An alpaca farmer is fighting a High Court battle in a last-ditch bid to stop one of her prized animals from being killed.
Helen MacDonald is bringing legal action against the Government over the fate of her stud alpaca Geronimo, who was earmarked for slaughter after testing positive for bovine tuberculosis (BTB).
Ms MacDonald, who runs Alpaca Power based in Wickwar, south Gloucestershire, claims the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is “relying doggedly on flawed science”.
She maintains Geronimo is not infected with the disease and says the tests carried out on him produced “false positive results” because he had been “primed” before them by being injected with bovine tuberculin.
Ms MacDonald, an experienced alpaca breeder and veterinary nurse, is challenging Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s refusal, in July last year, to allow Geronimo to be re-tested for BTB.
There is no proper basis on which the defendant can reasonably suspect that Geronimo is infected with BTBCatherine McGahey QC
Her lawyers told the court on Wednesday that there is “overwhelming evidence” which demonstrates the alpaca is not infected and said the original test results are “not reliable”.
Cathryn McGahey QC, for Ms MacDonald, said: “The claimant urges the defendant, even at this late stage, to consider the evidence in its entirety and to order further testing of Geronimo.”
She added: “The claimant submits that the evidence demonstrates to a high degree of probability that Geronimo is not infected with BTB.
“There is no proper basis on which the defendant can reasonably suspect that Geronimo is infected with BTB.
“In concluding that Geronimo is infected, and in refusing to change his mind when faced with increasing evidence to the opposite effect, the defendant has acted irrationally and unlawfully.”
Ms McGahey said there have been three negative tests conducted on Geronimo and a vet has twice confirmed he is showing “no clinical signs” of the disease.
She also said Ms MacDonald has no other suspected cases on her farm, which has “excellent bio-security measures” and Geronimo comes from a New Zealand farm where the herds have been free of BTB for more than 20 years.
Government lawyers argued that Geronimo is “highly suspected” of being infected with BTB, which can take years to manifest in physical symptoms, and should be slaughtered.
They also said there is a “solid scientific basis” for the use of priming animals with bovine tuberculin before tests are carried out.
The legal position is clear. The defendant ... is charged with controlling BTB and is the expert decision maker for these purposesNed Westaway
Ned Westaway, representing Mr Gove, said: “One can of course express sympathy for the claimant, who clearly does not wish to lose a potentially valuable animal.
“However the legal position is clear. The defendant… is charged with controlling BTB and is the expert decision maker for these purposes.
“The defendant in this case has given careful consideration to all relevant factors relied upon by the claimant but maintains his suspicion that Geronimo is affected with BTB.”
Mr Westaway said the court should only intervene if the decision is “irrational or otherwise unlawful”.
Geronimo was brought to the UK from New Zealand in August 2017 and has been kept in isolation since his arrival.
He tested positive for BTB in August and December 2017.
Defra is responsible for controlling BTB, which can have devastating consequences for cattle farmers.
A number of controversial badger-culling programmes have been carried out in recent years in a bid to stop the spread of the disease.
Ms MacDonald is crowd funding her legal battle and has raised more than £10,000 through the Crowdjustice website.
Mr Justice Murray said he will give his ruling on the case at a later date.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “We are sympathetic to the situation of Geronimo’s owner, just as we are with everyone with animals affected by BTB.
“However, this is a serious disease that causes devastation for farmers and rural communities.
“That is why we must have measures in place to reduce the risk of the disease spreading.”