Northern Ireland's TB crisis has already begun to affect its future trade prospects, with Spain already saying it will not accept calves from the region.

Speaking at the Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute (AFBI) 2018 Scientific Outlook conference, chief veterinary officer (CVO) Robert Huey explained his Spanish counterpart had already said he would not continue taking Northern Irish calves post-Brexit because of TB.

Huey explained he was obligated to inform countries importing Northern Irish animals if the herds the animals were from were later found to have broken down.

He said this was something he typically had to do every other month to Spain.

Issues on the horizon

Huey said: "Currently, as part of the single market, other parts of the EU more or less have to take our agricultural products but every certificate for cattle products - be that beef or be that dairy produce - starts with a declaration on TB.

"And one of the things that third countries can use as a barrier to trade is animal health along with public health - and it will be used.

The best example is the calves we currently send to Spain. The Spanish CVO has already told me he won't be taking them - currently he has to.

"The reason for that is that I have to write to him every other month and tell him, 'You know the calves you took last week, well they were OK last week, but now I know they come from breakdown herds so you have to test them.'

"It's a cost on him and his administration sending him disease. So in his position I would do exactly the same thing; I wouldn't be taking them or I'd be demanding higher standards."

Huey also told the crowd about a meeting with the Scottish CVO, who spoke about her 13 TB outbreaks last year - two of them in pigs, 11 in cattle.

"That's 11 - not 11%," Huey stressed. "Two of which we sent her. We sent her the biggest one."

An island trading

University College Dublin's Prof. Simon More, who is from Australia, said the UK would likely face many of the same challenges as his home nation because of the disease.

He previously suggested a tougher approach to animal movements on the island - as was used in Australia - could speed up Ireland's progress towards eradicating TB.

He said: "If the UK floats off on its own in terms of trade I think it becomes somewhat similar to where Australia has been for many years.

The whole motivation for eradication in Australia was entirely driven by trade.

"To get a competitive advantage, you needed to be TB - and indeed Brucellosis - free so I think the pressure will be much greater outside the EU than in, because inside the EU the UK has been able to trade without too many problems."

John Thompson, Animal Health and Welfare NI chairman, added: "Certainly post-Brexit our reputation for having animals with disease, when quite a lot of our trading partners haven't had the disease, or have eradicated the disease, is a disadvantage.

"It's something we urgently need to try and have an impact on.

"There's a point of time where decisions need to be made and that time is now. We need to grab the bull by the horns and start to do something radical to try and reduce the level."