Opinion: England should have post-movement TB testing

Please could we have some more regulations.

It’s not often that you will hear a hill farmer say that. It’s a rare thing – almost as rare as hearing anyone from the SNP admitting that an independent Scotland would have been struggling with oil prices at under $60 (£39) a barrel.

However, just before Christmas, as part of its strategy for dealing with bovine TB, Defra announced a move towards statutory post-movement TB testing for cattle entering low-risk areas of England. 

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This is something that my husband has been virtually stopping people in the street to grumble about since we had our own problems with a TB reactor two years ago.

Following that test, the reactor was slaughtered and our herd was put on to a standstill for 60 days, giving rise to all sorts of unexpected logistical and cashflow problems, not to mention worry over the next test.

It turned out to be a temporary problem for us because the remaining herd passed the 60-day test and the lab results on the original reactor came back negative for TB. However, the whole episode brought home to us the very serious consequences of the cattle contracting this disease.

Northumberland is currently a low-risk area. We are lucky that TB is not endemic in the local wildlife and that we are a long way away from a hotspot.

This means that the main risk of infection is from introducing animals from places that are already affected and TB being transmitted from them into the local wildlife. If that happened, it would be difficult to stop it spreading, as everyone in the South West knows.

At present, all cattle moving from high-risk areas have to undergo pre-movement testing within 60 days of the movement date. The problem is that the cattle could still become infected in the interim between testing and movement.

Without post-movement testing this could go undetected, giving the disease the opportunity to spread.

Scotland has had post-movement testing since 2005. However, there is currently no such requirement in England.

Given the stress, cost and inconvenience that a positive TB test causes not only to the affected farm, but also its neighbours, you would think that deciding not to buy in cattle from TB high-risk areas would be a no-brainer.

But there always seem to be people, particularly those dealing in store cattle, who think it is worth the risk because they might be able to buy on the cheap.

If people want to take a risk they should be able to do so – but with the safeguard of post-movement testing to give some protection to their neighbours against infection through the early detection of the disease. Additionally, having to bear the costs of testing may focus minds as to whether the whole exercise is worthwhile.

So, I would support these measures, which may help to prevent the spread of bovine TB into current low-risk areas, while proper steps are taken to reduce TB within the high-risk area.

However there is something about the phrase used in the Defra announcement, “there are plans to launch a consultation about a package of measures… in the new year” which doesn’t seem to imply much urgency.

Maybe this is just be how civil servants express themselves. However, it does have echoes of my own diet and fitness plans, which have been announced many times, usually for implementation in the new year, made with the best of intentions, but which somehow always seem to get overtaken by events. This time I hope it happens.

Elizabeth Elder

Elizabeth Elder and her husband Jake run sheep and cattle on 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland.

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