In 2019, the then Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed launched his ambitious plan to eradicate bovine TB by 2030.
Consultation papers setting out this bold strategy pointed out that the equivalent of €5.5bn had been spent on the TB eradication scheme since 1954.
Close to 2.5m animals had been culled in the intervening 65 years, but the costly programme failed to eradicate the disease.
The Department of Agriculture argued that substantial savings would accrue to farmers and the industry should drive for TB eradication by 2030, to succeed where all previous efforts had failed.
Two years later, however, the ambition of Creed’s initiative has given way to an uncomfortable acceptance that ridding livestock farming of TB will be a far slower grind than anticipated.
The consensus within the agri-sector is that TB will certainly not be eradicated by the target date of 2030. Indeed, there is a quiet sense that Creed’s goal was “overly optimistic” and that the disease could still be plaguing the industry well into the next decade.
The latest Department figures give credence to this view.
These show that there were 4,484 herds restricted due to TB at the end of September. This is back marginally on the 2020 figure which stood at 4,508 herds.
The number of reactor animals has also remained stubbornly high. A total of 21,470 reactors were identified in the 12 months to the end of September this year, compared to 21,209 at the end of September 2020.
The one positive for the industry is that the inexorable rise in TB levels appears to have finally stalled.
Herd incidence increased from 3.27% in 2016 to 4.38% in 2020. But this year’s figure is forecast to be lower, at around 4.23%.
Slowly turning the tide on TB, however, will be of little comfort to the thousands of farm families who are locked up with the disease, and to the thousands of others worried by the increased incidence in their area.
The continuing TB difficulties in Wicklow and Monaghan have been well documented. But the disease is also affecting big numbers of farms in new hotspot areas such as north Cork.
“I know some areas where 30% of farms are under some level of restriction,” said ICMSA deputy president Lorcan McCabe.
“Even with all that’s going on around climate change and CAP, TB is still taking around one-third of my time at local meetings. It is the big issue on the ground,” he explained.
Department staff who work on TB recognise and appreciate the anxieties that the disease generates.
“TB is a disease that can put farmers out of business in the short to medium term – and permanently out of business in extreme cases,” one senior Department official admitted.
Creed’s challenging initiative was informed by a sharp deterioration in TB numbers between 2015 and the end of the decade when annual reactor numbers surged by 25%, rising from 15,300 to over 20,000.
As with all things relating to TB, there are sharply divergent views on the reasons for this increased incidence. While some in the industry have pointed to dairy expansion, the farm organisations have blamed reduced wildlife controls, particularly where new roads displaced badgers giving rise to new outbreaks.
Different perspectives on how the disease challenge should be tackled undermined progress in the early years of the TB Stakeholder Forum; the farm-sector body established to implement an agreed strategy for the 2030 eradication drive.
While some at the forum pushed for a raft of stringent controls at farm level to clamp down on the disease in blackspot areas, the IFA and ICMSA insisted that the medicine could not be so severe that it killed the patient.
“Eradication of the disease within the shortest feasible timeframe must be the objective,” agreed IFA animal health chair Pat Farrell.
“But this cannot be by the simplistic approach of tightening controls on farms without consideration for how the controls and measures impact on the daily management of farms and the livelihood of the farm families concerned,” he added.
The farm organisations insisted that adequate supports and funding had to be provided to farmers whose herds are impacted by TB.
Moreover, they warned that the imposition of restrictions around the general sale of cattle could not be overly prescriptive, even where these were informed by the requirements of the eradication programme.
For example, proposals that the TB herd-risk of animals should be published in marts provoked fierce opposition from the farm organisations and were subsequently dropped.
This pushback by the farm organisations has frustrated senior Department officials.
Cattle movements from herds with a history of TB remained a major contributory factor in the spread of the disease but the interests of the seller seemed to trump those of the buyer, they argued.
Working groups highlight the differences of opinion
The decision by Creed’s successor Charlie McConalogue to establish three forum working groups – on finance, implementation and science – has helped take the heat out of many of these early disputes and improved relations among the various stakeholder parties. However, significant differences remain. Among these is the manner in which TB “inconclusives” or “doubtfuls” are treated under the eradication scheme.
The current procedure on inconclusive animals is that they are blood-tested 10 days after the skin test. If the animal is clear in the blood test, they are skin tested again six weeks later. Those still clear are then blood-tested every six months.
Although 62% of inconclusive animals eventually test positive for TB, many are being retained on farms like “lucky charms”, one Department source claimed.
“Some of them are nearly old enough to vote,” he maintained.
The ICMSA has described inconclusive animals as a potential reservoir of infection and has called for all of them to be blood-tested and removed. However, the Department’s view is that the potential for disease spread from doubtful animals is limited since farmers can only sell them to slaughter, and all former inconclusive cattle are automatically removed in the case of a new TB breakdown.
The Department has therefore resisted efforts to get the State to effectively subsidise a general cull of inconclusive animals. The implicit message is that farmers should slaughter inconclusives for the benefit of their own herd.
Farmers maintain that a more determined approach on controlling TB infections from badgers and deer has helped arrest the surge in numbers over the last 12 months, with the IFA welcoming the decision by Minister McConalogue to provide €6m to the wildlife control programme in 2022.
“The additional funding must be used to increase the numbers of operatives on the ground to ensure the programme is operated effectively and efficiently throughout the country,” Farrell said.
But further matters of contention are proving more difficult to resolve.
One such issue is the EU requirement that a 30-day pre- or post-movement test be carried out on all cattle purchased from herds that have not been TB-tested in the previous six months.
It is understood that the Department is considering implementing this ruling on a phased basis, with all herds that have had TB in the previous three years (C3 herds) subject to the requirement.
However, the IFA is strongly opposed to the move, arguing that it would create “huge difficulties” for the sale of animals. Instead, the farm body wants the measure to be limited to the sale of cows, which make up 60% of reactors.
Another issue coming quickly down the tracks is funding.
Currently, the €57m of €97m spent each year on TB eradication is paid by the National Exchequer. Farmers pay €35m and the EU provides €5.4m.
However, with the EU’s contribution going to zero over the next two years, and increased demands on the existing budget, making up the funding shortfall is going to be a fraught and difficult issue.
The IFA is adamant that farmers are not in a position to pay any more.
“Asking farmers to pay more to the TB programme is not very palatable and if there is to be agreement there will need to be fundamental changes to how the systems work and in the levels of support available to farmers who experience TB breakdown,” Farrell said.
The Department is equally firm in the view that committing significant resources to a disease programme which is not making progress is not really an option indefinitely.
“There is a tonne of money being spent on this [TB eradication]. Everybody has to give some ground. The forum strategy represents the compromise. That is the tension here,” a senior Department official insisted.
The clear implication is that while the farm organisations might be satisfied with a TB eradication programme that delivers in the longer term, the Department is pushing for progress at a far faster pace.
Whether this is feasible given the many differing factors at play is unclear.
A 2019 article in the Irish Veterinary Journal by Professor Simon More of UCD claimed it would not be possible to eradicate TB by 2030 unless the strategy adequately addressed TB risks from wildlife, implemented additional risk-based cattle controls, and enhanced industry engagement.
However, Lorcan McCabe of the ICMSA pointed to the recent success of the BVD programme as illustrating what can be achieved with farmer buy-in.
He pointed out that there were 16,000 BVD PIs in 2013 but that this will be down to 700 this year.
While McCabe accepted that TB is “a trickier disease” than BVD, he said that if reactor numbers could be halved to 10,000 per year by 2030 that would have to be viewed as real progress.
“We have to be ambitious with regard to TB eradication, but we also have to be realistic about what can be achieved. Because there’s no silver bullet out there for TB,” he said.