23 May 2010, 6:39 PM
The Impact of Bovine TB on 68 Farming Families – Information from the Farm Crisis Network’s Report ‘Stress and Loss’
The full report is freely available at:
The Farm Crisis Network (FCN) has published a 40-page report entitled 'Stress and Loss' which investigates the impact of bovine TB (bTB) on families in the hot spot areas. 68 farmers were given the opportunity to talk about bTB and the impact it has on them and their families. To our knowledge this is the only research of its kind to date, which is surprising bearing in mind that it is well known that suicide rates in the farming industry are high and TB restrictions put an immense amount of pressure on farmers. The FCN report was produced in response to the significant percentage of calls they receive from families faced with problems as a result of herd breakdowns from bTB. FCN is having to deal with an increasing number of cases for which TB related issues are a major problem and those relating to financial difficulty, depression or family break-up often have TB as an underlying cause. Disturbingly, in some cases, bTB has become so much a part of life that it is sometimes not even specified.
There are many families struggling under the stress and loss of living with TB who never ask for help but whose business and quality of life are severely eroded by it. The resilience of many farmers in this country is incredible and not always to their advantage. FCN was concerned that as the debate rages on about the causes of bTB, the efficacy of the testing regime and the best means of eradicating the disease, there is apparently little public or official thought for the families who find themselves dealing with the practical realities of living and working with the threat or aftermath of a breakdown.
The report summarises conclusions from interviews with farmers in three TB hot spot areas - West Wales, the South West and Worcestershire, who had suffered breakdowns in the previous two years prior to publication of the report. The interviews were all carried out by FCN volunteers. It is clear from reading the text that the stress involved is acute and long-term. The emotional affect on farmers and their families ranged between feeling the pressure but coping, through to actual physical illness caused by stress and, in some cases, feelings of not wanting to carry on. For most farming businesses it was clear that the impacts impinged on the whole family. Many were suffering financially as a result of breakdowns, mainly as a result of reductions in sales of milk or beef caused by the loss of culled animals and the inability to market store cattle. There were also many comments about the extra costs of having to buy extra feed and bedding for stock which had to be finished instead of being sold as stores, putting up new buildings for them and employing extra labour. In the case of farms with pedigree cattle there were losses as a result of being unable to gain a premium for pedigree sales whilst the herd was under movement restrictions and the cost of losing valued lines, which had been bred on the farm by generations of the farming family. These losses were increased because the compensation given did not cover the premium value of pedigree cattle. This was a problem for those on organic systems too.
Many farmers were skeptical about the accuracy of the test and felt the wildlife reservoir of TB was not being addressed. 81% of the farmers interviewed considered the disease should be tackled in badgers or other wildlife. This reveals that the government has failed to persuade these farmers that culling badgers would be ineffective in controlling TB. Interestingly just three respondents from West Wales were cheered by the announcement about a pilot cull scheme in Wales.
Farmers were concerned that the officials involved appeared to be only concerned with the practicalities of testing and imposition of restrictions, with no real effort being made to discuss the causes and prevention of TB. It was felt that the official communication left much to be desired. Farmers were asked about the helpfulness of communication about testing, about causes of TB and about prevention. There was a mixed response about the helpfulness of communication about testing but average scores were worse for communication about causes of the disease and worse again for prevention. There were hints that officials started off enthusiastic about being helpful but lost interest as time went on and their advice was not working or was not taken. It seemed that the comments were so dominated by the need to tackle TB in badgers and other wildlife that other advice was considered to be ineffectual or impractical and so was ignored. There were also comments that vets were not allowed to advise freely because government doesn’t allow them to say what they think. There was confusion about why many cattle have no lesions and farmers wanted more evidence that these cattle had the disease.
Only 29% of those interviewed could manage their farms so that TB free cattle could be kept away from infected cattle. So for most farmers having any cattle reacting to the TB test effectively produces a risk of the disease spreading throughout the herd. It also disrupts management of the farm by effectively ending marketing of cattle except for slaughter.
More than half the restrictions lasted less than a year but there were a small number of farms where restrictions had gone on for five years or more. The results also showed that testing is very stressful to the farmers. Overall each test averaged 48 hours of farm labour and in many cases extra staff had to be employed - at the farmer's expense. Less than a third of the farmers interviewed bought replacement cattle after they had culled reactors. This was often because they wanted to breed their own replacements and did not want to break their system of closed herds. There was concern that the compensation paid did not cover associated losses like production lost whilst finding suitable replacements.
“The worst thing was that cows very close to calving had to be shot on farm. We could see the calves kicking inside as they died.“
“I feel there is a constant dark cloud of uncertainty over me, causing stress, anxiety and fear. I feel weary, mentally and physically which results in pain in my body.”
“Financially it is very stressful. Cash flow is a huge problem. Having to keep animals when I would normally sell them puts more pressure on me, on my family, animal accommodation and feed costs. I don’t know how long we can keep going.”
“I am frustrated by the situation and very anxious but we keep going as we feel there is no real alternative. My father was a dairy farmer and I hope the family will continue the tradition. I am determined to keep going if at all possible."
Farm Crisis Network provides pastoral ad practical support to farming families facing difficult times. It has a national helpline. This is staffed every day between 7am and 11pm. 0845 367 9990
FCN is a UK network of groups of volunteers drawn from the farming community and rural churches. FCN volunteers are there to ‘walk with’ and support farming people and families as they seek to resolve their problems, whatever they may be.