In 1994, as part of an official surveying project by Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), our land was found to be important for butterfly fauna and in particular the rare marsh fritillary. We were told that, in Wales, we have a particular responsibility for its protection, as it is such a vulnerable species. We were advised that grazing of the land concerned was essential and cattle were ideal. We were reluctant to get cattle as we had no experience of such animals and over the following two years we looked at various options. However, both CCW and ADAS stressed that cattle were the best option so we purchased a small herd of Highland cattle, which we understood were the species most likely to tolerate the wetter conditions over the months that the fields needed grazing. Just after the cattle arrived we put in our own fixed handling facilities; a fenced off pen area and a race made from steel tubes and timber.
We bought the cattle from a farmer in Newport after seeing an advert for Highland. At the time this breed was hard to get locally and this was the nearest dealer we could find. They arrived in a horsebox a bull and two females with calves at hoof. We joined the Highland Cattle Association and soon realised that we should have been more fussy and bought halter-trained animals. Whilst our herd was docile when we approached them individually, when we tried to round them up as a herd when our vet came to do the first (at that time every four years) TB test we failed to get hardly any of them into our handling pen and through the race. The test was therefore not completed properly. We had some near misses and we were concerned for our safety and for that of the vet. Some years after we received a further letter to test. We contacted our vet and suggested that as the animals were so difficult to handle we could not arrange the test. We then had no communication from anyone for several years. Animal Health was aware of our handling problems and some years after, following other attempts to round them up and failing for an ear tag inspection, our ten animals were put on movement restriction which we were happy with. Our herd has always been very healthy and on the very rare occasions we have needed to handle an individual animal (castration and foot trimming) we have struggled but managed.
It was not until March 2008, following the implementation of the TB Health Check Wales policy, that we received an officious letter from Animal Health saying our TB test was overdue but making no mention of our previous correspondence and handling problems. The new policy gave no consideration whatsoever to those cattle owners who have genuine difficulties in handling their animals and for whom the existing procedures are unreasonable for various reasons. We may be a small minority but it is not fair to disregard this sector, particularly as such serious health and safety issues are involved. We had investigated the purchase and hire of equipment but as our animals were all mature and had very long horns we needed specialist equipment which was not available locally and the cost of new was prohibitive, particularly as it would get so little use. We tried hard to find suitable second hand equipment but failed.
The herd is used for conservation grazing and they do an excellent job helping to encourage habitat diversity for a range of species that are in serious decline in many areas as a result of intensive farming, habitat loss and other causes. Since we purchased them they have never been moved off our land. They are grazed ONLY on our own land and inspected carefully at least once per day, They are not housed at any time of the year and grazed extensively over about 70 acres (approximating to one animal to ten acres). They are kept well away from ANY other cattle by the use of exclusion zones that we have established and we own. Exclusion zones are mostly woodland boundaries (approximately 50m wide) planted with stock exclusion fences on both sides. Because of the above measures, we strongly believe that our Highland cattle are not at risk of contracting bovine TB nor pose a risk in spreading or assisting the spread of bovine TB.
Despite us doing all we could to try and find a solution to the problem, and responding to every letter from Animal Health, over the next year we were treated as criminals as we suffered an intense bombardment of phone calls, impromptu visits and threatening letters in what we can only describe as contrived, continuous and sustained harassment by officials who seemed more intent on meeting targets, ticking the appropriate boxes and political deadlines than helping us - bureaucracy at its very worst. Every letter was worded so as to cause maximum pressure in order to try and coerce us into having our herd slaughtered or taking action without due regard for our health and safety. We are very fond of our cattle and they do an excellent job for habitat diversity so we not want them slaughtered. Our MP and AM were not able to help and WAG merely reiterated the aims of the policy and said we had no option but to find a way to present the animals for the skin test. We asked several fundamental questions and many of these remain unanswered, thereby making us concerned regarding the validity of the existing policy of testing. We tried to agree a compromise and we spent considerable time researching bovine TB ourselves and trying to identify a test that would be easier for herds that were difficult to handle. However, Animal Health and WAG were totally inflexible and continued to try and manipulate us, continuing to use threats of legal action, slaughter and extortionate costs.
On the 9/3/09 we were served with a notice by Animal Health (AH) to force us to allow them access for testing. Animal Health brought in equipment and manpower from their head office. Initially we received correspondence causing us extreme stress as we were told this would cost us thousands of pounds per test but when we challenged this and stressed the costs were not reasonable they were eventually reduced to £450 or £160 if we provided a tractor. We had an old tractor that was in good working order and it was agreed we could use this. We were later informed that there were other cattle owners that had similar problems to us. The Animal Health equipment and manpower (around 50 cattle hurdles, a Highland cattle crush, 3 men and two testers plus a low loader tractor) were used for the testing of our herd. The first test was undertaken on 17/3/08 and 20/3/08. The procedure demonstrated, beyond any doubt, the enormous amount of equipment and vehicles needed to herd, pen and restrain our animals safely, although even with this equipment there were still many health and safety risks (little wonder that the agricultural sector has the worst record when it comes to health and safety). The only way the herd could be rounded up was to use two tractors driven at them (our tractor and one they had brought with them, despite the fact that it was agreed they would use our tractor they later tried charging for this tractor but then reverted to the original agreement after we complained). The tractors caused huge ruts in our fields which we have not been able to rectify and which are a hazard to human and cattle walking in this field.
It took well over an hour each time to round up the herd and get them into the pen and race (made from the cattle hurdles). The procedure was particularly stressful for the two older animals who were well into their twenties and arthritic. These had previously been kept apart from the rest of the herd as they found it easier walking on flat ground. After the first test the oldest female and two other females were found to be inconclusive. Stress is believed to cause a false reaction and the old female had shown several signs of stress. She had even fallen in the pen at times. The two other inconclusives were particularly nervous animals. These three were then kept isolated from the rest of the herd with the other old female who had passed the test. When re-tested 60 days later In May 2009, one passed, the oldest (again under a great deal of stress and falling when being rounded up using the tractors) was found to be a reactor and the other a second time inconclusive. The latter two were in good physical condition, even the old animal (they showed no clinical signs of TB or any other disease) but both had to be immediately euthanized. We had to sign valuation forms, valuing each at £1100, which was the compensation we were to get. We were then told that the remaining herd would have to be tested again in 60 days and again after that. We therefore felt we had no option but to have the other old female put down at the same time as we did not want her put through any more stressful tests. Only a few weeks before we had called the vet out as she was struggling to walk on the steeper ground. We had thought he would suggest putting her down but he advised she still had a good quality of life and she was much better than much younger dairy cattle he saw. We therefore separated her and the other old female so we could keep them on flatter ground. Surprisingly, at the tests this one had proved the most difficult to pen as she would run straight for those rounding her up or at the vehicle, finding reserves of strength from somewhere, despite her mobility problems. The Ministry vet was happy to put her down and reduce our herd number.
We had previously agreed with Animal Health that we could be present at any postmortem if any of our animals had to be killed. This request had been made several times verbally and also in writing as it was very important to us. We even had written consent agreeing we could attend. However, whilst the dead animals were being loaded into the lorry to be taken away, we were told that because of health and safety rules we would not be allowed to attend. We tried to get this decision reversed but the best that was offered was that we could watch at the door. No-one knew how far away the door was from the postmortem area and whether we would be able to see anything. By this time we were so upset, it was too far to travel if we were not able to see the procedure and we just wanted everyone to go and leave us in peace so we did not attend but the vet promised us faithfully she would let us have the results as soon as possible.
The following morning we were telephoned by the ministry tester vet who advised that none had any signs of lesions at the postmortem but both had signs of liver fluke. Animal Health organized the next test for July but we requested that this be cancelled as we had a lot of other commitments. We explained this to the officers concerned but again we were put under a lot of pressure to test. We wanted to see the results of the tissue culture before agreeing to any more tests. In September we were informed, in writing, that the tissue cultures too were negative. These animals showed no clinical signs of any disease when they were alive, they were in good physical condition, they had no lesions on postmortem and the tissue cultures were negative. We strongly believe that our animals did not have bovine TB. We were not happy with the skin test as we had found several scientific reports indicating it was not totally reliable. We had also found reports that indicated liver fluke could lead to animals failing the test. We again asked several questions which were not answered.
A test was organized for October and we were asked if we would permit access. We said we would but not for the skin test. We were therefore once again threatened with court action and on the 4 October a hearing was booked in Cardiff. The WAG solicitor, acting for Animal Health, advised us that the warrant would not be refused but we prepared a detailed statement and attended the court in Cardiff (WAG agreed to pay our travelling costs as they refused to accommodate our request for the case to be heard at a court more local to us). The whole procedure was a farce. The solicitor had provided the judge with their detailed evidence beforehand in two files. We were only given a copy as we all entered the court and on reading it later we found that copies of some of our letters were missing and text was used out of context, therefore making the evidence against us misleading, unfair and biased. Our genuine handling and health and safety problems were not even mentioned. We were not even permitted to read out our detailed statement which we had spent much of the previous day before preparing. As predicted by the WAG solicitor the warrant was granted with little opportunity given to us to challenge any of the statements made and the tester, equipment and manpower arrived on the 8th October to test the remaining herd again.
The cattle looked wonderful with gleaming coats a picture of health. At this test they were much calmer and were rounded up quickly using the tractor Animal Health again brought with them (ours was again made available to them but was not used). Less hurdles were needed as the herd was now just seven animals. It should also be noted that two of the ones killed in May were the most feisty and difficult to handle (despite the one being arthritic and in her twenty's). The process went smoothly and was completed in a couple of hours. Unfortunately when they returned three days later to read the test one of the females was inconclusive. She was just on the border but the tester agreed we could keep her with the rest of the herd and treat her for liver fluke pending yet another test in December. She then spent some time going through a questionnaire which we were told was for completion by herd owners suffering breakdowns. The emphasis was on badgers, not cattle! We said we rarely see badgers, despite the fact I walk the land most days at dawn/dusk monitoring birds. It was made clear that our animals will have to endure many more tests. We were told that the equipment and manpower would not be available after 2009. The tester did offer to put the whole herd down but we declined the offer. At this time (some 4 months after our animals were killed by Animal Health) we had still not been paid the compensation due to us for the two animals killed. This amounted to £1720 when the 3 test fees of £160 each time had been deducted. We were told that WAG had been instructed to pay us this money and we had no option but to purchase new cattle hurdles and a Highland cattle crush which amounted to well over £3000. This has meant that our expenditure on cattle handling facilities has risen to over £4,000 to handle just 7 animals. We were not able to adapt our existing equipment satisfactorily and could not locate any suitable secondhand equipment. Our priority was to ensure the handling equipment was specifically for Highland cattle to ensure thehandling could be made safe as possible. This equipment has now arrived and the inconclusive female from the October test is due to be re-tested in December. We have treated her against liver fluke as we have found some information which suggests that fluke can cause a positive or inconclusive reaction to the test. During November we had an unannounced visit from the Animal Health vet who turned up to see if we were ready for the December test. I was very poorly at the time of her visit (following a fall whilst fluking the female) and she was made aware of this. A few days later we had a telephone call from someone else at Animal Health giving us a date for the re-test in December. We got back to her and asked if we could finalise the date when I was better, which she agreed to. The same afternoon the vet tester telephoned to give us the same date and when it was explained that we preferred to wait until I was better before we set a date, as had been agreed with her colleague that morning, she was not keen and said she would have to get the permission of WAG! We then had an emailed letter and hard copy in the post later too confirming this was acceptable and we agreed to contact them as soon as we could. We did this in December but the ground was too wet to test (particularly as we had to use tractors for rounding up the animals) but we were told they could test at short notice and could even test over Christmas so a pleasant Christmas for us if our girl does have to be put down. In the end the test had to be postponed to 21 January because of the snow.
In the meantime we had to find an alternative site for the equipment. As we have to use vehicles to round up the herd it needs to be on flat land. During previous tests by Animal Health two different fields have been used, but these have been degraded by many deep ruts from the vehicles. We have therefore now positioned it in a yard area which is accessed by tracks that are not as likely to be damaged by vehicles. This worked reasonably well for the January test, although we tried to get all the herd through the crush to keep them used to the process and the largest male managed to escape over the high bank just as they were all entering the pen of hurdles. This didnt matter on this occasion but I am not sure what we would have done if we had to get them all in and this happened. We will now have to re-fence this area. Thankfully our girl gave a clear reading on the third day and she came out of the crush and rushed to join the rest of the herd. One does wonder why she was so borderline last time and clear this time could it have been liver fluke? She looked great but was not happy about being penned up in such a small enclosure for 3 days away from the rest of her family.
Earlier we had submitted official complaints to DEFRA and the Ombudsman regarding several aspects of our case. The Ombudsman advised that they could only consider a complaint against WAG and this was not relevant in our case as they were following policy so they could take no action. DEFRA forwarded the complaint to Animal Health, the body to whom we were complaining about and which only sent us their complaints procedure after they had received the complaint to deal with, despite knowing for many months that we were not happy with their service! We also complained to WAG about several inaccuracies in their court submission evidence when they sought the warrant for access. Their responses were as expected and it is clear that officials are legally empowered to treat people as they wish, regardless of fairness and reasonableness.
It was only at the end of 2009 that we learnt that our neighbour (a dairy farm) has been on TB related restrictions for some years. Over the last year we have asked officials several times if there were herd breakdowns in our area but no-one has been able to advise. We find this somewhat disturbing if bTB is as infectious as we are being told. We have to travel through our neignbour's farm to get to our land and their cattle do get into our land on occasions. Surely in order to properly manage bio-security and reduce risk, neighbouring farms should be made aware of any herd breakdowns as soon as they are disclosed?
It is now May 2010 and the dreaded 6 months test is due any day. We have fluked all but two of the herd. The two we could not get in. It was the usual struggle, with just the three of us (including our young son). Despite now having the crush and hurdles, it is still really hard. The hardest bit is getting them in and they now hate the sound of the tractor as we try and round them up. The crush, which we bought as one specifically designed for Highland cattle, is proving too short in length for some of the older males so we cannot do up the gate and have to lock them in place using a scaffold tube, which is not as safe. There is also concern regarding the 2 foot tube that is used to lift position the yolk. It is held up by a spring and on the last occasion it did not lock in properly and fell on me. Thankfully I did not catch its full impact but the end scraped down by cheek and it was a frightening experience as I realised how close I had come to a serious injury. It is a very stressful process trying to maneuver the cattle, all had the squirts from the rich spring grass so the poles were slippery with muck.. We are, of course, dreading the next test.
I don't know what the future holds for our herd but I do know that as they get older and we lose more animals, will we decide not to keep cattle in the future? If the existing inflexible regime for bTB continues are we prepared to spend increasing time on more and more tests with the associated health and safety risks, even with our new, modern equipment? My husband has a long term neck problem and the stress and physical exertion each time is taking its toll on him. Are we prepared to suffer the continued anguish of waiting for the results each time, knowing that animals we spend time with and care about may, at any time, be needlessly destroyed? What will happen to our land if it is not grazed by cattle and will we lose the diversity we have built up so successfully over the years?
In July 2010 we lost our oldest male - natural causes, he was very old. Sadly, he had to be taken as fallen stock. We now realise cattle, even those kept as pets, are treated merely as a commodity and not as sentient beings. We were not even allowed to bury him because of yet more regulations. Yet more red tape insists on all cattle which die aged 48 months or older have to be tested for BSE. This used to be free but since January 2009 the collection, testing and disposal charges are paid for by the cattle owner. It cost us £150. As the lorry entered our yard I wondered just how many other farms it had visited and the bio-securoity risks it presented - we have goats which regularly use the yard. He drove in before we had noticed he had arrived and did not wash his tyres. Neither did he wash his boots when he got out to load the carcass. I asked him how many he could carry and he said eight. He told me TB cattle were collected weekly, usually on a Wednesday and currently around 20 per week were being collected. I mentioned we had lost two of our animals to TB but we were confident they did not have the disease. He said he didn't think it was as big a problem as the powers that be claimed but, "it provides work for everyone"! That just about sums it all up - but at what cost to others?
At one point it all seemed too much to bear and I contacted the Farm Crisis Network (0845 367 9990). This is a charity which provides support to farming people during periods of stress, anxiety and problems. Whilst she could not change anything, the volunteer who contacted me listened and certainly enabled me to clarify my thoughts and move forward.