“I can stand to see a cow shot,” said farmer Geraint Evans. “But what hurt me the most was seeing the calf in the womb, being suffocated.”
He was describing the result of the regulation requiring pregnant cows tested positive for tuberculosis (TB) to be slaughtered on his farm.
There have been calls to change the rules.
The Welsh Government has said welfare is “principal” when taking livestock from farms affected by tuberculosis.
In Wales cattle cannot be removed from a herd after testing positive for tuberculosis.
Under strict circumstances in England, but not Wales, the slaughter process can be delayed if a cow or heifer is in the last 60 days of pregnancy. This is to allow the animal to give birth.
“The on-farm slaughter of pregnant cows or heifers identified as TB reactors is a heartbreaking event for all concerned,” said Roger Lewis, chair of the NFU Cymru TB focus group.
“Bovine tuberculosis continues to devastate farming families across Wales and this experience only adds to the emotional burden this disease imposes.
“We know the Welsh Government are working to update their approach to TB and we look forward to working with them to design an alternative approach to this practice.”
Mr Evans, a fifth-generation farmer from Pembrokeshire who has been in and out of tuberculosis restrictions for more than a decade, vividly remembered seeing six of his herd being slaughtered in his backyard.
“I had to line them up to get them into the crush and watch them shoot,” he said.
“The cow, the mother, was dead. And the calf was fighting for its life.
“This is very, very challenging.”
Beyond this specific policy, Mr Evans described farming in Wales as daunting and depressing.
“There’s this dark cloud over us, and I describe it to people that I’m growing in a straitjacket.”
Nigel Owens, who retired from his career as one of the world’s most famous rugby referees, has been farming since 2019.
He said he has deep concerns about mental health issues in the industry.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on farmers, and then when you get that extra worry about TB,” Owens said.
“And there’s no point avoiding the discussion, farmers took their own lives. And I’m not saying tuberculosis is the only reason, but it’s part of that big picture that leads to big concerns for farmers.
“Talk to those involved with the [mental health farming charity] DPJ Foundation and the number of farmers who contact them for help. I recently spoke to a friend who had never had tuberculosis who was recently affected by it and saw how it affected him.
“His spirits [were] really down. So it’s a concern, and it impacts farmers, and we need to do something about it.”
Samuel Kurtz, rural affairs spokesman for the Welsh Conservatives, said farmers were turning to mental health charities as a result of the Welsh Government’s agricultural policies.
“I think it’s completely inhumane,” Mr. Kurtz said.
“I think it is inhumane to the animal, and there are no animal welfare benefits in this situation that we have here in Wales. And it is completely inhumane and unfair for farmers to notice.
“To see slaughtered cows and heifers, with a calf still inside, drowning in the womb.
“It’s not an animal welfare situation I want to be associated with and it’s a real shame that the Welsh Government still wants to stick with this policy.”
“A little dignity and respect”
“You can isolate the farm cow or heifer away from the main herd,” Kurtz continued.
“You can deliver him with a little dignity and respect, and the transmission rate of tuberculosis between his mother and his calf is very, very low, if at all.
“What it can do is replenish the cattle that the farmer is losing to tuberculosis with a live calf, giving that calf a chance to live because it is currently drowning in its mother’s womb, and allowing that cow to live as well. die with dignity, which is not happening right now.”
The figures show that the number of animals slaughtered for tuberculosis control fell from 11,655 in 2009 to 9,516 in the year to December 2022, a drop of 18.4%.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Welfare considerations are paramount when removing livestock from TB-affected farms.
“On-farm slaughter is done whenever cattle are unfit to be transported alive from farms.
“Our TB policy is neither inhumane nor ruthless, and the slaughter of livestock on farms is fully compliant with welfare legislation.”
The Welsh Government also said it was ‘aware of the enormous challenge of tuberculosis in cattle and the distress it causes to farmers who have to manage it’.
“We have seen good progress towards eradication since establishing our program, with long-term decreases in new incidents and prevalence.”