Tom Levitt details how a slight fall in bTB in the Republic of Ireland has not done enough to end criticisms of a badger cull there.
Is the Republic of Ireland getting it right on bovine TB? This was the question I sought to answer more than a decade ago after travelling to meet Irish Government, vets and farmers to learn about their plan to tackle the disease.
At the time of my trip in 2006, the UK had introduced mandatory pre-movement testing of cattle moving from high bTB risk herds but was ruling out a badger cull. In contrast, the Republic of Ireland had extended its culling trial to become nationwide in 2004.
This move was on the back of two sets of badger culling trials in the country, the second of which, known as the Four Areas Project, ended in 2002.
The trial results called for culls over wide areas, with the four trial areas of culling averaging 250sq.km.
The policy which was eventually introduced has stuck to smaller culling areas of less than 2sq.km around the infected farm premises and badger sett.
Nonetheless, the chief vet at the time was adamant the cull would be effective in cutting incidence of bTB.
James O’Keefe, from the Department for Agriculture, Food and Marine, said: “If what we have done is shown to be no good then we will lose the licence to cull badgers. But I do not think this is going to be the outcome in two years’ time.”
Ten years later and Ireland has the answer.
There has been a slight fall in the percentage of the national herd affected by bTB from about 0.4 per cent in the years before a nationwide cull to 0.3 per cent in recent years.
So can the badger cull policy really be said to have been worthwhile?
Of course, it is difficult to directly attribute even a slight fall to the badger cull as there has also been additional measures alongside this policy, including a mandatory registration system for herds and a comprehensive programme of disease surveillance.
Mr O’Keefe, who remains in charge of Ireland’s cull policy, said the drop in cattle slaughtered saved the Irish Government millions in compensation paid out to farmers.
The culling programme costs about €5 million (£4.43m) a year to run.
The number of reactors slaughtered in the Irish Republic initially increased between 2004 and 2008, before falling and later stabilising between 2013 and 2016.
In 2006, the total number of cattle culled was about 24,000. It was just under 23,000 when the nationwide culling programme started in 2004.
In 2016, it was just under 17,000, slightly up on the 2013 figure of about 15,500.
From the outside, it looked like a policy of containment rather than eradication of bTB.
“That is probably a fair comment,” said Mr O’Keefe.
“When you get to our levels, which are relatively low, containment is not too bad. If you are not containing then it is expanding.”
So are plans to eradicate bTB in Ireland now unfeasible?
For Mr O’Keefe, eradicating bTB is not the plan, preferring to keep limiting it to a smaller area over time.
“If we carry on we will eventually start eliminating them [badgers]. It is not sustainable. We cannot be doing this in 10 years’ time,” says Mr O’Keefe.
In January this year, the Irish Government announced the beginning of a policy to capture and vaccinate, rather than cull badgers.
The vaccination programme, using the BCG vaccine, will commence in the areas which have already been part of the field trials demonstrating the effectiveness of badger vaccination.
It will roll out incrementally to other parts of the country, with vaccination gradually replacing the need to remove badgers.
The plan this year is to vaccinate 1,000 and kill 6,000, but Mr O’Keefe expected this ratio to be reversed within five years.
“This will protect badgers to a degree and enable us to grow a population which is more resistant to TB,” he added.
“We will never eradicate TB in them though. Badgers live an unhealthy lifestyle so you have to accept a level of TB infection in them.”
A gradual decline in the amount of new agricultural land bought into the culling programme showed the areas of endemic TB had been isolated, Mr O’Keefe said.
“We have this 30 per cent of land where it [TB] is endemic so we have to do something to boost badger immunity in these areas.”
Although there is already one county in Ireland which is only using vaccination, it is clear shifting away completely from culling will put renewed spotlight on Mr O’Keefe and his department’s bTB policy.
Despite all the attention, he said neither culling or vaccinating badgers alone will be effective at reducing levels of bTB.
Instead, he said farming needed a culture change.
“We need better farmers and better managed herds if we want to drive this disease down to a low level. All you are doing with [our policy on] TB is putting your heel on a spring. If you take your heel off it will come back.”
While bovine TB prevalence in Northern Ireland was relatively low in 2010, it has risen at an 'alarming' rate over the last few years and is now ‘almost out of control’, according to Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) deputy president Victor Chestnutt.
An unstable political backdrop and increasing mistrust between farmers and policy makers has exacerbated the problem, with NI farmers losing confidence in the country’s strategy.
A recent Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), consultation proposed to cut the levels of bTB compensation to 75 per cent of the current rate – a move which could force many farmers out of business.
Mr Chestnutt said: “Small, family farming systems would not be able to withstand that.
“We fear these cost cutting measures will not free up cash to be spent on tackling the disease, but go straight into government coffers.”
Mr Chestnutt said DAERA proposals to implement a targeted badger cull in two hotspot areas - Aghadowey and Omagh – had been welcomed.
However, the political situation meant there was no Farming Minister to sign it off.
“Culling could commence this year,” added Mr Chestnutt.
“We look across the border and see how culling has reduced disease incidence so we are hopeful.
Our systems are predominantly grass-based, so it would be impossible to keep cattle and badgers apart. We need a healthy cattle population alongside a healthy badger population.”
Earlier this month the union proposed a new levy which could see farmers paying £1 to £3 a head for cattle based on average cattle numbers.
Initially it would be used to focus specifically on tackling TB in the wildlife reservoir. Farmers or contractors would be trained to implement the cull themselves and monitored by the government.
For it to be agreed however, Mr Chestnutt said DAERA’s other cost cutting measures would have to be ‘taken of the table’.