Badger in cage © FLPA/John Hawkins/REX/Shutterstock© FLPA/John Hawkins/REX/Shutterstock

Vets in Northern Ireland are to start testing badgers in two bovine TB hotspots as a possible prelude to a cull of infected wildlife.

The announcement is contained as part of a package of measures designed to tackle the disease, following what is described by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) as a “sharp increase” in incidence rates over the past year.

See also: Labour questions science behind badger cull extension

Official statistics show the number of reactors to the disease in the year to July stood at 14,459 – or 0.84% of the national herd – compared with 11,305 in the previous 12-month period, while the monthly average number of reactors is the highest it has been since 2005.

Chief vet for Northern Ireland, Robert Huey, said Daera’s robust cattle-testing regime had helped ensure that about 90% of herds are free from bTB and able to engage in international trade.

“However, in light of increasing bTB incidence over the past year, it is important that we continue to identify how we can improve the bTB programme so we can identify and remove infected animals at the earliest opportunity, and take other actions needed to protect herds.”

In addition to changes to the testing regime (see “What else in on the menu”, below), Daera is also planning to survey badgers for bTB in two areas with a high density of TB-infected cattle – one in County Londonderry and one on County Tyrone.

Daera staff will map badger setts, blood test a small number of badgers (about 20 in each area) and cull any testing positive for bTB, to be sent for further laboratory examination.

“The information gained will be used to help inform potential future wildlife intervention policies,” said a statement.

Small step

The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) described the announcement as “a small step in the right direction”, but called for “swifter, more meaningful action” to tackle the disease in the wildlife population.

“The introduction of more on-farm controls does not go far enough to tackle the real underlying problem,” said UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt.

“Only 0.84% of cattle in Northern Ireland have TB, compared with 17% of badgers. It should not come as a surprise that farmers are pressing for more wildlife intervention.

“Farmers are frustrated by a TB programme that appears to be addressing only one side of the problem.”

Mr Chestnutt also called for more understanding by Daera officials of the stress farmers are under during TB testing, and not to impose impractical additional measures.

It is estimated that bTB costs taxpayers about £34m/year in Northern Ireland due to testing and compensation payments.

What else is on the menu?

  • More “severe interpretation” of skin tests in breakdown herds, to improve sensitivity and detect more infected animals
  • The introduction of a six-monthly rather than an annual herd test in breakdown herds which have been recently derestricted
  • The reduction in the threshold from six animals with “no visible lesions” (NVLs) to just two before herds lose their “officially TB-free” status
  • The introduction of a biosecurity self-assessment checklist