Speaking at a British Veterinary Association event at Stormont in October 2021, Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots insisted that Northern Ireland (NI) cannot keep “going round and round in circles” when it comes to bovine TB.
Since testing became compulsory in the late 1960s, there have been some years when progress was made, only for it all to go wrong again.
The most recent disease peak was towards the end of 2017, and while rates did fall in 2018 and 2019, the latest data tells a familiar tale.
For the year to the end of September 2021, a total of 10,087 cattle have been removed as reactors at a TB test, up 11% on the same period in 2020.
Quite simply, the cycle of annual TB testing is not working
TB herd incidence, defined in NI as the number of new herd breakdowns as a proportion of all herds tested, currently stands at 8.64%, approximately double the figure from the Republic of Ireland.
Quite simply, the cycle of annual TB testing is not working.
Unlike counterparts in the south, or in England, there has been no meaningful attempt to control TB in wildlife in NI.
Various agriculture ministers have skirted around the issue.
While nice in theory, TVR costs a lot of money, and only small numbers of badgers are actually removed
In 2014, the then-minister, Michelle O’Neill, announced a five-year research project involving testing badgers for TB, vaccinating health animals and euthanising those with the disease – the Test and Vaccinate or Remove approach (TVR).
While nice in theory, TVR costs a lot of money, and only small numbers of badgers are actually removed.
In 2016, an industry-led TB Strategic Partnership Group, tasked by Minister O’Neill to develop a long-term eradication strategy for NI, published its final report.
Some of the recommendations were enacted, but the main issues around cutting compensation for TB reactors and implementing a badger cull remain outstanding.
Much of what was in the TB Strategic Partnership Group report has permeated into a public consultation released by Minister Poots in July 2021.
Unlike the Republic of Ireland, there is no TB levy
He has suggested a £5,000 cap for reactors, and cutting compensation rates by up to 25%, as a means of “encouraging herd keepers to take all reasonable steps to prevent disease”.
Those changes have been resisted by farmers, especially when government has done nothing to tackle the disease in wildlife. Unlike the Republic of Ireland, there is no TB levy. Annually, TB costs NI taxpayers around £40m.
But, critically for farmers, Minister Poots has proposed a targeted cull of badgers in TB hotspot areas.
Assuming disease rates come down, the long-term policy is to vaccinate badgers
The plan is for culling to be done over a seven-year period by controlled shooting undertaken by companies set up and paid for by farmers.
Assuming disease rates come down, the long-term policy is to vaccinate badgers. While a legal challenge by badger lobby groups is possible, it is still anticipated that a NI badger cull will finally begin in 2022.
Unless NI starts to do things differently, TB will never be eradicated across the island of Ireland.