'Bovine TB has driven me from the land that I love'
Sadness and disappointment is etched in the face of dairy farmer David Bolt.
As new figures yesterday revealed another significant jump in the number of bovine tuberculosis (TB) cases in the Westcountry, he wearily explained that he is selling the last of his herd – and leaving the region that he loves.
Mr Bolt, his wife Connie and their daughters are quitting the family farm in Tiverton and moving 600 miles north to Scotland to start again.
"It has been an extremely difficult decision to make," he said. "But now we have to look forward to a new life in Scotland, where there is no bovine TB."
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Mr Bolt's may be an extreme reaction to the news yesterday that tuberculosis in cattle is on the brink of a "national crisis". But it is understandable. A total of 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in England last year, a 7% increase on 2011 – 20,000 in the South West.
Cornwall recorded an 18% increase, meaning 2,014 cows were killed after being found to be infected with TB.
In Devon, which has the highest number of cattle victims in the country, 6,535 animals were slaughtered, a surge of 8%.
The disease, which has destroyed the livelihoods of farmers across the region, has blighted Westcountry herds for more than a decade.
Farming Minister David Heath said bovine TB was spreading at an "unacceptable rate", and the slaughter was causing "ongoing misery for our dairy farmers". In 1998, Great Britain had just 6,000 cows with TB.
The Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome added: "What was once confined to a small area of the South West has the potential to become a national crisis and if left unchecked could cost the taxpayer £1 billion over the next ten years."
The Government recently confirmed two culls of disease-carrying badgers this year – one in Somerset, the other in Gloucestershire – as part of a package of control measures.
The "pilot" culls, which could be rolled out throughout the South West if effective, are opposed by Labour and animal welfare organisations. Up to 5,000 badgers could be killed across the two regions over the four-year period of the cull.
George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, whose family farm is in West Cornwall, said: "We need to accelerate the development and licensing of a new vaccine to help get it under control, but must also recognise that there has never been a successful eradication of TB without also tackling the problem of the disease in wildlife."
Ex-farmer Neil Parish, Tory MP for Tiverton and Honiton, added the rise was "devastating" for those affected.
He said: "It reinforces the need to remove infected wildlife that are infecting healthy cattle. We do need to have a cull of badgers in TB hot spot areas."
Some 1,192 cattle were slaughtered in Dorset (a year-on-year rise of 13%), and 2,014 in Somerset (up 3%). The number of new TB incidents in herds was 3,941, an increase of 5%, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures showed.
This rose by 14% in Devon to 862 new incidents. Encouragingly, the rate fell by 5% in Cornwall (to 400), was down 1% in Dorset (to 159) and dropped 3% in Somerset (to 303).
National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall said bovine TB was "out of control" and creeping into new areas."The figures clearly demonstrate cattle controls alone are not enough to tackle this disease while we have a reservoir of TB in our wildlife. Badger controls play a fundamental part in ridding our countryside of TB."
But Mary Creagh, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, opposes a badger cull."Bovine TB will only be eradicated by better bio-security on farms and a large-scale vaccination programme for badgers. Ministers should listen to the scientists."
EU officials confirmed in January a cattle vaccine will not be available until 2023.
Yesterday's figures reflect more widespread testing, with the number up from 5.5million to more than 5.8 million.