Maurice’s story: one year on
ON March 4, it’ll be a full year since the BBC documentary Land of Hope and Glory: British Country Life aired. The three-part series depicted the beauty of the British countryside and its way of life, swinging between manor houses, naughty dogs and Girls in Pearls. Most of all, the plight of a Somerset dairy farmer captured the hearts of the nation. Maurice Durbin is just one man, but he has become a symbol for all that English farmers have had to endure in the wake of the TB crisis.
‘It can be good, but if you dare think it’s getting easier, then bang, it’s back’
Eleven years ago, Mr Durbin owned the world’s largest Guernsey herd, with 320 cows; that number was just 45 in the 1990s, when he bought his farm in the Mendip Hills, where his father had farmed before him. ‘I didn’t have the money, but I moved Heaven and Earth,’ he says. ‘It was a dream come true and it kept coming true.’
Sadly, it all came crashing down. Seven years ago, an annual testing showed that 26 of Mr Durbin’s Guernseys had failed and, since then, the herd has been in perpetual limbo, never in the clear.
Agreeing with the general scientific consensus, Mr Durbin has no doubt that badgers are a major carrier of Tb—and the latest research shows the bacteria can stay around for months. The high-risk parts of the country (the South and West) have the highest badger density in Europe and bovine TB now represents the greatest animal-health threat in the UK, costing the taxpayer more than £100 million every year.
‘The badger-protection lobby, with high-profile champions such as guitarist Brian May, draws attention to the culling of badgers, but who’s publicly standing up for the nearly half a million cows that have been slaughtered in the past 20 years?’ asks Rupert Uloth, who interviewed Mr Durbin for the BBC programme.
Regrettably, since last year, nothing has changed. ‘Four or five cows still go every 60 days,’ says Mr Durbin matter-of-factly. ‘Of course, we have humps and bumps. It can be good, but if you dare think it’s getting easier, then bang, it’s back.’
Last year, badger culls were rolled out in seven new areas, including Herefordshire, Cornwall and Devon. This is part of a 25-year Government plan to eradicate bovine TB in England, however, as yet, there has been no impact on Mr Durbin’s part of the country, as is the case for many others.
At the NFU Annual Conference in Birmingham last week, Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom pointed out that, in 2016 alone, the disease led to the slaughter of 28,000 cattle. ‘I know the stress and anxiety of testing day,’ she said. ‘No farmer should have to go through this.’
Mrs Leadsom promised further action, which will include culls, improved testing and disease control, incentivised biosecurity, greater genetic resistance in dairy bulls and badger vaccination. It all sounds fairly promising, but 25 years is a long time; the farmers will have to keep fighting.
‘I feel very disappointed as well as annoyed by this,’ comments Mr Durbin. ‘Defra has had 60 years of dealing with this disease already. Now they talk about 25 years of uncertainty, with the agonising testing every 60 days, and are no further forward in eradicating the disease. My feeling is that they’re only providing themselves with a hot dinner each day. They need to get on with it. I could say that a lot stronger, but I won’t.’
Since the documentary, stacks of correspondence have arrived at the farm. ‘I got nice letters of support —only support—right across the board, from farmers to office workers,’ says Mr Durbin.
Interestingly, he hasn’t heard a peep from the animal-rights campaigners. ‘After the programme, I was thinking “I’m ready for you” and was almost disappointed not to have a fight. Last month, I spoke to a lady in America,’ he continues. ‘She said she’d just watched the programme and had lots of tears and wanted to give thoughts and prayers. She hoped things would improve. We can but hope.’
‘We can but hope’: Somerset farmer Maurice Durbin, star of the BBC documentary, still suffers the agony of bovine TB testing day