AN outbreak of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle was last night  confirmed in County Durham, sparking fears that the devastating disease could take hold in the North-East.

Despite Government attempts to stop bovine TB spreading north, The Northern Echo has learnt that cattle on a farm in the Haswell area of east Durham have tested positive.

The infected animals have been slaughtered and tests are being carried out on cattle at surrounding farms.

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Neighbouring farmers last night spoke of their anger that infected cattle had been brought to a region which has previously been regarded as free of the disease in both livestock and wildlife.

One farmer, who asked not to be named, said: “There’s a lot of people unhappy that cattle infected with TB were brought here from a high-risk area.”

Bovine TB is currently a major problem in the South-West and West Midlands.

More than 1,500 badgers, which are believed to spread the disease, have been killed since a controversial cull was launched in Somerset and Gloucestershire.

Measures to stop the disease spreading north have been stepped up in counties on the edge of the high-risk areas, including Cheshire and Derbyshire.

Dorothy Fairburn, regional director of the Country Land and Business Association, said the County Durham case was disappointing for the industry and devastating for the farmer involved.

She added: “The danger is that these isolated breakdowns start to occur more often. The real risk is that it gets into the wildlife – that is a frightening scenario.”

The North-East branch of the NFU confirmed that this was the first recent case of bovine TB in County Durham.

Rachael Gillbanks, NFU spokeswoman, said the farming community was determined to keep the region’s livestock and wildlife TB-free and its members supported measures to prevent the spread. “We take this issue incredibly seriously. As a region we are fortunate to have very little in the way of bovine TB and we are very keen to keep it that way.”

Professor Peter Atkins, from Durham University, who has investigated the spread of bovine TB, said the North-East had been largely unaffected by bovine TB both historically and in recent years.

He added that a single case was not an “emergency” however he would like to find out more details about how the outbreak occurred.

The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), which works with Defra to tackle bovine TB, confirmed it was investigating a bovine TB breakdown at a holding in the east County Durham area.

A spokesman added: “The herd has been placed under movement restrictions, and a number of animals have been removed for slaughter after reacting to the skin test.

“It is believed that the infection was inadvertently carried in cattle bought from a high risk area of the country, where cases of bovine TB are much more prevalent. TB testing of neighbouring holdings within a three kilometre radius is underway.

“Bovine TB can have a devastating effect on farm businesses, which is why there are strict measures to control it.”