Northern Ireland's new agriculture minister has said the region's spend on Bovine TB is a "bigger scandal" than the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which brought the Executive down three years ago.

The RHI scheme gathered controversy after it was revealed that those with the boilers were being paid £1.60 for every pound's worth of pellets burned.

The scheme was supposed to incentivise renewable heating systems on farms and in commercial buildings, but instead encouraged those signed up to burn more fuel than necessary.

Speaking on Tuesday (January 21), to agricultural journalists, the Minister said: "We need to be looking at TB eradication.

"It's a bigger problem in Northern Ireland than any other part of the UK or Ireland - they are doing something that we are not doing and a consequence of that is that we are left with a £40 million bill for the public purse.

"If anybody thinks that spending £40 million basically taking livestock off farms, replacing with new livestock, and picking them up with TB once again is a good spend of public money, it's not.

People talk about RHI but there has been more spent over the last 10 years on TB than would ever have been spent on RHI. So that's not a sustainable way going forward.

"We need to be tackling this issue and I need the support of my Executive colleagues to do that. I can't do that on my own."

The Minister explained that cross-party support would be required to tackle TB in wildlife because the issue was seen as 'controversial'.

But with Stormont's three-year stalemate eating up much of this Parliamentary term, it leaves little time left in this term for some of these plans to be actioned.

"It's very tight. Let's be realistic so we will need a lot of co-operation from other parties if we are to achieve things of significance. We have already lost over half of this mandate," Minister said.

TB situation in NI

Despite still being high, TB levels in Northern Ireland have fallen slightly over the last 24 months after infection rates reached their worst in 15 years in December 2017.

Official figures for October, the latest month for which figures are available, show herd incidence currently sitting at 7.9% for the 12 months before. It compares to 9.73% when the disease was at its worst.

The number of new herds infected is also down slightly - currently sitting at 1,791 over the 12 months ending October 2019. In November 2017 the same figure was 2,240.

Speaking at an event in November, Northern Ireland's chief veterinary officer Robert Huey said the region had reduced its spend on TB by £4.5 million compared the year before.

The chief vet had previously warned industry stakeholders the extent of the disease could have serious consequences for the region's ability to trade livestock post-Brexit.

Stormont officials calculated the cost of RHI at around £240 million. The Department of Economy confirmed £138 million had been spent on the scheme since it was launched in 2012 with it estimated the remainder of the scheme will cost another £100 million.

The figure compares to around six years of the region's annual spend tackling TB.