Despite having fewer than 100 herd breakdowns a year, bovine TB is seen as the enemy at the gates in Scotland.
Ewan Pate assesses the situation and asks what is being done to protect the country’s valuable official TB-free status.
NFU Scotland policy manager for animal health and welfare, Penny Middleton, is used to summing up the national attitude to bovine TB.
“We are in a fortunate position, but things could be very different,” she said, as she highlighted the importance of Scotland’s Official TB-free (OFT) status.
“We have to respect our TB-free status and do everything we can to protect it. We are definitely not in the business of finger-pointing and we appreciate the position we are in.
“We do have the occasional breakdown but when we do it does not become contiguous in the neighbourhood. This suggests there is not a reservoir of infection in the wildlife.”
Furthermore, when there have been individual cases the type has always been identifiable as, for example, a strain found in Ireland or the west of England.
NFUS is continually keeping up its guard against the disease and lobbies Government accordingly.
“Routine cattle testing is not perfect,” she said.
“There will be some mistakes, but it is as good as we have got. We keep an eye on the risk-based matrix.
“Instead of automatic four-year tests, many herds are not tested at all if the risk is deemed to be low according to the matrix. Annual testing is still appropriate on some farms, for example those with higher risk on movement.”
Compensation for reactors is paid on a different basis to England, with individual valuations made rather than using average or standard values.
NFUS defends this measure and regards it as fair although there is a strong belief farmers should not expose their herds to risk by importing cattle from high risk areas.
Post-movement testing is at the farmers’ cost but imported animals do not have to be kept separate unless they have come from the Republic of Ireland.
Ms Middleton warned of the dangers of keeping bought-in stock isolated on outlying fields or rented grazing away from the main herd.
This could protect their cattle but selfishly put neighbours’ cattle at risk.
In short, the battle to keep bovine TB at bay in Scotland is not just a matter for Government or representative organisations such as NFU Scotland.
Every farmer in Scotland has to be a member of the ‘home guard’.
Scotland should be proud of its bTB free status according to the country’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Sheila Voas.
“A lot of hard work by farmers, vets and government has contributed to our reputation as a land of high animal health and welfare. However we must not be complacent," she said.
“We do see the disease (bTB) occurring sometimes in Scotland so it is very important that we take all steps to keep clear including safe sourcing of stock as well as testing.
“By the industry working together there is no reason why we cannot retain disease free status. Government is constantly monitoring the situation elsewhere so that we can provide advice and take the necessary precautions."
Does Scottish Government have a ’mission statement’ encapsulating its approach to bovine TB?
The Scottish Government has published its Animal Health and Welfare in the Livestock Industry: Strategy 2016 to 2021 and is committed to maintaining and building on our existing high standards of animal health and welfare.
Scotland has in place a comprehensive, practical and proportionate programme of actions to maintain our current low levels of TB in cattle and other susceptible species and to safeguard our Officially TB Free status.
This includes minimising the risks from all potential sources of infection and reducing the risk of disease spread as far as possible.
Scotland is officially designated as ’free of bovine TB’. Is this correct and if so what are the parameters?
Scotland was designated Officially Tuberculosis Free by the European Commission in September 2009.
The parameters to achieve this status are that the percentage of bovine herds confirmed as infected with TB must not exceed 0.1 per cent of all herds per year, for six consecutive years.
What is the Scottish Government approach to monitoring any incursion of the disease?
A veterinary officer from APHA will undertake a disease investigation in the early stages of a suspected breakdown and complete a disease report on the incursion.
The investigation will assess the TB breakdown on farm, attempting to identify its origin and instigating control measures to limit its spread to other herds.
The veterinary officer conducting the investigation will give advice to help reduce the risk of spread of bovine TB and eradicate it from the infected herd, allowing the restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible.
Licences can be issued by APHA where the conditions necessary to eliminate any risk associated with that movement can be satisfied.
Movements between parts of the premises under the same movement restrictions can be made without the need for a movement licence for TB purposes, although other legal requirements for movements still apply, such as livestock movement standstill and recording and reporting requirements.
What is the testing regime in terms of skin test frequency?
Scotland has a routine testing interval of 48 months. However, since January 1, 2012, some Scottish herds have been identified as ‘low risk’ and are exempt from routine herd testing.
In order to qualify as ‘low risk’ herds have to meet certain criteria and are reassessed annually to ensure exempt herds continue to be eligible for low risk status.
Alternatively, in certain circumstances an individual herd may be deemed as a higher risk and require more frequent testing.
Is there an isolation procedure for such a farm or neighbouring farms?
It is a legislative requirement that every reactor and IR must be detained and isolated from the negative testing bovine animals and from other animals on the premises.
It is also a legislative requirement to take all reasonable steps to prevent such animals from infecting animals kept on any adjoining farms.
How is compensation agreed for reactors sent to slaughter?
In Scotland, compensation is paid at market value calculated in accordance with Articles 18 and 19 of The Tuberculosis (Scotland) Order 2007 and is paid only for animals slaughtered as part of a bovine TB control programme.
Owners with animals that die or are killed for any other reason, even if TB is subsequently identified in the carcase, will not receive compensation for those animals.
Is wildlife routinely monitored for the presence of bovine TB?
The Scottish Government routinely monitors the disease situation for any evidence of wildlife involvement in the spread of bovine TB across the country.
The current veterinary advice here is that there is still no evidence of any significant wildlife vectors of TB in Scotland, and that Scottish wildlife does not currently represent a risk, in terms of the spread of bovine TB to cattle.
Scottish Government does not carry out routine surveillance for TB in wildlife but we continue to keep a close watch for any emerging change in the pattern of disease.
How stringent are the pre-movement and post- movement testing requirements for stock imported from England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland or indeed anywhere else?
The existing regime of pre and post-movement testing of cattle from England and Wales along with arrangements for testing imported Irish cattle coming to Scotland have proven to be both robust and effective.
Introduced in 2005, pre and post-movement testing has played a significant part in reducing and maintaining the annual incidence of disease in Scotland to below the OTF threshold allowing us to remain Officially TB free for the last eight years
Does Scottish Government have any plans/ambitions to change the rules pertaining to bovine TB?
Scottish Government recently consulted on proposals to introduce changes to the requirements for post movement testing and to the way we pay TB compensation in Scotland.
We are currently analysing the responses and will be publishing our response in the coming months.
Is there a contingency plan, if for example bovine TB was to become widespread in the border areas?
Scotland monitors trends in TB incidence closely.
Should increasing disease incidence in Scotland be detected, consideration would be given to various control measures, including the application of enhanced surveillance activities.
Nigel Miller, Borders farmer and chairman of Animal Health Scotland, regards the situation with bTB across the country as being a case of ‘so far, so good’, but warned there was no room for complacency.
A qualified vet, he said: “There are unexplained outbreaks occasionally and then it is case of making sure there is not another outbreak on the same farm or in the neighbourhood, especially of the same sub-type.
"This would suggest the disease had become established in wildlife. Fortunately this has never happened in Scotland.
“Skin testing remains the standard method for identifying the disease but it is not foolproof. Out of every 1,000 tests, on average two will come back as inclusive.
“They normally turn out to be false but it is a worrying time for farmers as they wait for a second test.
“We should not forget the personal impact if you have a positive result. It can be pretty brutal and quite isolating.”