Return of TB stalls Deer Park Farm expansion plans

Martin Howlett is deeply disappointed in the government’s Independent Scientific Group’s refusal to sanction a badger cull, just weeks after two more TB reactors were discovered among his cattle.

Mr Howlett and his family had hoped to be clear of TB. But tests in May found two further reactors, frustrating their plans for expansion.

“There’s a real feeling of abandonment for myself and other farmers. We’ve gone through 10 years of research and waiting.

“The Krebs trials took place close to our farm. Now they talk about a cull not being cost-effective. But economics shouldn’t come into it. This has to be solved one way or another.”

Last month a Highland steer tested positive, proving that the pool of infection is established on Kit Hill, where the cattle are grazed, and ruling out Mr Howlett’s theory that bought-in Welsh Black stores could have brought the disease with them.

“This puts a whole new perspective on my stock management, because we’re trapped,” says Mr Howlett.

The group of 100 cattle under TB restrictions can only be sent back to the grass keep, where they will be exposed to TB again, or kept on an isolation unit at Deer Park Farm.

“And we can’t take fresh grass keep because nobody wants to know.”

At least Mr Howlett has been permitted to sell finished cattle, and 40 will be taken on to slaughter weights, presenting a further problem if they are turned out on Kit Hill, which has basic handling facilities.

“The last thing I want to do is turn them out to summer keep and draw fat cattle every week without any facilities.”

Instead, Animal Health has agreed to split 40ha (100 acres) of Deer Park Farm into an isolation unit, enabling Mr Howlett to finish and handle the cattle more easily.

The remaining 60 cattle have been returned to grass keep.

Faced with an uncertain future, Mr Howlett has been considering the longer-term implications of TB.

“If we are still under restriction this time next year we are unlikely to replace the Highland cattle as they are so difficult to handle during testing.

“We will also retract from grass keep and condense the livestock back onto the home farm unit.

“That is sad because it doesn’t allow us to expand as we wanted, and is a disappointing prospect against a backdrop of industry reassurances to simplify movement regulation in the near future.”

The implications for Mr Howlett are far-reaching. Not only will short-term plans like selling suckled calves in the autumn look doubtful, but the family’s tax planning will be seriously scuppered, as the second unit was created to enable Mr Howlett and his brother Geoff to operate separately from their parents’ farm.

“We’re having our options taken away from us bit by bit through disease restrictions and poor regulation, despite trying to take things forward.”

This frustration was mirrored by many farmers at the Royal Cornwall Show earlier this month, who Mr Howlett greeted as the county NFU chairman for the first time.

“We had two positive and upbeat receptions, but there was a definite air that we are being held back. I do believe that there is a positive future long-term, but we need the powers that be to allow us to move forward and alleviate this short-term frustration.”

Mr Howlett’s frustrations continue into the sheep enterprise. “We tried three times to get our new season lambs booked in to Jaspers, but they wouldn’t take them despite buying others out of the markets.”

The lambs finally went to slaughter on 4 June at a 260p/kg base price, and Mr Howlett was disappointed that 20% were, by then, overweight.

“The processors are playing games with us, and the disastrous drop in price has rocked the confidence of the whole sector.”