Growing concern for animal welfare

As the fourth case of bluetongue disease was confirmed yesterday near Ipswich, rural affairs editor MICHAEL POLLITT highlights growing animal welfare concerns for Norfolk and Suffolk farmers.

As the fourth case of bluetongue disease was confirmed yesterday near Ipswich, rural affairs editor MICHAEL POLLITT highlights growing animal welfare concerns for Norfolk and Suffolk farmers.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thousands of cattle grazing on low-lying marshes must be brought home as soon as possible to reduce the risk of contracting bluetongue disease, farming minister Jeff Rooker was told yesterday.

He pledged to raise farmers' fears last night on his immediate return to London with Defra's chief veterinary officer, Debby Reynolds.

Farmers urged the minister to allow cattle to be brought home, where they could escape the potential threat from the midge-borne virus and also minimise potential welfare problems.

Lord Rooker was warned that an impending animal welfare crisis was rapidly becoming a “ticking time-bomb” for cattle and sheep farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk as a result of the ban on all livestock movements.

Most Read

Lord Rooker, who met nine representatives of the livestock industry at the National Farmers' Union's regional office at Newmarket, was told that there was massive confusion about the rules imposed by his department.

And today, regional NFU officials will be holding detailed discussions with staff at the Defra's Animal Health office in Bury St Edmunds to simplify movement rules and regulations for farmers in the two counties.

While there was a ray of sunshine for the pig industry as the first full day of movement took place yesterday, cattle and sheep can only be sent for slaughter to meat plants in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. This has added hugely to the livestock industry's problems because of a lack of multi-species abattoirs in the three counties.

Suffolk farmers' leader John Collen, of Gisleham, near Lowestoft, who has 300 dairy cattle grazing on the marshes, also raised the issue with Lord Rooker. “We've probably got about 100 cattle on the marshes and this would reduce the risk of com-ing into contact with potential infected midges,” he said.

Dairy and beef farmers turn thousands of cattle out on the marshes through the summer months to take advantage of the lush grazing before they are brought back in the autumn.

Mid-Norfolk farmer Peter Howell, chairman of Norwich Farmers Livestock Market, has about 200 beef cattle grazing on Halvergate marshes. “We want to get these cattle home because they're in the front line. We're only a few miles as the crow flies from the latest outbreak, so it would make far more sense to take the cattle off the marshes and put them in yards where we could keep a close eye on them.”

Leading Norfolk dairy farmer William Brigham, who is regional chairman of the NFU's milk board, also has about 40 cattle on Halvergate marshes.

“We raised the whole issue of the grazing marshes with Lord Rooker. It won't be too long before they run out of grass and I told him that cattle would be more at risk on the marshes.

“We want to move the cattle home but we can't do so,” said Mr Brigham, of Walnut Tree Farm, Lyng, near Dereham, who has 44 dairy cattle ready to start calving in the next three weeks.

Farmer Roger Long, who is a regional member of the NFU's livestock board, has 50 heifers grazing Hickling marshes.

“We don't want them to be susceptible to a parasite which is more likely to be in the coastal region. It is a time of the year when we will be bringing them back anyhow,” he added.

“We're told that we've got to be vigilant and look at these animals twice a day. Well that is nigh impossible for us or the marshman when they're on the marshes. It makes sense if they're closer at home,” said Mr Long, of Scarning, near Dereham.

Mr Collen understood that infected midges had blown across from the continent in certain climatic conditions between the mid to the end of August. “So, the risk of having infected midges is probably not so high but I wouldn't be surprised to see more isolated cases.”

Mr Brigham also said that another traditional trade - bringing half-grown (store) lambs from northern England - had been blocked by Defra. “It is a concern for the hill farmers who are desperate to have their sheep moved off their land,” he added. “Farmers have bought lambs from the north country, from the hills, and move them into Norfolk and Suffolk to graze sugar-beet tops and stubble turnips. But you can't move anything at the moment, which is adding to the problems,” he said.

As peak calving for dairy farmers starts, many desperately need to dispose of their older cows. “We're not allowed to move them outside Norfolk and Suffolk even for slaughter. But there is no abattoir registered to take over 30-month-old animals in the area. “They have, by EU law, to go to a dedicated meat plant - in Kent, Derbyshire, Bedfordshire, the West Midlands - all outside the area,” said Mr Brigham. “There are no definitive answers about what you can and can't do. People are very confused why such draconian measures are taken on a disease that is not spread animal to animal.”

A special service will be held at St Edmundsbury Cathedral tomorrow evening to support the livestock industry. The Bishop of Dunwich, the Rt Rev Clive Young, said: “In the season of harvest festivals, churches and communities throughout Suffolk will be praying especially for our farmers.” The service of choral evensong with prayers for all engaged in agriculture will be held at 7pm.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter