Union says holistic approach is needed to tackle bovine TB

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The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) says Northern Ireland needs to take a well-rounded approach to tackle bovine TB and use a number of different tools to eradicate this costly and devastating disease.

UFU deputy president David Brown said: “For over 60 years TB has plagued the countryside. Any farmer who has had the misfortune of having TB in their herd can tell you, it is a dire experience. It can take months, sometimes years, to get rid of the disease. We want to see a comprehensive solution that delivers results and is cost effective.”

The UFU, along with many others in the industry including the British Veterinary Association (BVA), have long argued that to truly eradicate TB action must be taken to control the disease in wildlife as well as cattle. In 2017, 21 per cent of TB breakdowns were attributed to badgers and approximately one in five badgers in Northern Ireland are infected with TB, however, this is likely to be an underestimate.

Mr Brown further explained: “We know the disease can go from badger to cow, cow to cow, cow to badger, and back again. But the failure to tackle wildlife sources of infection has prolonged the presence of the disease. TB will not be eradicated in Northern Ireland unless there is a combined approach that delivers meaningful action to tackle TB in wildlife alongside controls in cattle.”

The UFU deputy president said that vaccinating against TB is one option and while the UFU is supportive of the Test, Vaccinate, Remove (TVR) programme, it is costly and to date there is no evidence to suggest that vaccinating a proportion of the badger population results in a reduction of TB in cattle.

He added: “Farmers are pragmatic. We want to see a robust wildlife policy that is cost effective. TB has already cost tax payers and farmers too much.”

The union’s statement on Bovine TB follows this week’s publication of a report for the Department of Food, Environment and Rural affairs (DEFRA) by Sir George Godfray, reviewing the UK’s 25-year Bovine TB strategy. The author is a population biologist and a member of the Royal Society.

His report’s recommendations highlight the need for the farming industry to take greater responsibility for on-farm controls, biosecurity and safe trading practices to stop the disease spreading.

Godfray also suggests that more can be done to help farmers make purchasing decisions reflecting the risks of cattle being infected.

He also points to the evidence, showing that badgers do transmit bovine TB to cattle and contribute to the persistence of the disease. Moreover, disease reduction would benefit from greater flexibility and agility in adapting bovine TB control measures as new research findings emerge.

Meanwhile, leading vets have written to the DEFRA minister, George Eustice, demanding that he withdraws his recent claim that badger culling has reduced bovine TB by 50%.

The vets in question told Mr Eustice that the prevalence of bovine TB in cattle is no lower than it was before culling, despite the killing and removal of 1879 badgers in Gloucestershire and 1777 in Somerset. They claim that a total of 3656 badgers have been killed with no perceivable disease control benefits.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Badger Group said: “We recognise the emotional and financial hardship that TB causes to families and communities. However, misleading claims that killing badgers has reduced bovine TB have been shown to be untrue by independent experts. Badger culling is a deeply unpopular strategy that will contribute nothing to TB control and risks damaging the image of Northern Ireland farming. We urge farming leaders, politicians and others calling for a cull to think again.”

The badger group believes that vaccination offers a wildlife option that will attract the broadest support and allow the NI bovine TB strategy to move forward. It pointed to a survey that asked farmers which of the two wildlife interventions they would prefer. Over twice as many farmers preferred a vaccination strategy over a badger cull.

“The role of badgers in the spread of disease has been greatly overstated and there is now irrefutable evidence that badgers are catching TB from cattle. The only proven way to reduce the prevalence of bovine TB in badgers is through vaccination. Badger culling has failed to eradicate TB in the South of Ireland and the Irish government is now prioritising badger vaccination and more effective cattle measures,” the spokesperson added.