Country Life talks to Maurice Durbin

Deputy Editor of Country Life Rupert Uloth interviews dairy farmer Maurice Durbin as his farm continues to suffer from the effects of TB.

When I first met him at the Royal Bath and West Show nearly two years ago, dairy farmer Maurice Durbin cut a forlorn figure in the place he should have looked happiest. In times gone by, it had been the scene of some of his greatest triumphs—among others, the coveted champion breed prize— but, that day, he was without his beloved Guernsey cows.

Incarcerated at home, these gentle, friendly animals with names such as Daisy, Daffodil and Primrose, redolent of a less troubled and bucolic past, were the survivors of a Government-sponsored cull. After it had been established that they had been infected with TB, their less fortunate mothers, brothers and cousins had been loaded on the truck for the one-way trip to the local abattoir. The remainder had been forced into isolation by a strict system of regulations and for reasons that Mr Durbin felt were entirely avoidable.

It’s a situation that has been ever-present over the past six years and the reason why Mr Durbin was looking grim-faced as I recently sat with him and his wife, May, in their farmhouse kitchen near the Mendip Hills. ‘I thought nothing was being done by the Ministry to control the disease,’ he remembers, speaking slowly and thoughtfully in his gentle West Country burr. ‘It was all very one-sided.’

At one time, it seemed that nothing could go wrong. Originally a council tenant, Mr Durbin had the chance to buy his farm in the 1990s. ‘I didn’t have the money, but I moved heaven and earth. It was a dream come true and kept coming true.’ From the original herd of 45, numbers grew to more than 300 and the original 72 acres is now 360.

Pedigree status was earned with at least three generations of ‘Guernsey types’ performing to the highest standards, producing the correct butterfat and protein requirements. Indeed, until seven years ago, Mr Durbin, now 70, was the proud owner of the world’s largest Guernsey herd.

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However, he became aware that the disease was randomly striking farms in the area. The more he learnt about what was happening, the more concerned he became. It must have felt like being a large merchant ship adrift on the high seas without an escort during the Second World War, knowing that unseen U-boats were patrolling about, picking off ships at will. Sure enough, six years ago, the dreaded, stomach-churning punch came: the annual testing revealed that 26 cows had failed and, in no time, they were making life’s last journey.

It was a poignant moment for a man who was born in this place, which his father started farming in 1930. Sitting in the lee of the Mendip Hills, surrounded by the lush green pasture that is transformed into the rich creamy milk that gives the area its reputation, this has been his home, his work, his life and his passion.

Mr Durbin loves his cows: ‘They’re naturally friendly. They come and rub their heads against you.’ It was something I experienced myself as we walked through the long cattle sheds at Bickfield Farm, where contented cows on fresh straw eyed us benignly, some nuzzling for affection. With their distinctive colouring of butterscotch brown patches splurged over their creamy hides, they are the creatures of childhood imagination, munching dreamily on their verdant Somerset pastures. However, the reality has turned into something much more sinister.

As indiscriminate as it was merciless, TB has invisibly issued its shocking death sentence utterly randomly: ‘It was allowed to take animals out of herds without any control of the cause of the disease.’ Mr Durbin has no doubt that the carrier of the infection is the badger and isn’t surprised that the increase in incidence is commensurate with the explosion of that mammal’s population. It’s doubled since the late 1980s, when laws were introduced that make it illegal for individuals to control Mr Brock. The Government has now introduced a culling programme in ‘pilot areas’ (although not in this part of Somerset), but this will take time to have an effect.

In the meantime, Mr Durbin and a nation of dairy farmers have to endure the stress and unpredictability. Every time the disease is found in the herd, the remaining cows aren’t allowed their freedom until a tortuous series of tests has proved that they are clear of the infection for at least 60 days.

‘It’s such a cruel disease, taking out your young cows. We’ve always enjoyed showing at agricultural shows, but all that had to stop.’ Since the farm was first hit, there has been little opportunity for him to take his animals on the circuit. ‘To get them ready, they have to be broken to a halter and walked in the way a judge would like to see them. You get more attached to those ones that do all that work and bring back the trophies.’

Even without his cows, Mr Durbin still goes to the shows as they’re one of the few occasions when he can meet with fellow farmers, particularly as he’s currently the president of the English Guernsey Cattle Society.

In the old days, he would come to share news and ideas in a festive atmosphere, but, now, it’s also to unburden his worries and to see if there’s a better way of tackling the disease that has been increasingly crippling the dairy industry for the past decade or so. All this at a time when dairy farmers have also been struggling to make a living because of falling milk prices. During that first meeting at the Bath and West, I happened to have a television crew in tow as I went about my duties as a steward. They were filming me for a programme about the world of Country Life and, as soon as the producer heard his story, she realised it was one that’s not often represented in the media.

The badger-protection lobby, with high-profile champions such as guitarist Brian May, draws attention to the culling of the badgers, but who is publicly standing up for the nearly half a million cows that have died in the past 20 years? Mr Durbin’s powerful testimony and heartrending narrative forms a spellbinding element of the three-part series, which starts this Friday on BBC2.

The future matters for Mr Durbin. His life’s work is on the line. It matters for his son Philip, 38, who works all hours to keep the herd going to the highest standards, even though he remains resolutely upbeat: ‘I’m sure we’ll find a way.’ It should also matter to all of us who care about traditional farming, the way our landscape looks and what we eat.

** Read more on the documentary series Land of Hope and Glory: British Country Life