20 June 1997

Ulstermen fight losing battle as outbreaks rise

The halt to badger culling in new TB breakdown areas means cattle farmers face repeated outbreaks of the disease.In the first of a new series, Sue Rider reports on the situation in Ulster where badgers are not culled and Rebecca Austin visits an affected farmer in the Market Drayton area of Salop where TB has been confirmed on several farms

ULSTERs farmers are frustrated because they are culling TB infected cattle but, with no badger culling, face repeated outbreaks of the disease.

Despite stringent TB testing of cattle in the Province there were over three times the number of herds restricted this February – 668 – compared with only 191 10 years ago.

About 650 new cattle herds were confirmed as having TB last year, about 750 in 1995, and 800 in 1994. Set that against 449 new herd breakdowns in Great Britain in 1995, and 362 in 1994, and its clear Northern Ireland, with an eighth of the cattle population, suffers a much higher rate of TB.

That said, Ulster Farming Union Animal Health Co-ordinator, Harry Jordan, is quick to point out that the Department of Agriculture can keep tabs on all animals and their disease status using its computerised traceability system; abattoir checks for TB eliminate any potential risk to human health.

But he admits that with cattle moving on average 12 times in the Province, chances of new breakdowns will inevitably be high, especially in beef herds where animals move on and off farms most frequently.

A key concern, however, is that many new breakdowns are in self-contained dairy herds, often with 5-10% of a herd going down.

"We want to know where that TB is coming from," explains Mr Jordan.

"Its a well-known fact that badgers are hosts for TB, and there are more herd breakdowns in areas where there are a lot of badgers."

The UFU believes the badger population is on the increase; at the same time TB incidence in cattle is not falling as quickly as expected given the number slaughtered.

"Wed like to see trapping of badgers in a humane way in an area where theres been a new herd breakdown and use a live test to find out whether they are infected with TB. If so, these badgers should be culled – again in a humane way."

In its written submission to the TB review panel, chaired by Prof Krebs, the UFU calls for a change in policy to allow for trapping and testing of badgers in all areas where TB has been confirmed in herds.

"Where badgers are identified as infected positive for M bovis they should be culled. Infected badgers are a risk to other clean badgers and cattle," says the UFU.

It also stresses the need for a live vaccine to counter the disease – and highlights farmer concerns about the inaccuracy of the current skin test used to detect infected cattle.

More and more false negatives, or inconclusives, are being recorded and the UFU believes theres a need for a more reliable test.

"We feel that the TB skin test, although the best currently available, might not be ruthless enough – leaving the odd reactor behind," says Mr Jordan.