Department officials have now completed work on the business case for Northern Ireland's new bovine TB strategy, with plans to finalise the draft document in just "weeks".

The revelations came in a letter written by Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots responding to Farmers For Action Steering Committee's request for a publication date for the new strategy.

The minister did not offer a date for the new strategy but outlined details of what will be included. It's the first concrete details to emerge of the heavily-anticipated plan.

TB strategy

"The eradication of bovine TB remains a top priority for both me and my department. I am fully aware of the devastating emotional and financial impact a bTB breakdown can have on farming families," Poots wrote.

"The proposed bTB Eradication Strategy for Northern Ireland will aim to reduce, and eventually eradicate, bTB levels by comprehensively addressing all the recognised key factors in the spread of the disease.

"It will include recommendations covering six key areas, ranging from herd health management and research to those more complex issues, such as wildlife intervention.

"My officials have completed a business case to support the implementation of the strategy and this will be followed by the provision of final advice in the coming weeks. This will assist me to take decisions on next steps that will address all the key factors in the control and eradication of the disease.

"I intend to announce this shortly. It should be noted that new legislation and further consultation will be required and stakeholder organisations will have the opportunity to express their views. Following this, it is my intention to launch key operational elements of the new programme as soon as practically possible.

Research into the effects of deer

The minister added his department was currently funding a project investigating the role of deer in the spread of bovine TB in Northern Ireland. It follows the publication of a Trinity College Dublin study just two weeks ago, which linked deer density to TB outbreaks in cattle in the Republic of Ireland.

"This project will yield important data on the distribution, relative abundance, baseline prevalence, and potential risk of deer in bTB epidemiology in Northern Ireland," the letter read.

"Its findings will allow officials to make informed decisions around the management of the pathogen in deer and will provide evidence-based advice for further programme development.

"While deer are known to have become infected with bTB, previous studies have indicated low levels of infection within the overall population.

"It is thought that deer may have been implicated in some way in around 8% of all cattle herd breakdowns.

"Therefore, although the risk is low compared to other causes of infection - such as local spread or purchased animals - it is nevertheless important that the role of deer in the spread of this disease is fully understood."

The minister concluded by saying he was "fully committed to a new bTB eradication strategy", adding: "It is my firm intention to see its launch in the very near future".

FFA's Sean McAuley said: “Many farming families, knowing that Edwin Poots himself is a farmer, will put a lot of faith in what he has written especially when that includes the words ‘I intend to announce this shortly’.”