattle they were buying.
“But things like that are incredibly contentious if you are seen to be dealing with that and you are not delivering on your election promises about badger cull roll out and simplification. You have got to be dealing with the whole strategy and not individual.”
“Farmers want to get in the road for the 25 year strategy but at the moment they don’t feel they have even started.
“You can’t over-state how let down and how angry and how frustrated farmers are feeling right across the country from the most southern tip of Cornwall to the most northern tip of Durham.”
Defra and Natural England did not address the NFU’s concerns directly when put to them.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Our long-term strategy to eradicate bovine TB is fully operational and on track, thanks to tighter cattle movement controls, vaccination and culling where the disease is rife.
“We have worked closely with farmers and vets to implement the strategy over the last two years and we will continue to do so in this Parliament.
“New measures to protect our beef and dairy industry from this devastating disease will be announced in due course.”
A Natural England spokesperson said expressions of interest in extending the cull have been made to the agency from a number of areas which will be considered ‘in due course’.
She added: "The Government is committed to our strategy of making England free ofbovine TB, of which culling badgers in areas where the disease is rife is a key element."
Defra was all set to launch a new consultation on new measures to ratchet up TB controls in England on Tuesday (June 30). It never appeared. No explanation has been given as to why.
The postponed consultation would have sought views on plans to introduce compulsory post-movement testing for cattle coming into the Low Risk Area from the High Risk Area and Edge areas.
It would also have proposed a tightening up of TB status definitions in the HRA. Those currently classified as ‘Officially Tuberculosis Free Status Suspended’, (OTFS), where the skin test has reacted but there are no visible lesions, would become classified as ‘Officially Tuberculosis Status Withdrawn’ (OTFW).
They would require two clear short interval tests, one at severe interpretation, before restrictions are lifted. Currently, one SIT is required for an OTFS breakdown.
The consultation was also expected to include proposals tighten up the rules covering units licensed to finish cattle from TB-infected herds.
Some elements of planned TB announcement have survived, including the introduction of an interactive TB map which will show whether farms are currently under TB restriction, or have suffered a herd breakdown over the past five years. You can see the ibTB map here
The map is intended to inform farmers about the level of TB risk in their locality but is controversial as, even though it does not name farms, it has raised concerns about farmers' privacy.
Bizarrely, Defra made no attempt to publicise the publication of the map, which was heralded only by an Information Note on Tuesday, tucked away deep in the recesses of the Defra website.
Defra is also expected to publish the results of epidemiological studies looking at how the disease is spreading in the Edge and Low Risk Areas soon.
View from the High Risk Area - David Barton, Gloucestershire farmer currently under TB restriction
"The strategy is not being implemented. There is a lot of disappointment out there at the minute.
"The Conservative Government were well supported by the farming community before the election.
“The one issue that decided it for me in this election was the pledge to deliver the 25-year strategy in full. Liz Truss left us in no doubt about how robust they were going to be on culling when she spoke at the NFU conference.
“They get elected with a majority and a mandate and they have disappeared on this issue.”
“We need to know how many areas will be rolled out this year and how many next year.
"I am fed up with it. I have just about had enough of being led up this path and finding there is no-one there.”
View from the Edge Area - Phil Latham, Cheshire farmer currently under restriction
“In Cheshire, because we have had an appalling situation with TB we have had an increase in surveillance and are now on six-month testing, which is extremely good news.
"But initially radial testing was poorly implemented because there was no strategy or plan to it.
"I believe they are going to try and declare the low risk area TB free and I do wonder what will be the implications for trade.
“My biggest concern is we are trying to roll out vaccination in the edge area as if it is being science-led but unfortunately there is no proof whatsoever it works.
“What doesn’t seem to be defined is the tipping point at which you reach the threshold when people embrace a cull of badgers as a sensible thing to do. In Congleton six out seven badgers submitted for testing tested positive for TB.
“We are still paying lip service to control without any real desire to nail it, because at the end if the day, the farmers pays.”
View from the Low Risk Area – Rosey Dunn, Yorkshire farmer currently in a 3km radial testing zone
“Being in a 3km testing area has changed our lives quite dramatically because we now have a series of three tests, six months apart.
Before that I was on four-year testing so it has caused an enormous amount of more work.
“It is a great concern to us as a low risk area we don’t want to see it spread. We are aware nothing has happened with cattle measures since the Government got in. We need to be dealing with the disease.
“Postponing this consultation is not good. More prevarication is bad for the whole of the cattle industry, wherever you farm. We need to see Government getting to grips with it.
“You see the frustration from the farmers in the high risk areas and we are concerned it is not being dealt with there. We would like to see some progress in dealing with disease."