Selective culling of badgers to combat bovine TB in Northern Ireland could begin in early 2014 if a survey of badger sett populations is successful, it was revealed.
Bert Houston, chief veterinary officer for Northern Ireland, said plans for a research programme involving vaccination and the selected culling of badgers were progressing well.
According to Mr Houston, the test and vaccinate or remove (TVR) eradication programme is the first time that such a project will be trialled.
Unlike the UK government's plans to trial the free shooting of badgers to tackle bovine TB, the scheme in Northern Ireland will be more selective.
The TVR programme will involve trapping live badgers in cages and testing them by their setts for TB. Those that are found to be clean will be vaccinated against TB and released back into the wild, whereas diseased badgers will be removed and humanely destroyed.
"I think our TVR programme is an approach that has not been trialed before," said Mr Houston.
"I'm sure that there will be many hurdles between now and getting it off the ground. But I would be hopeful of a positive reference."
Northern Ireland agriculture minister Michelle O'Neill announced this week that preparations for the TVR scheme were under way.
Work will soon begin in Banbridge/Rathfriland in County Down on surveying badger setts to get an idea of the badger population in the area.
Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture and Development (DARD) has drafted in officials from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), an executive agency of DEFRA, to carry out some of the modelling.
If everything goes to plan, the selective culling of badgers could begin in spring 2014.
"We are getting the data this year from the badger setts," said Mr Houston. "We are hopeful of moving on to the ground in early spring, if the opportunity is there, to get the TVR project under way.
"Will we see an obvious decrease in the number of positive badgers we trap? If we do, then what will be the ongoing consequence in the incidence of cattle TB in this area?"
The Banbridge/Rathfriland TVR trial area is 100sq km, has a high density of cattle farming businesses and a large badger population. There is a high incidence of bovine TB in this area, which gives it similar characteristics to "TB hotspots" in England, such as the South West.
Questions have been asked, however, over why the UK government cannot adopt the same approach as Northern Ireland, which would surely go some way to appeasing animal rights groups, including the Humane Society International UK, which has condemned the "needless slaughter of tens of thousands of healthy badgers".
"We believe that the social environment of the badger is different in Ireland from that in England," explained Mr Houston.
"In England and Wales, there is a lot of perturbation. But badgers do not seem to move around as much over here. It is also postulated that social groups are much smaller [in Ireland] than in England."
No details of the costs of the TVR project, which could last as long as five years, have been released.
The Ulster Farmers' Union welcomed plans for the badger survey as a "positive step forward" in the long battle to eradicate bovine TB.
According to the Northern Ireland Assembly, bovine TB has cost Northern Ireland around £317m over the 15 years up to March 2011.
DEFRA plans to launch a badger cull pilot in England this summer, while in Wales a badger vaccination programme is under way in Pembrokeshire. A spokesman for DEFRA said: "The science is clear that our policy of culling badgers as part of a conprehensive approach to tackling TB can lead to a reduction in the disease in cattle. We will be monitoring the approach under trial in Northern Ireland with interest. However, practical difficulties in capturing, anaesthetising and testing enough badgers to have a meaningful impact in reducing TB makes this approach unsuitable for use in England."
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Bovine TB and the badger cull
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