A deadly cattle disease has been found in wildlife for the first time in Cumbria.

An investigation by a Government agency has found evidence of devastating bovine tuberculosis in badgers in east Cumbria.

The discovery came to light as Defra vets struggled for two years to tackle a recurring outbreak of the disease, affecting 16 farms in a 250km area from south of Shap to Junction 40 at Penrith.

This will come as a shock to farmers and wildlife campaigners as, up until now, no evidence of bovine TB infection has been discovered in local wildlife.

David Hall, National Farmers Union regional director for the North West, said they were aware a number of cattle herds in east Cumbria have suffered bTB breakdowns, and that an investigation by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) had found evidence of the disease in badgers in the area.

It is believed that testing of roadkill badgers by APHA uncovered the same strain of bovine TB that was found in cattle affected on the farms hit by the disease.

It is also believed it is the same strain that has been found in cattle in Northern Ireland.

"We realise this will be a major concern to cattle farmers in the area, and we will be working with them to ensure they are aware of the additional cattle controls that have been introduced," said Mr Hall.

He added: "We will also be offering help and advice to any of our members whose businesses are affected by these enhanced disease control measures.

"Bovine TB is a devastating disease and it is important farmers in the area do everything they can to minimise the risk of bringing the disease on to their farms."

David Hall Cumbria had been classed as one of the few 'low-risk' areas for the disease in the country, with few outbreaks of the disease on farms annually. Because of this Defra vets had applied to the EU for the county to be classed as bovine TB-free.

West Cumbrian beef and sheep farmer Alistair Mackintosh described the finding of the disease in badgers in the county for the first time as a "serious setback".

"It is desperate we have got to this place," he said, but was keen not to apportion blame.

"I do not want fingers pointed at farmers. What is important now is to get an understanding of how big the issue is in the wildlife, and it looks like Defra is getting on top of that."

A letter has been sent by APHA to all farms in the 250km area, pointing out the measures they will be taking to try and uncover the level of infection, including six-month testing of all farms, carrying out a thorough wildlife survey by trapping and testing badgers, and increased biosecurity for all farms in the affected area.

Farmers in the affected area have also been invited to a meeting tomorrow at the Stoneybeck Inn, Penrith, starting at 6.30pm when APHA and representatives of the NFU will be present.

Alastair Mackintosh In the meantime, farmers in the county are being urged to double check the source of the cattle they bring in to prevent the number of cases increasing.

"It is good that Defra are taking this approach and letting us help them.

"There is a small reservoir in the wildlife, but it could have a profound impact in the county," added Mr Mackintosh.

An Animal and Plant Health Agency spokesperson confirmed a number of bovine TB breakdowns in cattle herds had been identified in east Cumbria.

"APHA has carried out a thorough investigation and additional cattle movement controls have been put in place. Further action will depend on the results of further surveillance," said the spokesman.

"Farmers in the area should continue to practice good biosecurity to minimise the risk of disease spreading to their farms."

The spokesperson said 16 cattle holdings in the area have been affected with cases identified between November 2014 and February 2017.

Mr Hall added: "To help with the APHA’s investigation we would ask any farmers in the area who see any road kill badgers or deer to report them to APHA by calling 03000 200301 so they can be collected for analysis."