IN less than two months, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) paid out over £1.1 million in compensation for cattle that had to be culled after catching Bovine TB (bTB).

The staggering figure – which was revealed in a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the Department – shows the true cost of ongoing inaction related to the disease, which continues to wreak havoc on farmers’ livelihoods, family businesses, and mental health.

According to an FOI, in February and January this year the Department paid out a total of £1,122,690 in compensation to farmers in the Enniskillen District Veterinary Office.

Contrast this to just over five years ago from February 2019 to December 2019 around £1.9m was paid out to local farmers for TB reactors.

By 2023, compensation had more than doubled to £5,349,500. Total pay outs rose by £1m each year, all while the number of reactor animals also skyrocketed.

According to DAERA, a reactor animal either has, or is highly likely to have, bTB, and as a precaution is taken off-farm and culled. In the first two months of 2019, only 294 reactor animals were found in Enniskillen.

Fast forward to the start of this year, and 473 reactors were found in the local veterinary area - a staggering increase of 67 per cent.

Indeed, the scale of the problem is perhaps best summed up in the following statistic.

In 2019, 1,538 cattle were found to be bTB, and had to be removed from farms. Last year, over 3,003 reactors were found, closing up a total of 463 herds.

In 2023, Enniskillen had some of the highest rates of bTB in Northern Ireland, with a herd incidence rate of 12.06 per cent – the second highest in NI, second only to Newtownards (12.24 per cent).

And while the most recent statistics show a slight drop in bTB incidence this year (11.36 per cent), the disease continues to cause widespread issues for farmers, with a total of 96 herds herds closed up in the first two months of this year.

But the black-and-white statistics and financial figures only tell half the story. Ask any farmer on the ground, and they tell of the truly devastating impact that bTB is ravaging on the countryside.

For any farmer, being ‘down’ with bTB is bad news. Even so much as one animal is found to have bTB, a herd is closed up, and farmers are sharply restricted when selling livestock, decimating incomes in one fell swoop.

Two clear tests must be achieved before this status is lifted, often leaving herds closed for months on end, and in some cases, years.

The official term for a herd that is down with bTB is a ‘breakdown’, and this term perhaps best describes the impact on farmers and their livelihoods (explored in detail overleaf).

Lisbellaw dairy farmer, Richard Dane, said that being forced to cull dozens of milk cows because of bTB was a “dark time” for him. Overall, he lost a total of 35 cows in the past two years due to the disease – a story that is all too common in Fermanagh.

“They were very dark times, and they aren’t over yet,” said Mr. Dane, as he recounted having to load otherwise healthy dairy cows, yielding over 10 gallons a day onto a trailer for slaughter.

“A farmer has an attachment to his cows. I remember remarking that the cows were never looking as well, a real picture.

“The next day they are away down the lane to the factory to be culled. There’s nothing you can do about it. It has an impact on you.”

The Danes have been battling bTB since January 2022, and numerous tests have revealed more reactors that must be culled. On one test alone, 16 cows were positive.

If this wasn’t bad enough, due to the high number of reactors, DAERA restricted Mr. Dane from buying new cows, leading to a sharp drop in milk production.

“Farming is a business like any other, and bTB completely takes away your control of things,” Mr. Dane added. “You have no say in what you want to sell or keep. It’s a real burden.”

And as the prevalence of TB grows, so too does discontent among farmers.

From a response to another FOI, it’s clear that some local farmers are less than satisfied with the Department’s handling of the local TB epidemic.

One complaint centred on the delay of DAERA in the removal of a bTB reactor cattle from a farm.

As bTB is spread when bacteria is released into the air and inhaled by other animals in close contact, the swift removal of reactors is effective in containing the spread.

Meanwhile, another farmer complained to DAERA about the handling of a Review of Decisions on an outstanding TB test.

In addition, the pertinent issue of the compensation payment of TB reactor animals was another complaint received by the Enniskillen DVO.

Compensation for animals is, at present, market value; however, some farmers - such as pedigree breeder, Robert Forde from Tempo - feel that compensation doesn’t reflect the true value of years of selective breeding and genetics of certain animals.

It’s no surprise that a consultation on reducing the amount of compensation paid out to farmers has been deeply unpopular within the farming community. Overall, it received 4,945 responses, which are currently being analysed by the Department.

Speaking to farmers on the ground, it is clear that many feel the Department’s ‘bTB eradication scheme’, is anything but, and especially in recent years has proven to be totally ineffective in tackling the issue.

“It’s frustrating that we have been testing for over 50 years and are still no farther forward,” said beef farmer, John Egerton, from Rosslea.

“In that time, they (the Department) still haven’t come up with an accurate way of testing.”

Wildlife is also an issue when it comes to bTB. It is a proven fact that deer and badgers are known transmitters of TB, and many farmers feel that these animals, especially badgers, are to blame for the high bTB incidence.

Backed by the Ulster Farmers’ Union, farmers feel meaningful intervention is now needed but the badger is a protected species in Northern Ireland, and culling for TB control isn’t permitted.

However, ad-hoc surveys do take place, with the Department encouraging dead badgers to be turned in for TB testing.

Yet the results from another FOI show that this practice is not widespread, pointing to a lack of will to tackle the issue.

From November 2022 (when statistics began to show worrying spikes in bTB locally) until November of last year, only 21 badgers were brought in for testing.

Of this small sample, seven badgers were found to be bTB positive, giving rise to fears among farmers regarding the potential of the species to transmit bTB to cattle herds.

Locally, farmers are quick to point to a lack of will from the Department to move on the issue of bTB eradication. As per responses to other FOIs to the Department, it appears that there was little concern among the ‘higher ups’ in DAERA regarding the worsening bTB situation in Enniskillen.

An FOI requested; copies of correspondence and emails from former Chief Veterinary Officer, Robert Huey, to the Enniskillen Veterinary District, regarding Bovine TB, since November 2022.

A response stated that the department did not hold this information.

A separate request to DAERA, an interview with Minister of Agriculture, Andrew Muir, was requested.

This request was rejected, and a press response was instead provided detailing the Minister’s response to bTB.

In the statement, Minister Muir acknowledged that “herd incidence (of bTB) remains too high across Northern Ireland.

“I have made clear that tackling this disease and all of the factors which contribute to its spread and endurance is a top priority,” the statement read. “I (The Minister) have asked new Chief Veterinary Officer, Brian Dooher, to take a fresh look at issue of Bovine TB.

“The Department also continues to engage with stakeholders to examine the best ways to help lower the rate of bTB in our herds.”