Moves to implement the biggest operation to reduce incidence of TB in cattle in Northern Ireland could begin in 2023 if everything falls in place, farmers attending a meeting in Enniskillen on Monday evening heard.

The TB Eradication Partnership and DAERA hosted a TB eradication strategy roadshow at the CAFRE Enniskillen Campus, the first of six events across Northern Ireland. TBEP is an independent advisory body to provide advice to DAERA and the Minister on a strategy ahead on bovine TB. The roadshows follow the publication of the Minister’s strategy earlier this year with a desire to deliver actions within it. These include a wildlife intervention measure where badgers would be removed from areas where there is a high incidence of bovine TB in the cattle population by shooting, cage trapping and subsequently vaccination.

A large number of farmers attended the meeting on Monday when representatives of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association were also present.

Sean Hogan, Chairman of TBEP said before the meeting; “The TBEP is committed to working with the Department and farmers to implement it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the farming industry working in real partnership with government to deliver on the goal to eradicate bovine TB in Northern Ireland”

The urgency of the programme to introduce new measures to combat TB was evident during the meeting. The TBEP vice-chairman, David Rea, one of the two farmer representatives, explained the structure of the group to include experts in science, conservation and the agricultural industry.

Neil Gartland from DAERA’s TB policy branch, referred to the reasons to implement a new strategy - a herd breakdown of 9.3 per cent in August this year and an animal incidence of 0.84 per cent costing some £45m last year and compensation to farmers totalling £28m.

“We need to tackle all aspects of this and work together,” he said.

Farmers have already responded in thousands to the consultation process and now the model which has been tried and tested in parts of England successfully is to be followed in Northern Ireland spearheaded by one company to oversee the practical measures of wildlife intervention to include shooting and cage trapping and in the longer term a vaccination programme of the badger population.

Raymond Kirk, a principal veterinary officer with DAERA explained how the wildlife intervention would work with a targeted non-selective cull using controlled shooting, cage trapping followed by vaccination. He emphasised that the principle was not to eliminate the badger population but to eliminate the risk of TB by badgers. 

The cull would work in areas of 100 square kilometres, the equivalent of 25,000 acres where there are sustained levels of cattle TB or local hotspots using areas of natural boundaries. These areas would typically have between 100-200 cattle herds, up to 15,000 cattle and varying herd size of up to 1000 cattle. In this typical area there would be around 300 badgers.

A typical cull company running this would have six sector leads and up to 60 individuals highly trained in marksmanship who would be involved up to three nights a week shooting badgers or setting cages over a period between September and November with the aim of reducing a badger population in those areas of some 75 per cent. This is co-ordinated by a central control room.  Peanuts are used as bait for badgers - last year over 55 tonnes of peanuts were used in England.

Later in the meeting, David Brown, UFU President, said they would be pressing for surveys of badger setts and training of those involved in the cull to be carried out in the Spring of 2023 with the practical intervention aimed for autumn of 2023.

The practical culling must then be repeated over the following three years, before a vaccination programme is then introduced.

Raymond Kirk added; “With planning, resource and commitment, the potential is there to make a significant reduction in cattle TB levels.”

David Brown spoke to the meeting on how farmers can play a role in supporting these measures. He said one company would be set up to run the operation across Northern Ireland. Mr. Brown said they would be supporting the financing of this programme by asking farmers to pay a levy of £1 for every slaughtered animal and 0.02p per litre of milk sold.

Dr. Sam Strain of Animal Health and Welfare Northern Ireland, explained that his organisation would act as a facilitator for the handling of funds to pay for the programme.

To have the programme started, it will require ministerial approval and legislation to control badger numbers as they are a protected species.

A series of questions were answered by the panel including a suggestion that beef finishers with cattle indoors should be exempt from they were going for slaughter only. This is currently being examined.

There were some questions over the deer population and while scientists accepted they carried TB, it was found this was localised and further evidence is needed before they are targeted in a similar cull to badgers.

A judicial review over the Minister’s publication of the strategy is to be heard on November 21.