The battle of Baronsdown
Farmers in Exmoor fear a haven for red deer is becoming a breeding ground for bovine TB
by Jonny Beardsall for the Weekend Telegraph, Saturday, 19th May 2001

WILD deer belong to no one, but when they are on your land, you assume a degree of responsibility. How you treat them, whether you cull them or just ignore them, is largely up to you. But when they are just a few hundred yards away on your neighbour's land, particularly when your neighbour is the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), legally, they are none of your business.

Baronsdown, 200 acres of pasture and woodland on the edge of Exmoor, near Dulverton, Somerset, was acquired by the LACS in the 1960s and is a sanctuary for red deer. The deer are not farmed and it is not a park; the land is unfenced, and animals come and go at will, but because they are fed hay, silage and concentrates all year round, they converge here in large numbers.

For Guy Thomas-Everard, a predominantly livestock farmer recently caught up in the foot and mouth crisis and whose land is half a mile from the sanctuary, this has been a long-running problem. He is losing valuable grazing and often finds dead or dying deer that have crossed from Baronsdown on to his land.

"There are just too many on the League's land," he says. "Some have lungworm and terrible scours. One found last year on the edge of the sanctuary even had bovine tuberculosis - TB - which could endanger my stock." "I'd like to see a limited cull inside the sanctuary right now. Let's autopsy a few to see how many have the disease."

For three years, he and other locals have been concerned about the health of these deer. Now that TB - a notifiable disease - has been confirmed in a deer near Baronsdown, many hope MAFF's local Animal Health Office will take a closer look. There is a high risk of transmitting TB to cattle, badgers and people, but the real fear is that it could slowly work its way through all the wild red deer on Exmoor.

In April 2000, a five-year-old stag - the first confirmed TB case - was observed on LACS ground. It was in very poor condition, and when it left the property, it was despatched by the hunt casualty service.

David Denny, a Worcestershire vet who has had a special interest in the red deer on Exmoor for the past 26 years, carried out a post-mortem. "Lungworms were present - insufficient to cause such loss in condition - but as it had an abscess in a lymph gland, which is typical of TB, I sent it to the MAFF Veterinary Centre at Luddington. They confirmed it was TB," he says.

Eight months later, another deer in similar condition was found close to Baronsdown and, again, there were abscesses of the type associated with TB. It was taken to the State Veterinary Services Laboratory Centre at Langford, Bristol. The results are due shortly.

In March, at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, a farmed red deer herd also tested positive for TB. The National Trust culled the 72-strong herd, eradicating the disease.

Denny, however, fears that if TB-infected deer are going in and out of Baronsdown without restriction, they could pose a far more dangerous threat than at Charlecote, where they were confined by fences. Charlecote would seem to have set a precedent, so many ask why, with a confirmed TB case on its border, the LACS is not holding an investigation at Baronsdown.

"Why? Because their deer are wild," says David Denny. "Even though they are park or farmed deer in all but name, they are not fenced in, so MAFF's rules on notifying cases of TB, which apply to farmed animals, don't apply to them."

In January, the Union of Country Sports Workers, urged by several of its members, wrote twice to the RSPCA voicing concerns about the deer. "I had no response to my first letter until March," says Lindsay Hill, the union's PR. "Referring to the recent findings of a report by the British Deer Society (BDS), they said that they were `satisfied that the welfare of the deer on LACS' property is not a cause for undue concern'. That's how far we got."

The BDS report was conducted by its English and Welsh Secretary, Mike Squire. He spent one day at the sanctuary looking at deer and at veterinary records, which include post-mortem reports, vet inspections, and analysis of dung samples for parasitic burden. "I'm not a vet, but I found no evidence of lameness or malnutrition in the 220-240 animals I saw. As they are being wormed, they should have a lower parasitic burden than wild deer, but unless you open them up, you can't say. I saw two late-calved youngsters who looked raggy, and one elderly stag who was worse for wear. That was all."

But a farmer, Mike Biederman, another with land directly adjacent to Baronsdown, is nonplussed. "He never came to see me or any of my neighbours," he says.

"The fact is, Baronsdown is over-stocked and, in six months, I've picked up six dead ones on my farm. The deer round here look nothing like those on the rest of Exmoor. My farm has had TB for the last four years.

"Every time we get the all-clear, we seem to get it again in no time - and we don't buy in fresh cattle. If LACS is feeding deer, why isn't it governed by farming practices as we are? We are under TB restrictions - it should be, too."

Squire insisted later: "I was more than well aware of the views of the locals before my visit to Baronsdown. I was after documentary evidence to back up the allegations they were making."

Since his visit, he has been made aware of the one confirmed case of TB and, yes, he and the BDS are concerned. "The trouble is, before anyone takes issue with the LACS, he's got to prove beyond all doubt that the infected deer came from Baronsdown and not elsewhere. I saw 240-250 animals on Baronsdown, which is certainly a greater density than you would find elsewhere on Exmoor. Although I fully understand the feelings of local landowners, I can't say that `numbers are too high' because I saw no welfare problems. LACS can't control stocking levels because the sanctuary is unfenced. Based on the evidence on the ground, there was still plenty of `bite' - grass - on the sanctuary. In principle, we don't support the feeding of wild deer but we understand why they do it." However, he does agree that there is a strong case for an explorative cull of, say, 20 animals on Baronsdown.

The LACS is disinclined to sacrifice any of its red deer, particularly because it denies allegations that the Baronsdown herd is looking anything less than healthy. "We really don't accept there's a problem," says the league's spokesman, Mike Hobday, who has seen the report from MAFF vets at Luddington confirming that one deer had TB. "We are pleased that no cases have been found on the sanctuary in the 12 months since this deer died, and we'll continue to take every precaution to ensure that deer on the sanctuary remain healthy.

"If deer die on league land in unusual circumstances, we routinely post-mortem them and, so far, none has shown they had TB. The league is happy to make these reports available. "I have my suspicions. I just think the locals don't like us."

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