23 Jul 2010, 2:46 PM
We have an organic farm in West Wales. We have various livestock, including a herd of traditional Hereford (rare breed) cattle that are reared for beef and breeding stock. We also kept two Jerseys as house cows. We are in Tir Gofal so the cattle are also important for conservation grazing. We were tested annually for bTB and were clear until 2008. However, following the routine skin test in August 2008 we have now lost around two thirds of our herd. None showed any signs of clinical symptoms and appeared healthy. However, all those slaughtered revealed lesions at post-mortem (mainly in the lung area and one in the head area).
At the August 2008 skin test eleven animals reacted positively and were taken for slaughter. We had the herd breakdown confirmed and were put on movement restriction. In the skin test undertaken sixty days later, a further two animals were identified as reactors and then, as a result of the blood test we opted to have with the skin test, a further animal was identified as a reactor. This animal had tested clear with the skin test. The other two animals had failed both the skin and blood tests. The whole testing procedure and herd breakdown regime is difficult and very time consuming. As my husband has to work full time and I do most of the routine farm work, I was the one who had to undertake most of the work involved and the mammoth task of disinfecting after each test. I was not well at the time and it put an enormous amount of pressure on both me and the rest of my family.
It was also clear that the official system was not coping with the number of breakdowns in the vicinity and there were many delays, including arranging for animals to be taken for slaughter. This ended up taking several weeks, during which time we had to find ways of keeping the condemned animals away from the rest of our herd. We have limited holding facilities and fields available for grazing. It was a stressful and very difficult time for our cattle and us. Calves and their mothers had to be split up, spent a lot of time calling and trying to get to each other.
We were then required to have two clear skin tests, at sixty-day intervals, before the restrictions could be lifted. Following this period we were placed on a six monthly testing regime. We remained clear up until March 2010, when following the routine skin test, four were identified as positive and three inconclusive (out of our 17 remaining animals). Winter proved to be an even more difficult time to have a herd breakdown than the previous bout, which occurred in the summer months. Our usual policy is to keep the Jersey cattle housed during the winter and the Herefords stay outdoors. Both are fed regularly throughout the winter months. As our Tir Gofal scheme prohibits us feeding in most of the fields we only have two available for the cattle. This posed problems, as we now had to isolate into four separate groups; the four identified positive and three inconclusive, and the ones that had passed the test (housed Jerseys and outdoor Herefords). There was also an additional complication in that we had treated for liver fluke and the herd was still in the withdrawal period and could not therefore be taken to the usual abattoir for human consumption. The Ministry tester advised they would have to be slaughtered on site and collected as fallen stock. We were obviously concerned regarding the safety and welfare issues involved and asked the Animal Health officials involved many questions. We were told we would not be able to use our crush and a small paddock was identified where the animals would be killed using a bolt gun. At that time we were not aware of or offered any alternatives and our questions regarding safety risks and welfare issues were not considered relevant.
The four that had tested positive were retained in the small paddock and the local knacker duly arrived. As I was not available it was left to my husband to assist with the process. The first two animals were caught and killed fairly quickly as they had been hand reared and came rushing over to the feed buckets offered (one had been hand reared by my 10-year old son, who was obviously devastated at losing what looked to be a very healthy animal he had become very fond of and could not even go for human consumption). The other two were horned and far more difficult to handle, particularly as they had seen the other two shot. My husband eventually managed to restrain each of these large, strong animals, using a rope around their horns. He was then expected to restrain each whilst they were shot, using just the rope. At any time the animal could have fallen on to him. There were serious health and safety risks for him and he was not happy with the process or welfare issues involved, particularly as the shot missed one of them, only grazing the animal making it bleed. It could have hit my husband. It was an extremely stressful and traumatic time for him and for my elderly mother who was also present. I was very annoyed when I later discovered from a farming friend that we could have had these animals put down by lethal injection. I later spoke to an Animal Health official regarding this and she confirmed we did indeed have a legal right to insist on this so why, when the officials were well aware of our limited facilities, were we not offered this as a much safer and more humane option? As these four were all found to have lesions we were told the three IRs had to be slaughtered too without a further test. These animals were still in the fluke withdrawal period but I was aware that this was nearly up and I was adamant that we would not have them killed on the farm. I suggested waiting a few days and Animal Health agreed so they went for slaughter at the abattoir in the usual way.
One of our Jersey cows then developed a large abscess on the actual site of the TB injection about a week after the test. It crusted over, then perforated around the edge and finally started bleeding. Our vet had never seen anything like it, cut the abscess out and alerted Animal Health. The cow was put on a dose of antibiotics. A blood test went off to check for EBL (another notifiable disease apparently not seen in the UK since 1996), and it came back negative. The ministry vet was worried it may be clinical signs of bTB. However, she did point out that she had previously dealt with six cases where she had suspected clinical signs but none of these had been confirmed on slaughter. I felt uncomfortable as she kept asking me if I had seen clinical signs and did I think it was TB! I am not a vet and it is somewhat worrying that even the experts do not really know what they are looking for! Animal Health were not pleased to hear that our vet had discarded the tissue so they were not able to undertake any further tests. There then seemed to be much uncertainty on the part of the officials involved as to what to do with the remainder of our herd, which had by this point been reduced to just 11 animals.
Interestingly, earlier in the year four of the cattle (the Jersey referred to above and three of the Herefords) were found to have lumps in the vicinity of the TB injection point. Our vet suggested this could have been a bacterial infection at the site following their routine injection against clostridium some weeks before. She explained that if injections are performed outdoors in wet weather there is more of a risk of infection. After the March skin test, the three with the lumps were clear (including the Jersey with the subsequent abscess referred to above) and one was an IR and slaughtered. It was found to have evidence of lesions.
However, following the test in May 2010 the Jersey, which had the abscess and a Hereford that was in calf tested positive. There was some debate as to whether or not the Jerseyís calf (which had tested clear) would have to go too, as I was told new rules meant that any calves under two months old had to be slaughtered too if there mother tested positive. Luckily for that calf, it was not until some three weeks later that we were contacted regarding arrangements to move them from the farm, so the calf was spared this time. Jersey was collected in June, at very short notice, for slaughter at the abattoir. However, we were not sure of the calving date for the Hereford as the bull runs with the herd. It was clear that she had started to bag up so we were told she would have to be slaughtered on the farm, for welfare reasons, as she was too pregnant to transport in a lorry. Animal Health telephoned and advised that the slaughter man would be coming the next day at 11am to kill the in-calf Hereford on the farm. Following the previous incident which had been so stressful and hazardous for my husband and had serious welfare implications for the cattle killed, I advised we did not want any more shot on the farm. In any case as my husband had now exhausted his annual leave (mainly from having to help with the TB tests), he was not able to be present and I was not prepared to have to hold a horned and unrestrained animal whilst it was shot. She was not an easy animal to handle. The official I spoke to was unhelpful and very officious. I asked if an Animal Health vet could come and euthanise her. He said this was not possible but I could get our vet to do this at our cost. This seemed unfair, particularly as it had previously been confirmed that we could opt for this method by Animal Health. I told him about the farming friend who had three of her animals put down by the Animal Health vet, following a TB test, without charge to them. He said this could not have been the case as they never did this and asked for details of her farm. I said I would have to get her permission to release this information and he asked why this was so and did she have something to hide?! This seemed an odd comment. I contacted my friend and she was happy for me to give him her name and farm, which I did. He also asked me for her holding number which I had not got! He did find her details and said that there were reasons, which I may not be aware of, as to why her cattle were euthanized by an Animal Health vet but he was adamant that he would not do the same for us as he said it would open the floodgates for others to request this and they had a contract with the local abattoir. This is somewhat disturbing. I know the full details of my friendís case and canít think of any reason why he could not make an exception for us too. He said we could use a marksman as they had a contract with one and he would get back to me with the costs as we would have to pay. He made frequent references to the fact that we were legally obliged to provide the necessary equipment. He kept making reference to the new TB order that had just come into force and how our compensation payments could be affected if we do not comply. I stressed we did have appropriate handling equipment for testing but not for slaughter and the legislation did not insist on the latter. When we had started to farm we never expected to have to have our animals slaughtered on our land. The previous Animal Health vet had told us that we could not use our crush for the slaughter of the last lot that had been shot on the farm, and therefore I assumed this was not an option for the in-calf Hereford. He kept asking why we could not hold her using a gate pressed up against her. I said we were not prepared to do this, as it was not safe. I wondered how many people were given this advice?
The slaughter man turned up on the farm at 8am, so he was turned away. He was not scheduled to come until 11am and we had still not resolved the problems of how we were going to kill her safely and humanely. I again contacted Animal Health and spoke to the same officer. He again stressed we must comply with our legal requirements and why couldnít we use our crush. I reiterated we had previously been told it was not suitable for shooting an animal. He said who told us this and I confirmed it was an Animal Health officer! He said the problem would be getting the animal out once it had died and didnít we have chains and a tractor so we could move the crush. I explained that if we moved the crush we would not be able to get the animal into it as we relied on fencing at this location to get cattle into the crush. By this time his condescending attitude was making me very upset and I was at the end of my tether. I felt powerless to do anything. All I wanted to do was to safeguard us and ensure the killing was humane. Isnít it bad enough having to be forced to have our cattle killed without having to contend with uncaring, officious bureaucrats? It is clear that most of those I have spoken to have no practical experience of cattle on smallholdings. I have found it very confusing as I often get different responses depending on whom you speak to and it would seem the answers given are those to suit their needs. It was clear that the officer was not prepared to help. I had wasted yet another morning trying to comply. It is clear these people are not concerned about other commitments we may have. I have to care for the farm and an elderly parent, and home educate my sons, who have special needs. This testing regime is really taking its toll on our family life. He telephoned again later that morning and said he had spoken to the slaughter man and he was happy to try and do it in the crush. I ended up agreeing that I would get her into the crush and the slaughter man would come and deal with her as best he could. He turned up and I decided to go out and leave him to it, as I could not bear to be present. I do not know what happened as I stayed indoors but it did not take long before I heard the lorry leaving. I thought about the fully developed baby in her stomach and wondered how long it would take for him or her to die.
With regards to the compensation, we received a reasonable figure for the first lot of cattle slaughtered as we were able to use our own valuer who specialised in the rare breed Herefords we kept and so had more of an idea of their actual worth. However, for the subsequent losses, we had to use Animal Healthís appointed valuer who was not as knowledgeable and used figures from the lower end of the scale which we were not able to challenge. It was clear that it very much depends on the individual valuer as to how much compensation is finally paid for lost stock. However, the amount received only reflects market rates for the animal and does not cover the indirect costs or loss of rare, irreplaceable bloodline stock. It does not cover the significant labour time, effort and associated expenses regarding the very onerous testing procedure, consequences of the herd breakdown, health and safety risks involved or severe stress and inconvenience to family life and loss of business income.
At this stage we do not know what will happen to our remaining herd. We have not been able to re-stock because of the movement. We have been told by our vet that if we do lose our herd it would be unwise to stock again for at least five years but presumably if the disease is still around in neighbouring herds/wildlife/other stock, there are no guarantees we could stay free of this disease on our farm as it is obviously so rife in the area and I donít know how much longer we can put up with the bureaucracy and stress involved.
The Hereford that was in calf and shot on the farm as a reactor had no evidence of any lesions and the laboratory tissue culture was negative too. The Jersey cow (which had only reacted to the last test and had passed all previous tests) was apparently riddled with lesions. Sadly at our last (60 day interval) test we had a further three which were inconclusive but all very borderline. As we have a confirmed herd breakdown test readings are under the severe interpretation rule. These animals have been separated from the rest of the herd and will be tested again in 60 days.
I was surprised to receive a telephone call from an Animal Health vet last week. She referred to a complaint I had made to WAG about the testing procedure. When I confirmed I had not submitted a complaint to WAG it became clear that they had read this case study and although my contact details were not published someone had identified our case from the information given. They are now looking into the complaints I have made.
We had the next due test week commencing 4th October 2010. I am delighted to say that all our remaining cattle passed this one!. I was amazed to say the least. I thought that our remaining animals would gradually be taken from us one or two at a time. The last test had three as IR but they were all clear this time! We now have six months before we have to endure the whole procedure again! The testing procedure is time consuming and risky. We are forced to do it even though it is so risky. We try to do it as safely as we can but when you are dealing with large, strong animals everything is unpredictable and chaotic. You end up having to take risks to get it done. For example they will only enter the crush when the front yolk doors are open and then we (usually my son) have to slam them shut before they barge through. Since the last test one of the IRs has calved - a heifer - so that's a bit of good news.
The March 2011 test we were clear - much rejoicing - but for low long? Also I was struggling to do the test myself, even with fewer cattle, so my husband had to take time off work this time. We also had a young male that was particularly difficult to handle.