The decision not to grant access to farmers in Yorkshire and other low- risk areas for bovine tuberculosis to a new government advisory service focused on the disease was criticised by industry figures as it was launched this week.
According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), bovine TB costs taxpayers more than £100m every year and England has the highest incidence of the disease in Europe.
Last year in excess of 29,000 cattle were slaughtered in England alone as part of efforts to control its spread, losses which the Government acknowledged caused devastation and distress for farmers and rural communities.
The hotbed of the disease outbreak is largely in the South West although the areas now designated as ‘high risk’ are as far north as parts of Derbyshire, close to the border with South Yorkshire.
The Government has a 25-year strategy to eradicate bTB in England which includes tighter cattle measures, vaccination and badger culling but there is growing anxiety among many farmers of the disease spreading further into ‘edge’ and ‘low risk’ areas.
Yorkshire is currently deemed to be low risk, with no plans to introduce the controversial and recently extended badger culling scheme to the region, yet lobby leaders believe that this status makes it even more imperative that farmers have all possible advice available to keep the disease out.
The new Defra-funded advisory service opened on Wednesday to give farmers in high risk and edge areas access to expert help on protecting their animals through on-farm and telephone or email advice with trained consultants providing knowledge to help prevent the spread of bTB based on a five-point bio-security plan.
Dorothy Fairburn, director of the Country Land and Business Association in the North, said: “We welcome the newly launched scheme but are concerned about the Government’s exclusion of the lower risk North region of England. It is really important that farmers in the North understand the risks associated with bTB, especially those caused by livestock movements from outside the area, and the steps they can take to minimise the spread of this disease. Despite being classified as a low risk area, we want to keep this disease, with all the distress and loss it brings, out of the North.”
The National Farmers’ Union said it too was concerned about the lack of access to the service for Yorkshire’s farmers.
Adam Bedford, regional director of NFU North East, said: “Defra has made it clear for the last two years that they only intended to make their new advisory service available to farmers in high risk and edge areas. This is something the NFU has repeatedly expressed concerns about, arguing that farmers in low risk areas are equally, if not more in need of up to date information on bTB.
“We have lobbied as much as was possible on this, but in the meantime have been working to build our in-house expertise so that we are in a position to help farmers in low risk areas.”
Asked to comment on the criticism, a Defra spokesperson only reiterated: “Bovine TB is one of the greatest animal health threats in the UK and has a devastating impact on our farmers.
“As part of our comprehensive long term plan to eradicate bovine TB, the new advisory service offers targeted help for famers in the high risk area and edge area.
“Alongside the extensive advice and guidance available for farmers through the TB Hub, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) offers local-level biosecurity advice to cattle farmers across the country.”
Both the NFU and CLA said they were trying to ensure farmers in low risk areas are kept up to date on the latest advice.
Mr Bedford said: “We are working hard to ensure that internet based information, such as the TB Hub, is as up to date and user friendly as possible. We have just completed two update meetings with APHA in Yorkshire and the North East and more are planned to make sure that farmers in our part of the world have access to expert information and advice.
“APHA staff have also made it clear to us that they are available to talk to farmers in the low risk area and answer any questions they may have.”
Miss Fairburn added: “The APHA recently set up a wildlife hotspot in the Eden Valley (next to the Yorkshire Dales in Cumbria) aimed at tackling the spread of bTB after a specific strain of the disease was found locally in wildlife. We encourage all farmers and the public to report any deer and badger carcasses to the APHA as they can then test these can get a clearer picture of the problem in order to determine the most affective course of action.”