New approaches in dealing with bovine TB have implications for every dairy and beef farmer in Wales; even farmers in regions where few cattle succumb to the disease will share the responsibility as their stock will be subjected to additional testing.

The greatest onus is on farmers in regions with high levels of TB. A raft of new measures are being introduced from October 1, including the slaughter of inconclusive reactors (IRs) in herds with lingering breakdowns and lower slaughter compensation payments if a farm with more than one holding number has moved cattle between those sites.

But the Labour-led government is accepting that cattle controls alone are not enough and for the first time has authorised a targeted cull of infected badgers.

Debbie James discusses the new policy with Pembrokeshire beef farmer and recently re-elected Farmers’ Union of Wales deputy president, Brian Thomas, who sits on the local working group for the Welsh Assembly’s Bovine TB Intensive Action Area in North Pembrokeshire and has had personal experience of TB.

THE year 1999 is etched in Brian Thomas’s memory. It was the year his beef herd first succumbed to bovine TB and it left him with some tough choices.

His sons were then aged 16 and 18 and were making decisions about their own futures. Brian was unable to trade in 1999 because of TB and his business was already under pressure because three years earlier the first case of BSE was confirmed in the UK, which had significant implications for the beef trade.

“The boys could see the impact on our ability to farm so they decided that instead of farming they would pursue other occupations, which they did.’’

Brian’s herd eventually went clear of TB, but he wasn’t confident that there was a future in farming so he sold his cattle and sheep and bought a fuel station and shop in Crymych.

In April 2008, the Welsh Government took an unexpected decision on TB eradication, a decision that gave Brian the confidence to restock the farm.

“The government at that time agreed to a pilot cull of badgers in areas with a high incidence of TB. I felt that for the first time they were giving farmers hope that something positive was being done about eradicating the disease. I put the shop on the market and restocked the farm.’’

But the cull was not to be. A change of government meant a change of approach and a badger vaccination programme was instead introduced, in the North Pembrokeshire Intensive Action Area (IAA).

Brian farms at Llanfyrnach, within the IAA, therefore his herd is tested every six months. He is currently clear of the disease.

He says that the Welsh Government’s recent decision to authorise a cull of infected badgers on farms with persistent TB breakdowns is long overdue and says it should go further.

“The numbers of badgers have to be reduced, the population is out of control.’’

Regionalisation – splitting Wales into regions according to TB risk, will place Brian’s farm in a high TB area.

His main farming enterprise is producing beef stores; he admits he is worried that regionalisation will impact on trade.

“Trading of animals is going to be a major concern for store producers in high TB areas, so much so that it may mean that we will have to change what we do.’’

But Brian’s farm doesn’t have the infrastructure to take animals through to finishing and he reckons Pembrokeshire’s remoteness from factories where feed can be sourced at a cheaper price would put his business at a disadvantage to finishers across the border.

“English finishers have access to byproducts from food production, they can buy these much cheaper that they would cost to ship to Wales so it does upset the pattern of trade,’’ says Brian.

The new TB eradication programme has generally been accepted as a step forward but in the short term it could add to financial pressure on many farm businesses.

It has all come too late for Brian to encourage his sons into farming but he hopes that for others it could bring hope that future generations will eventually farm free from the curse of bovine TB.