Wildlife cull could be necessary in hot-spots

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FOG, frost, rain, sunshine, wind; we’ve had it all in this month, and yet overall temperatures are good, with a spring like feel in the air. The birds are full of song around the farm, especially in the early mornings. The last of the sheep are due to move off, which has worked well.

They have finished grazing all the fields which needed grazing, and the end of January is as late as I would want sheep on the farm, as it affects the quantity of spring grass if they are here any longer than that.

Cattle can graze silage fields up until the end of March without any detrimental effect in yield, and the young-stock at Tillingon will be doing just that as their own grazing paddocks are rested and allowed to grow on, which will get them on a proper rotation from the first of April.

Fertilizer is being delivered this month, and it will not be that long before we apply that first light dressing to get things going.

Should we get a dry spell in the next couple of months, I may even apply some dirty water to the silage fields at Crouchlands, which always gets the grass growing; but we are a long way from that today.

n The sugar-beet growers are in trouble due to weather conditions. The frosty weather in November and December meant that the crop could not be lifted.

The frost damages the crown, and the warm wet weather which followed has prevented harvesting, and the crop has deteriorated significantly.

It is now doubtful whether there is sufficient sugar in the root to justify harvesting and processing. Major negotiations are taking place with British Sugar to see what can be done.

n I see that the number of dairy farmers continues to drop; unsurprisingly.

A drop of 4 per cent over the year left just 11,000 dairy farmers in England and Wales, with 500 dairy farmers (10 a week) giving up. In the South East we are now only 263 in number, and likely to become an endangered species very soon.

The reasons are many, poor returns, no succession (partly as a result of poor returns), new legislation on slurry storage (significant capital investment needed), bovine TB (a major factor in the west), and so on.

The actual position is always a little worse than stated, due to these figures being released by the Dairy Hygiene Inspectorate and not every dairy farmer by a long way will notify the DHI that they have given up.

Looking at the graph, where it takes a fairly straight line from 19,000 in 2002 to 11,000 in 2010, we are again on course to halve the number of dairy farmers every ten years.

This must now ease off, otherwise there will be no dairy farmers left in ten years time, but 5,000 dairy farmers by 2020 is very likely. Others will expand, but with Nocton dairies still battling for public support and planning, and the current government’s ‘localism’ agenda, I do worry about the future of milk production in this country.

n Many, many farmers in the west will sell up just as soon as they can get a clear test for bTB; they have had enough, but need a clear test in order to be in a position to sell their cattle.

Many more are continuing with their dairy business until 2011, when the new slurry storage regulation becomes compulsory, and they will give up then.

Others are cruising towards retirement, with no succession, and will either sell up, or keep a few beef and sheep, taking it easy after a lifetime of very hard work and total commitment to their cows.

I took part in a major debate on bTB last week in Pershore, Worcestershire.

It was all very civilised and orderly, but it is interesting to note the public’s reaction when alternatives are discussed. Keeping all the dairy cows in sealed buildings all year round is bio-secure, and would very much minimise contact with badgers.

Low level electric fencing would be employed, keeping badgers away from the silage clamps and feeding stores.

This was not popular with farmers of course, but it was significantly less popular with the general public, who want to see dairy cows out at grass in the spring and summer.

The Badger Trust spokesman did recognize that badgers are infected and are a source of re-infection, and by the end of the evening seemed to me to be partly resigned to the fact that a wildlife cull is necessary in the hot-spot areas in order to bring things under control, and allow a much better situation for vaccination and other measures in the future, as and when such measures become available.

I learned that the badger protection act has done little if anything to curb the illegal and abhorrent badger baiting activity.

What it has done of course is made it illegal for law abiding farmers and landowners to control badger numbers in the way that we control deer, foxes, rabbits, grey squirrels and so on.

Coupled with the amount of maize grown and the access to feed as farms have intensified over the years, we have an exploding badger population with no control; this is neither good for badgers or farmers.

Disease control and keeping our wildlife healthy, depends on balance, a delicate balance which in the main has been maintained over the decades.

As farmers, we have a good record on defeating disease, but it does take a long time. It took us thirty years to get rid of brucellosis, and we did that through cattle controls.

We have rid ourselves of the warble fly, that took from the early seventies until the nineties; we put up a wall of vaccinated animals to prevent blue-tongue getting into this country a few years ago (the only country in the EU to be free), and where bTB has been taken to new areas through re-stocking following the foot and mouth outbreaks (defeated), we have eliminated it through cattle movement controls, but with infected wildlife, we have both hands tied behind our backs, and we can do nothing more unless we tackle the disease wherever we find it.

I asked the question again the other night; who’s looking after or has the same interest as I have to protect our healthy wildlife and stock in West Sussex? If only we had tackled this ten or 15 years ago, it would have been so much easier.

We can do this; other countries (Ireland, New Zealand) are well on the way, with significant reductions in disease levels.

Looking at the overall picture, no other country in the world has managed to eradicate bTB without tackling the wildlife; it takes courage and determination, but this government might just have that courage; we certainly have a track record that proves our determination.