Bovine TB Outbreak in Cumbria Print this pagePrint this page

A Cumbrian farmer has spoken of his heartbreak after losing the majority of his milk herd to bovine TB. Robert Threlfell, of Plumpton Head Farm, near Penrith, was devastated when tests came back positive,leading to 103 of his 260 milkers being slaughtered. He also expressed anger at what he described as the ‘absolutely pitiful’ compensation he will receive for the slaughtered animals.

According to Robert Threlfell 30 bull calves were tested before they were sold and did not react to the test in December 2010. However, in early March two out of five more tested positive – and the nightmare began. Robert said; “That was when we had a herd test and the 57 which were in the same shed as these two had TB. It was all in one part of the cowshed. They have now been slaughtered. It’s a closed herd (there have not been movements of animals off or on to the farm recently) and we’ll just have to build back up with our own replacements, so it is going to be a long process.”

As a result of this breakdown Animal Health and and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) checked surrounding farms as cases of bovine TB are rare in this area. Gonzalo Sanchez, north west veterinary lead for the AHVLA, said contiguous testing on surrounding farms was being carried out and stressed that everything possible was being done to identify the source of infection. He added: “Bovine TB outbreaks in Cumbria are very rare and there are serious implications for the affected cattle owner. We’re pursuing epidemiological investigations to find where it has come from and where it has gone to. We’re working really hard to locate the source of infection. We’re trying to assess how long the farm was infected – there was a previous clear test there 18 months ago. It is a very closed herd and there has not been movements of animals off or onto the farm recently. There is no evidence of wildlife infection.”

One neighbour’s herd tested clear at the time of the discovery and a few weeks later (May 2011), a second neighbour’s herd was apparently also been given the all-clear. As at May 2011 no new cases were found at the Threlfell’s farm. Their remaining 439 pedigree cattle will be tested again in 60 days and again 60 days later.

AHVLA spokesman Matthew Ford said: “Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of bovine TB in animals removed from the TB breakdown herd. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratory Agency (AHVLA) is now continuing with its investigation to find the source of the infection. FARMS neighbouring the herd where 100 cows were slaughtered after being struck down with TB have so far tested negative for the disease. An investigation is now underway to identify the type (spoligotype) of TB involved in the breakdown. This information, which may take several weeks to obtain, could help the epidemiological investigation to determine where the disease originated from. The epidemiological investigation is ongoing, with AHVLA keeping an open mind about possible sources of infection. The TB testing of neighbouring premises is continuing.” Mr Ford said that while every effort was being made to trace the source of the disease, it was not always possible to ascertain the origin of bovine TB for every TB breakdown.

John Threlfell is not happy with the compensation he will receive for the slaughtered animals. He said: “The Government give you payment for the loss but it is absolutely pitiful. I would say it is about £150,000-£200,000 short of what it should be. That is without adding in the loss of milk. I have lost about £15,000 of income from milk in one month.” He added: “The earliest we can think about replacements will be September and we’ve not decided how we will approach this yet. We’ve not lost too many young stock so we will probably be able to build up from young stock.”

The family has built its pedigree holstein herd since 1970, breeding its own replacements for years.

How the disease got into the herd is still a mystery but the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has told Mr Threlfell the most likely source is nose-to-nose contact with neighbouring cattle.

It is one of the most serious single outbreaks of bovine TB ever seen in Cumbria. There were only three bovine TB outbreaks in that county last year.

Jeremy Hunt, in Farmers Weekly on 3 June 2011 reported calls from some farmers for immediate mass TB testing of all bovines in Cumbria to contain bovine TB, but suggests this would not be widely supported in the farming community. In response to this a letter from Jack Reedy of the Badger Trust refers to the history of bovine TB which he claims is littered with failure to study the facts and a lack of understanding by many people about the disease, its causes and what to do about it. He says the Cumbria breakdown has raised several crucial points: an official was reported as saying; “It is a very closed herd and there has not been movement of animals off or onto the farm recently”. Recently? If any animals are moved on to a farm at any time the herd is not “closed” as is claimed here. Furthermore the herd is in a four-year test interval area. This risks missing some infected cattle, thus spreading the disease to infect other cattle in the herd, and with the ever-present danger of some being missed when eventually tested.

The Badger Trust says essential lessons of history are repeatedly ignored and that annual testing should be introduced over the whole country and they cite the successful textbook Area Eradication Scheme of the post-war years. This also involved the isolation of 21 areas nationwide until they were clear. 'Expensive and disruptive perhaps, but essential' the Trust says.

In 1961 the official report (The Eradication of bovine tuberculosis in Britain. W.D. Macrae (MAFF), Symp, Zool. Soc., Lond. No. 4, pp. 81-90 (Published April, 1961)) of the post-war scheme said, of cases missed by the single intradermal comparative cervical test: “Nevertheless, an animal with a slight non-progressive infection and in which tuberculin reactivity has largely or completely disappeared is of great danger in a herd if, under conditions of stress, reactivation of the earlier infection takes place followed by generali zation. When this happens, a large number of reactors (breakdown) may be expected among animals in contact”.

So what is the lesson of history? The Badger Trust insist annual testing should be restored. They say: "This was relaxed in the mid-1980s followed by the inexorable rise in bovine TB after 20 years of low-level, contained incidents. For 11 of those years badgers were sporadically exterminated locally with no overall effect at all. The clamour for badger culling has been a dangerous distraction, inviting the comfortable mirage of a cheap shortcut to unrestricted trading in live cattle".

Information sources

Badger Trust letter to Farmers Weekly - email dated 8/6/11

Updated 25/07/11 (source:

Two animals sold from the Penrith dairy herd at the centre of this bovine TB outbreak have tested positive for the disease and been destroyed. Government vets traced around 100 animals from Plumpton Head Farm, sold in the months before the outbreak was discovered. Two of them at farms in the Penrith area have reacted to skin tests.

David Wild, regional operations director for Animal Health North West, said that all cattle on the two farms where the reactors were found will now be tested. But as the source of the infection is known, he said, the latest development should not add to farmers’ concern. He added: “The animals were removed straight away from the affected farms. We still have to follow the testing regime on these farms to make sure those traced animals did not spread it on those farms.” It was expected that testing on farms within a three-kilometre zone around Plumpton Head would be completed by the end of July 2011.

The area around Plumpton Head, a closed herd owned by the Threlfell family, has been made a potential hotspot. More than 100 cattle were slaughtered at the farm soon after the outbreak was discovered in March 2011. More recently one animal tested positive for the disease on a neighbouring dairy holding. Update 1/8/11 According to an article in the Westmorland Gazette on 1/8/11 farmers are being urged to report on the whereabouts of badger setts. At a public meeting Animal Health veterinary officer Tanis Brough addressed an audience at Stoneybeck Inn, Penrith, updating farmers on the latest situation with the disease after an outbreak in Eden. Robert Threlfell, of Plumpton Head Farm, near Penrith, was devastated when tests came back positive, leading to 103 of his 260 milkers being slaughtered. Gonzalo Sanchez-Cabezudo, Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency's (AHVLA) regional veterinary lead, confirmed the disease was then found in a neighbouring farm and at one in Kirkby Stephen. Experts are awaiting results from four other farms - two in Cumbria and two outside the county - which Mr Threlfell sold cattle to before learning some of his cattle had the disease. Ms Brough, who worked on the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Cumbria in 2001, as well as avian influenza in 2007, said: “I want to make an appeal and ask if anybody knows about any risk factors that you think may be relevant to please contact me. If farmers or anyone can let me know of the locations of active or inactive badger setts, they can let me know. “It is easy for people to say: ‘There’s a lot of badgers, but unless I know where, I can’t work with it, so please if you have that information please give it to me. I am not wanting to alarm anybody about badgers, I have no evidence of it being in wildlife, but we need to find out more in order to get a clearer picture.” “I always describe disease outbreaks like a tap - if a tap is leaking, we can mop up the water on the ground, but unless we go back to the tap and discover the problem, we will only get more. We always have to go back to the source and find out why it is happening.” Ms Brough explained there were two distinct groups at the farm which had the disease - a shed of high yielding milk cows and a group of young bucket-fed calves. “We are asking the questions, why did it happen in those groups? How did it get in? This was a closed herd. Nineteen calves were tested before being sold in November and they were clear, so the infection most likely occured very late in December. It is a completely unknown source.”

Update 17/8/11

According to the MP, Rory Stewart, writing in the Herald 23/7/11 there are some 200,000 cattle in Penrith and the Border and he believes the bTB answer can't just be "less restrictions and less badgers". He says the latest outbreaks did not come from badgers but almost certainly from cattle coming in from the South West. He cites the possible reasons as pre movement testing only picking up 70% of infected cattle; dealers can leave their cattle for a short time in non infected parishes then sell them at a auction mart as though they had alays been in a clean area; and it seems that a farmer can link a field to a field in a completely different county as a single holding and thus get round the necessity for pre-movement testing.

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