Farmer David Barton

Preparing for a terrible week


One of my reasons for starting this blog was because this week I will have to watch as Ernie, our breeding bull, and three other animals are shot on farm because they tested positive for bovine TB. It will be one of the worst days of my farming life. And because this issue is so important to me I’ll be using this blog to share the experience with you.


Let me start at the beginning. Ten days ago my entire herd underwent a TB test. It was a six-month check test. In the days leading up to it I was nervous but I was hoping for a clear test.


During a TB test all the cattle have to be injected and then, three days later, they all have to be checked to see if they’ve reacted to the injection. This is a hugely stressful time for the animals as they each have to be individually restrained to be injected and then again to be checked three days later.


It’s also a hugely stressful time for us as a family as we wait for the results. It’s difficult to describe how you feel and how one positive test changes your mood from hope and expectation to despair.


When you’ve got experience with TB you know the signs to look for and, even though I tried not to, the day before the Defra tester came to read the results of the test I was looking at the cattle and my heart sank. I saw a lump on the neck of one of the heifers – the tell-tale sign of a positive reaction to the TB test – which meant the test wouldn’t be clear. And when the tester came she found a cow and another heifer that had tested positive. I felt sick.


But then came the most upsetting news – a positive test on Ernie. Ernie is nearly 11 and we’ve had him on the farm for nine years. He’s become like part of the family, almost like a pet. He’s remarkable and looks magnificent for an old boy. He was the last animal to be tested and it hadn’t even crossed my mind that he might be a reactor. So to be told that news was soul destroying.


Ernie’s in a paddock by the farmhouse. I can see him from our kitchen window. On Saturday all our remaining stock were turned out to grass. It’s a great feeling to see them gallop down the field with a huge sense of freedom and no more feeding or bedding down for me. I awoke on Sunday morning to a familiar sound – Ernie roaring. He’d seen some of the heifers that had been turned out the previous day and he was letting them know he’s number one!!


The upshot of the TB test results is that we’re now back on 60-day TB testing. This means the entire herd has to be TB tested every 60 days and has to pass two consecutive tests before we can start operating normally again. The clock is already ticking to our next test in mid July and what results it will bring. Will we lose no animals, one animal, or 30? I don’t know and no matter how hard you try to put it out of your mind the fear and uncertainty is always there. If any cattle react positively at the next test – even if it’s just one – we face at least another four months before we can get back to anything like normal.


But today my mind is focused on the immediate future and preparing for what’s going to happen this week. Normally the animals would be loaded on to a lorry and taken away, which is distressing enough. But this time they will have to be shot on farm because they’d been given worming medication which means they can’t be taken to a slaughterhouse. Over the past few days I’ve been having conversations with contractors about what’s going to happen. They make it all seem so normal and matter-of-fact. But it isn’t. They’re talking to me about how they’re going to put down our beloved bull and it’s hugely upsetting. As I look at Ernie in the paddock and think about what’s going to happen this week I’m filled with feelings of sadness, anger and frustration. It’s such an injustice.