A new, long-term bovine tuberculosis (TB) eradication strategy for Northern Ireland has been launched by Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Edwin Poots today (Thursday, March 24).
The strategy has been developed in collaboration with the TB Eradication Partnership following extensive consultation with stakeholders.
It includes additional cattle measures, action on wildlife, the testing of non-bovines, enhanced bio-security and in the medium term, a review of compensation to farmers for animals removed under the TB Eradication Programme.
Announcing the strategy, Minister Poots said: “As agriculture minister and someone who has farmed for most of my life, I recognise the challenges that farmers face with TB breakdowns.
"It is a source of significant stress for our farming families and has the potential to inflict serious damage on the wider agri-food industry and its ability to trade on a global scale.
“For too long this disease has had a devastating impact on our farming community. Since coming into post as minister, I have made the eradication of bovine TB a top priority and have been determined to take every action possible to achieve this goal.
"My department, and I, have liaised with leaders and stakeholders from across all sectors to ensure that we have taken all factors into consideration.”
The Minister continued: “The proposals outlined in the new strategy are based on the experience and evidence from other jurisdictions and on solid scientific research.
"I have carefully considered the views of all our stakeholders following a public consultation, weighing these up against the evidence and information within a detailed business case.”
Speaking about the details of the strategy, the Minister said: “To eradicate TB, all factors which contribute to the spread and maintenance of the disease in the environment must be addressed in parallel.
"I know that wildlife, particularly badgers, are a significant factor in TB maintenance and spread in the environment."
Badgers, and their relationship with TB has been a hot topic this week, as a newly published study found no evidence to show that mass badger culling in the UK prevented bovine TB in cattle.
The peer-reviewed study, carried out by animal-welfare organisation Born Free, was welcomed by the British Veterinary Association, however it said that available data is limited and an ongoing analysis is needed.
The UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs echoed this belief, with the UK's chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss adding that she does not consider the methodology used as credible since data was “grouped incorrectly”.
"I very much appreciate that this is an emotive issue for many but in order to ensure a healthy cattle population I intend to introduce a programme of badger intervention in a limited number of areas," Poots continued.
"I want to make clear this is not the wholescale removal of badgers across Northern Ireland nor is it the removal of all badgers in an area.
"It is based on the experience and success of other parts of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland. I would hope that we can in a short number of years be able to move to a programme of badger vaccination and therefore we will have a healthy cattle and badger population."
The inclusion of a badger cull in this new strategy has been slammed by Green Party Northern Ireland MLA, Rachel Woods.
The North Down MLA said: "The Minister is proposing that badgers will be shot in ‘specific intervention areas’ as part of his TB strategy, but there is no detail on how this will be monitored properly.
“The Minister’s proposals are cruel and absolutely unacceptable. Culling is not humane. Culling badgers is not the answer to the problems of TB.
"The science says that there is no robust evidence at all that the policy is working in England, so the fact that the Minister is proposing a model similar to England is frankly, bizarre," she said.
The price of TB
According to minister Poots, the annual cost of the TB programme is around £36-40 million - almost half of which is paid in compensation for infected cattle.
"This is simply not sustainable and is a drain on the public purse," said Poots.
However, considering the financial challenges, i.e. rising input costs, that farmers are currently facing, the minister will not yet be making any changes to department compensation.
“Whilst acknowledging the need for changes to our compensation system, I will not be introducing these at the moment but have asked my officials to review this in the medium term," he said.
“I am also announcing my department’s intention to introduce further enhancements to the existing TB Programme such as the testing of non-bovines and the criteria on which interferon gamma testing will be made compulsory," Poots continued.
"This will build on the current programme and support industry to work closely with us, playing an active part in getting rid of this disease.
“I want to keep us all focused on moving forward together towards reducing TB levels in the short term and in the longer term eradicating this disease from the Northern Ireland herd.
"The measures proposed will underpin the great ability of our wonderful farming and processing industry to trade. This is a strategy not just for today but for the young farmers of tomorrow, many of whom train here at Greenmount Campus.”
Welcoming the new strategy, the chief veterinary officer for Northern Ireland, Robert Huey, restated his commitment to drive forward the eradication of bovine TB from the cattle population in Northern Ireland.
“A new agreed strategy lays the foundation to enable DAERA [Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs] and other key stakeholders to deploy a range of additional and enhanced measures to strengthen Northern Ireland’s bovine TB Eradication Programme and improve its impact," he said.
“Bovine TB continues to be a major concern for farmers across Northern Ireland and we now have a framework within which everyone with an interest in defeating this diseases can work together to implement the actions outlined in the strategy, with a clear focus on our shared aim of eradication.”