For 11 years, Gloucestershire farmer James Griffiths went through the pain of seeing his dairy herd fail a TB test every two months.
A few miles away, Rob Davies had gone through a similar experience, dropping in and out of TB restrictions for 15 years.
Both are in the Gloucestershire pilot cull zone and both herds have gone clear of bovine TB since the second year of the pilot cull concluded in October.
The two farmers, who spoke to the media at Mr Griffiths’ farmhouse, near Taynton, last Friday, can now see light at the end of what have been very long tunnels.
Mr Griffiths had even come to accept his farm, located near Taynton, would never be free of bTB.
Since his 700-cow herd went down with the disease in March 2004, he has lost more than 400 cows, with compensation paid out ‘nowhere near’ reflecting their value.
He and his staff have had to factor the two-monthly grind of testing the 700-cow herd, located near Taynton, into their routine and live with all the trading and movement restrictions the disease brings.
“It was so frustrating to fail every two months because we felt we were doing everything we could and we were getting more and more restrictions,” he said.
“But you have to get used to it in order to carry on. We organised our lives – and everyone on the farms’ holidays - around TB testing. It takes days.”
“18 months ago, I thought we would never get out of this. We set our stall accepting we were never going to be clear. I am not sure what we are going to do now we are suddenly clear,” he said.
A few days ago (February 20), ‘from nowhere’, the herd was finally given a clean bill of health.
“After 11 years we were amazed, but then it is blindingly obvious. We culled the badgers and reduced the loading of TB infection and we go clear,” he said.
Mr Griffiths explained how, last year, Defra had ‘forced’ the herd to undergo the highly sensitive gamma interferon blood test to track down what it suspected was the reservoir of infection within it. The entire herd tested negative.
“There was no reservoir of infection in the herd, so where else can they be getting it from?” said Mr Griffiths.
James Griffith on going clear after 11 years
Referring to claims the cull that it has been a failure, Mr Griffiths said: “From my cows’ point of view, this could be the most successful ‘unsuccessful pilot’ there has ever been.”
He revealed his farm and its staff had been targeted during the culls by activists, who made it harder to remove badgers around the farm. He thanked the local community, including farmers who do not have livestock but supported the cull, for their ‘fantastic support’, despite having to put up with the activists themselves.
He said the cull was affordable for farmers and now looked like ‘good value’ for him.
“It is great news for everyone. We haven’t removed the numbers of badgers in Gloucestershire we were meant to but we are still seeing an effect, effect. That is great news for me, for the taxpayer, for cattle and for badgers,” he said.
While accepting it is still early days for his farm in its recovery, he said cases like his should send out a message to politicians, particularly the Labour Party, whose pledge to abandon the pilots was ‘ignoring the science and the evidence in front of them, he said.
He hopes it will also encourage other groups of farmers across the country weighing up the merits of applying for future culls, if the political climate permits.
“This is light at the end of the tunnel. It shows, if you want to do something about this disease there is no other tool in an endemic area that is going to have the effect.”
“Farmers will accept tougher cattle controls if you can also do something about the spread of disease in badgers.”
The last big breakdown on Mr Davies’ 600-animal dairy and beef herd, a few miles away, in Sandhurst, affected 14 cattle, 13 of which had all grazed in the same place over the summer.
“A lot of badgers from where those cattle grazed were removed in the first year of the cull,” Mr Davies said.”
“We had several satellite setts around the farm and no other cattle come into contact with our cattle. We haven’t seen any evidence of badgers since the first year of the cull.
“We have continually suffered from TB over the past 15 years, only going clear for short periods. Then we went clear in October 2014, after the second cull ended.
“We are now on six-monthly testing and the restrictions have been lifted, which is tremendous. It means you can farm the way you want to farm without such draconian regulations.
“We have broken free of testing every two months and we are no longer tied up with the restrictions. I don’t have to get permission to buy and sell cattle, which was very limiting for the business.”
Mr Davies added: “I think it completely vindicates the pilot cull. It shows it does work and will reduce TB. Badgers were over-populated and in any species, that leads to disease.”
“Hopefully, when the farm is re-populated with badgers it will be a lower level and they will be healthy because what everyone wants is healthy cows and healthy badgers.
“The science is certainly behind us. Controlled shooting is humane and this is starting to prove that if you reduce the disease in badgers, you reduce it in cattle.”
Veteran Gloucestershire vet Roger Blowey, who has been TB testing cattle in the county for 40 years, has analysed data on farms representing nearly half the 14,350 cattle in the cull zone.
Of 21 farms, with about 6,900 cattle, six farms tested positive prior to the first cull, in late 2012 to summer 2013. These produced 29 reactors.
Analysis of the same farms 18 months later, after the second cull finished in October 2014, showed the number of reactors had fallen to just five on three farms.
This equated to an 83 per cent fall in the number of reactors over 18 months (55 per cent per annum).
This compares with a typical year-on-year fall of around 10 per cent in the number of reactors across Gloucestershire over the past seven years.
Information compiled by farmers in the Somerset cull zone suggest an even more dramatic reduction in TB-restricted herds since culling started in 2013, from 34 per cent to just 11 per cent (the number of reactors fell from 2,518 in 2008 to 1,630 in 2013).
Mr Blowey cited six previous experiences of culling badgers in England and Ireland that have all resulted in reductions in cattle TB levels.
He acknowledged his data could not constitute scientific proof it was the cull having this effect.
“I think badgers have had a major role to play in spreading TB,” Mr Blowey said. “The results of all trials done before show that.
“But if you look at levels of bTB in the whole of Gloucestershire, we are seeing a much greater reduction in the cull zone. This is potentially very important as we are beginning to see actual numbers as opposed to data coming out of computer models.”
Opponents of the badger cull has dismissed suggestions falling TB rates in the cull zones show the cull is working.
The Badger Trust said the claims have ‘no scientific foundation and are not supported by Government data from the pilot badger culls’.
Its chief executive Dominic Dyer suggested it was ‘far more likely’ these reductions in TB were due to ‘tighter testing, movement and biosecurity controls forced on the UK farming sector by the European Commission in 2012’.
“We must deal in facts not fiction when it comes to assessing the impact of the badger culls on lowering bovine TB,” he said.