The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), Chief Veterinary Officer, Robert Huey, has this week restated his commitment to drive forward the eradication of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) from the cattle population in Northern Ireland.
He was speaking as he announced that DAERA would be deploying a range of additional and enhanced measures to strengthen its bTB Eradication Programme and improve its impact.
Mr Huey said: “Bovine TB continues to be a major concern for farmers across Northern Ireland and although we have a comprehensive bTB Eradication Programme, which is approved annually by the European Commission, disease incidence levels have recently shown a sharp increase.
“DAERA staff have continued to implement the bTB Programme to help tackle the disease. As a result of our robust bTB testing regime, working in partnership with farmers and private veterinary practitioners, around 90% of our herds are free from bTB and able to engage in international trade. However, in light of increasing bTB incidence over the past year, it is important that we continue to identify how we can improve the bTB Programme so that we can identify and remove infected animals at the earliest opportunity and take other actions needed to protect herds.”
The new measures will strengthen the bTB Programme and are in line with the TB Strategic Partnership Group’s (TBSPG) report. DAERA is currently considering in detail the TBSPG Strategy and its associated recommendations.
The measures, which will be rolled out in the coming weeks are as follows;
Further application of severe interpretation of skin tests in breakdown herds;
The introduction of a further herd test after a breakdown herd is derestricted in certain situations, to reduce the risk of further breakdowns;
A reactor quality assurance pilot to establish baseline data on bTB skin test reactions; and
The introduction of a biosecurity self-assessment checklist.
DAERA is also progressing a change which would see more herds that have more than one skin test reactor, during the course of a breakdown, have their Officially Tuberculosis Free (OTF) status withdrawn. This is a change to the bTB Programme designed to make our disease control measures more rigorous to give more assurance that such herds are in fact clear of bTB infection when they become free to move cattle to other herds. It is likely to be introduced in early in 2018.
In addition to the disease control measures outlined above, DAERA is also planning to survey badgers for bTB infection in two areas (one around Aghadowey, Co Londonderry and the other near Omagh). These have been selected as they are areas having a high density of herds with bTB reactors and are also thought to have a high density of badgers. The survey work will be focused on a small number of randomly selected 1km2 grids within each area. As part of these surveys, DAERA staff will commence the mapping of badger setts, blood testing of a small number of badgers and the removal of any test positive badgers for laboratory examination in these localities. The information gained will be used to help inform potential future wildlife intervention policies.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union, however, said that farmers will find DAERA’s announcement of additional measures for TB controls a bitter pill to swallow while progress on tackling TB in wildlife continues to be slow.
UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt says that farmers are facing a rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground and recognise the need for immediate action.
Mr Chestnutt explained: “The introduction of more on farm controls does not go far enough to tackle the real underlying problem. Only 0.84% of cattle in Northern Ireland have TB, compared to 17% of badgers. It should not come as a surprise that farmers are pressing for more wildlife intervention.”
DAERA plans to survey badgers for TB and remove infected animals in two areas in Northern Ireland, which Mr Chestnutt says is a small step, albeit in the right direction.
“Farmers are unlikely to be satisfied by this given the current scale of the problem. They are frustrated by the lack of progress and with a TB program that appears to be addressing only one side of the problem,” he said.
The UFU was not consulted on the additional measures prior to DAERA’s announcement. Mr Chestnutt says this seems to have become a worrying trend with DAERA, while they continue to operate without an Executive Minister.
He continued: “There have been a number of occasions in the last year where important decisions have been made without consultation with industry. It is concerning and underlines the important role our elected officials play.”
With regards to the additional TB control measures, Mr Chestnutt is encouraging farmers to think longer-term. DAERA claims that as a result infected animals will be removed earlier from herds, farmers will have greater confidence that the disease has been completely removed, and future breakdowns will be prevented.
“As the old saying goes – the proof will be in the pudding. TB is rampant in the countryside at the moment and many farmers are at their wits end. Something needs to be done. While we would like to see swifter, more meaningful action on wildlife, the additional measures announced by DAERA are a start,” said Mr Chestnutt.
The UFU has urged DAERA to be mindful that farmers and vets are already extremely busy and stressed during a TB test. “Some of the actions relate to the testing day. DAERA must be realistic and recognise that introducing additional requirements may not be practical. We have also stressed that DAERA must significantly improve how they communicate post mortem test results. Farmers then can be more confident in the accuracy of the skin test,” says the deputy president.
“We are still a long way off eradicating this scourge of a disease. However, both farmers and the government want Northern Ireland to be TB free. Despite slow progress, it is a positive that steps are being taken. The UFU will continue to monitor the situation closely,” says Mr Chestnutt.