Northern Ireland's proposed bovine TB strategy could save the region as much as £70 million, according to officials.

Responding to a question from Agriland at the launch of the strategy, Neal Gartland, DAERA's director of Animal Health & Welfare Policy Division, explained the money would be made up with a £50 million saving to the government and £20 million saving to the agricultural industry.

However, it should be noted that the department has had to make "a number of assumptions" to allow costs to be calculated. For example, the rate at which the incidence of the disease will fall.

Taking the cost of the current (status quo) bovine TB programme over the next 15 years, and expressing them in today’s values, is estimated to cost approximately £617 million.

In comparison, when also costed over 15 years, and based on the recommended options within the consultation, the new bovine TB strategy is estimated to cost £548 million.

The recommended options build new governance, cattle, wildlife and compensation arrangements into the current programme. Agriland's analysis of the wildlife intervention aspect and proposals for farmers can be found on the site's Northern Ireland page.

"[The figures] assume that herd incidence rates in NI reduce from current levels of around 8% to around 3-4% in line with the programme’s objective," the spokesperson added.

Assumptions regarding herd incidence reductions have been made following consideration of the impact, over a number of years, of the introduction of similar control measures in the Republic of Ireland.

"The changes being implemented now are the initial steps towards driving down disease rates here, the aim being to reduce the bovine TB herd incidence rate to 3-4% over the next 15 years.

"DAERA intends to monitor progress closely however and if herd incidence rates do not reduce following the implementation of new measures, it will review and strengthen the strategy in light of any issues arising."

However, as the consultation has only just begun, the bovine TB strategy could still be subject to radical change before it comes into action in the autumn.

'Doing nothing is not an option'

Minister Poots said the strategy was "one of the most important decisions" he would make as Agriculture Minister, and said that he did not believe it was an option to do nothing.

"This is a really big game-changer in moving this issue forward," he told stakeholders on Friday (July 16).

"Bovine TB has been a really big scourge on Northern Ireland agri-food, not for years but for decades.

There has been limited change in how we responded to TB over the period. This will bring about substantial change and the results will be significant if carried through."

Minister Poots explained the status quo would mean continuing to spend £40 million annually on the disease.

"Significant numbers of our herds - 7-8% are going to go down with TB each year," he said.

"It's going to be devastating for our farming community - because of the loss of significant herds of livestock and the mental trauma that goes with that.

"The wildlife will continue to have that substantial reservoir of TB, which they will spread among themselves, as well as to bovines, and the bovines will have that reservoir of TB, which they will spread amongst themselves and also to wildlife. That is the consequence of doing nothing.

Therefore, doing nothing is not an option and doing the same thing is the height of madness, because the same thing will not deliver results - that's been demonstrated over a period of time.

"I believe that we will have a cleaner bovine herd after a number of years. I believe we will have a cleaner wildlife reservoir and the outcome of that will be that a healthier bovine herd and wildlife population."

However, the minister admitted that the region's shortage of vets had caused limitations to what was possible, and alongside cost, was a key reason for why the conservationist-preferred option of TVR (Test, Vaccinate, Release) intervention was not selected.

TBEP response to the TB strategy

Sean Hogan, chairman of the TB Eradication Partnership (TBEP), said: "The minister is absolutely right when he says that the current position is unsustainable... Our position is that when it comes to a disease like this, you need to attack it proactively and aggressively wherever those reservoirs are.

"At the end of the day, the department's not the enemy and the farmers are not the enemy and the badger's not even the enemy. The enemy here is the disease, and we need to attack that disease wherever we find it, continuing to work with the minister to implement a strategy where we can actively and proactively tackle this disease."

However, Hogan declined to say whether he felt the strategy was "aggressive and proactive enough" for his liking.

What we're looking at here is a consultation. I've heard some people describe it as the beginning of a journey - the beginning of an end with this disease.

"I think it would be prudent for us to wait until this consultation is over and we see the responses coming in," he said.

The consultation will run until September 10, and can be accessed here on the DAERA website.