The director of Animal Health Wales has described Welsh bovine tuberculosis statistics as astonishing and horrifying.

Tony Edwards also warned farmers, who resisted the Welsh Assembly‘s Health Check testing programme, that they would be forced to comply.

Addressing the annual meeting of the Farmers Union of Wales‘ Carmarthenshire county branch, Mr Edwards claimed that bovine TB was the topic that dominated every conversation he had with the industry.

“In the Carmarthen office alone they are dealing with up to 180 test charts a month that include TB reactors, and removing up to 1000 reactors, inconclusive reactors and dangerous contacts in the same period,” Mr Edwards said.

“These are horrifying statistics, and that is without the growth in incidence in the other two divisions in Cardiff and Caernarfon.”

Roughly 1150 of the 13,500 cattle herds in Wales were under restriction, and more were being identified following the decision to test all susceptible animals over 42 days old between 1 October in 2008 and December 2009.

By the end of last week 8000 of the roughly 12,500 herds not under restriction had been tested.

“To the end of April, of the additional 2301 herds tested as a result of this programme, we have identified 34 with reactor animals and 176 with inconclusives.”

Of these 72 subsequently tested clear, 20 went on to either have reactors or repeat inconclusives and 83 awaited re-tests.

The overdue test backlog had been cut by 86% and vets were dealing with the real hard core of farmers who refused to have their cattle tested.

“These is only a handful of farmers, thankfully, but they take up a disproportionate amount of time and sometimes necessitate us bringing equipment and staff onto the farm to gather and test the animals – often only small numbers – but nevertheless a very time-consuming exercise.

“We will pursue the reluctant few. It is not fair on their neighbours, or the industry as a whole, to resist in this way. Their intransigence is a potential threat to removing the disease altogether from Welsh cattle herds.”

Mr Edwards emphasised how tricky it was to deal with Mycobacteriun bovis, which he described as “a nasty little bug”. It could start an infection immediately or hide until something triggered it to do so.

He had a message for farmers who complained about false positive test results when no lesions were found in a reactor carcass.

Looking for early lesions was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

A positive skin test in an area where there was endemic disease almost certainly meant that the animal was infected and probably infectious even when no lesions were found.

Also the gamma interferon test could pick up infection much earlier so vets were less likely to discover post-mortem lesions.

“This test now performs well and the research has shown that, if an animal is positive to a gamma test, there is a very high likelihood that it will go on to show clinical lesions,” he said.