Fears Northern Ireland's bovine TB woes could yet again be put on the backburner have been dismissed by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots.

Speaking to AgriLand, Minister Poots said: "The TB programme is a priority and we will be launching our TB strategy over the course of the coming weeks.

The appropriate veterinarians will be there to support that and move forward because it is something that we cannot continue to do.

"In terms of ensuring that we will continue to meet all of our requirements, that's why we will keep driving and driving to have absolute minimisation [of checks] between us and GB.

"My view is that there shouldn't be any at all, but because of the protocol, and because of Westminster voting this through, we have to have something but we are driving for a minimalist approach, and consequently, we should need less staff to do it."

Bovine TB herd incidence has fallen slightly in the region since it peaked in November 2017 at 9.73%, but the latest figures show it remains at around 8%.

Herd incidence measures the number of new reactor herds during the last 12 months as a proportion of cattle herds which have presented cattle for a TB herd test over the same period.

The latest figures also show that in the first six months of the year, breakdowns were recorded across a total of 863 herds. The worst month, January, saw 207 individual herds closed.

But despite the urgency of the issue, Northern Ireland's chief veterinary officer Robert Huey recently warned animal health programmes such as TB eradication could suffer as he would need to "rob Peter to pay Paul" to provide vets for Brexit agri-food checks.

Huey told the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee he needed at least 100 additional inspectors and warned even more could be required should contingency plans be needed.

"Let's be clear, that although I am recruiting both vets and technical officers at the moment, initially those staff will all have to come from within my own resource," Huey told the committee.

"So I will have to rob Peter to pay Paul within my own staff initially until we get additional staffing. We will bring in some agency staff, of course, to help that as well but the majority of the veterinary staff will come from within my own staff.

So it will come off the TB programme, it will come off other programmes, that's inevitable. But hopefully, this will be short term."

'NI can't afford for TB to be left behind'

It comes as the Republic of Ireland's newly-appointed Minister of Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has begun ramping up TB efforts south of the border.

So far, McConalogue's department has launched a campaign asking farmers to report any badger activity on their land and has written to all herd-keepers advising them of their TB risk status.

As a result, Farmers For Action’s Sean McAuley warned Northern Ireland farmers "could not afford" for the region's TB programme to be postponed.

The organisation is proposing badger cull plans are pushed forward in the event that veterinary staff are redeployed to other areas.

"If Northern Ireland sits back on TB with the imminent possibility of staff being redeployed and no cull in place this could threaten livestock marts and add even more pressure on farming families," McAuley said.

"If the South of Ireland goes forward on eradicating TB as intended, then sellers will hit a brick wall at the border if Northern Ireland continues to go backwards.

"Now is the time for effective action leaving the wasted decades behind us."