Northern Ireland has announced plans for a survey of badger numbers ahead of an eradication research programme involving vaccination and selected culling of badgers with signs of TB.

The survey of badger setts in the Banbridge/Rathfriland area of County Down is in preparation for the government’s “test and vaccinate or remove (TVR)” eradication programme of badgers to tackle bovine tuberculosis in wildlife.

The scheme will include the testing of live badgers and removal of diseased badgers from the countryside and the vaccination of remaining TB-free ones, who will then be released back into the wild.

Northern Ireland agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill said she hoped the badger sett survey work would begin as soon as possible.

“I have agreed that Agri-Food and Biosceiences Institue (AFBI) should start the sett survey in a 100sq km area between Banbridge and Rathfriland as soon as permissions from local farmers are obtained,” said Mrs O’Neill.

“I am encouraged that the balanced TVR approach has been welcomed by a broad spectrum of stakeholders.”

The minister added: “I share the widely held aspiration to achieve a progressive reduction in disease levels towards the ultimate eradication of TB here.”

The Ulster Farmers’ Union welcomed plans for the badger survey as a “positive step forward” in the long battle to eradicate bovine TB.

UFU president Harry Sinclair said: “The UFU has always held the view that the removal and eradication of TB from the countryside can only be achieved by addressing the problem in both cattle and wildlife.

“The current TB policy of only removing diseased cattle will not achieve eradication because the disease is also carried in wildlife and therefore cattle will inevitably continue to be infected.”

However, farmers who are struggling to cope with bovine TB in their herds would be concerned that the research programme could last as long as five years, he added.

“It is our view that the programme should be regularly evaluated and if the results are favourable, then the entire project should be rolled out across the industry much more quickly.”

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.

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