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Family tries to rebuild after TB devastation

The Bothwells are trying to rebuild their lives after a devastating TB outbreak. Alistair Driver went to Staffordshire to hear the harrowing tale.

The fields lie empty now. The Bothwell’s cattle can be heard but not seen, the couple too frightened to let them graze.


Louis Bothwell explained: “We won’t let them out. We are too nervous. The disease can linger in the ground.” He is stood in those fields, in the shadow of the Football Association’s giant new St George’s complex, evidently a factor in their sad tale.


A year ago the Bothwells were full of hope. They had invested £500,000 in upgrading their Staffordshire dairy unit and were pouring their heart and soul into building the business.


“We were just the right age to do it. We had our own heifers coming in. We were getting where we wanted to be. But this has completely shattered everything,” Gillian Bothwell said.


The nightmare began in November when a barren cow sent to Market Drayton market was found with suspected bovine TB lesions in a Devon abattoir.


The signs were already there. The couple had noticed a drop in milk yield in the autumn and had tested the cows for almost everything - BVD, IBR, leptospirosis, even Schmallenberg - except bTB. “It was a shock. There is some TB in the area but we had never had a problem in six years,” Gillian said.


Restrictions were imposed, disease was confirmed and a whole herd test was arranged for early in the New Year. The memory of that week is still deeply painful for Louis, originally from Northern Ireland.


“You wake up hoping there are going to be no lumps but more and more kept coming. You could see them as the cows walked in every morning. I just gave up counting. I knew it was going to be bad,” he told me, the emotion raw in his voice and eyes.


It was bad. Out of about 162 milking cows, 97 reacted to the test on February 1, with 64 subsequently shown to have lesions.


They discussed keeping the rest but the advice from the vet was clear - if they stayed, they would only be harbouring more infection and storing further pain for later.


So they went too, the entire pedigree Holstein milking herd gone in a few weeks. It was the right decision - 15 of the 65 cattle which had tested negative a few weeks earlier were found to have lesions.


All that remained were 30 or so young heifers which had been grazing a different piece of land and had come through the test.


Gillian described the horrific day the animals were taken to the abattoir. “We came through here [the kitchen] to pick up some paperwork. You could see the cows standing at the top of the truck and you could see them looking out. I was brought up on a beef farm but I have never known anything to feel emotionally like that.”


The financial toll is huge on the family, already in excess of £100,000 and counting after more than three months without a milk cheque, preceded by falling yields, plus the cost of getting the farm back into a condition to re-stock.


So how do you cope with a young family of three boys without any income for three months?


“Look at these hands,” Louis responded, displaying his yellowed, scarred hands. “We just worked day and night, no breaks, no holiday, no time for the children. Family life is out of the window.


“Financially it has crippled us. Every day Gill is worrying how we are going to pay the bills.”


The emotional impact is even greater. Of the two, Louis has taken it harder, the strain and frustration evident at every turn as we discuss what happened and what lies ahead.


“Louis took it badly. He practically lived with the cows. He bred most of them,” Gillian said.


“Most of them were in-calf,” Louis added. “You don’t know where you are heading. You are planning for the future and all of a sudden you don’t have a future.”


The loss and frustration has been compounded by the nature of the outbreak, which appears to have been caused by badgers roaming the fields where the dairy cows grazed.


The Bothwells are convinced a major factor in their outbreak, at least the scale of it, was the development over the previous 18 months of the FA’s St George’s complex, which appears to have forced badgers onto their land.


“It wasn’t done intentionally, it has been overlooked and now it has happened. Regrettably,” said Louis.


“It is like someone coming into your office every night and robbing stuff and you can’t touch them. It is the frustration it has taken too long. It should have been eradicated by now. They are breeding out of control. What do you do?”


The Bothwells considered quitting. But having got so far, with massive loans to pay off and only having wanted to farm, they have begun to pick up the pieces.


They had to go through various hoops to restock, including thorough cleansing and disinfecting of the farm, badger proofing cattle sheds and silage clamps and sourcing replacements from herds with no history of a TB breakdown.


They identified a herd in Nottinghamshire, only to find it had once had a single ‘inconclusive’ response. In the end, while they would have preferred to source locally, a combination of disease status and cost led them to Germany, where they found their replacements. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find suitable animals within Britain from a herd that has not had experienced the disease.


Milking cows again has at least given them renewed purpose. “If you are putting a cow in-calf you are planning for the future. There is a plan,” Gillian said.


But things are very different now. With the compensation for 160 cows they could only afford 130 replacements. They are doing fine but milking nowhere near to the levels of the high quality cows which have gone. Louis estimates the latest, much-welcomed milk cheque was only about two-thirds what it would have been had his high-yielding herd still been there.


Gillian said: “Now we have suddenly got these cows we don’t really know at all. We don’t know the breeding, the history. We can’t walk down and say: ‘There’s Primrose’. You knew them before. Now it’s different, it’s more commercial.”


Then there is the ever-present threat of TB in the fields, which is why, even though they are allowed to graze the milking herd during the day, they remain firmly indoors.


“All the time you are living with this shadow over you, worrying about what is going to happen,” Gillian said.


The herd remains under restriction after the heifers which went clear in the February test turned up six positives in the second 60-day test. The German replacements will be tested in September.


Unable to sell any calves, the accommodation is getting crowded. “We have got 40 calves which need to be fed, no money coming in and we can’t sell them. Winter is coming and we are not going to have enough room,” Louis said.


The Bothwells, who met at Perth bull sales and started their farming lives in Northern Ireland before moving to Staffordshire six years ago, are making the best of the hand they have been dealt, but the fear and frustration is all-too-evident.


Hard-working, articulate, conscientious and, on the evidence of my visit, excellent farmers, what really hurts is their life has been turned upside through events out of their control.


“You just live in fear. It’s not just the money…” Louis said.


As he falters, Gillian picks the point. “It’s why did it happen? Why do we have to live through this? If it hadn’t happened we would be where we needed to be with our dairy herd.


“We are a good team. Louis is a brilliant dairy farmer. I look after the books and the breeding of the cows. We work well together. We haven’t done anything wrong. All we were doing was looking after our cows in the best way we can. We have paid a huge price for it.”


Painful though they find it, the Bothwells want to tell their story to help get to across to politicians and the wider public the harsh reality of Britain’s bovine TB epidemic and the need to control the spread in badgers.


Louis said: ““Everything we planned for on this farm has been put on hold. The cows were loaded up in the prime of their lives. The problem is with the badger so why are badgers still allowed to roam wild and yet our cows have to go to slaughter? It is out of our hands.


“The antis opposed to the cull need to sit there and realise what is happening to the countryside. People need to understand their milk doesn’t come from a Tesco or Morrisons lorry – it starts right in this yard.


“We don’t want to demolish badgers, we just want to control them. Killing cattle isn’t solving the problem.”


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