Badgers will be fitted with GPS collars and have their movements analysed as part of a five-year investigation into the causes of bovine TB.
Forty badgers will be collared so that their movements and interactions with cattle can be recorded and analysed under the “test and vaccinate or remove” (TVR) research project in Northern Ireland.
The first steps of the project got under way this summer in the Banbridge area of County Down.
See also: Read more on bovine TB and the badger cull
The trial will involve testing live badgers for TB, vaccinating and releasing those badgers that test negative and culling those that test positive.
The research is focusing on removing diseased badgers from the wild and protecting healthy one. It is hoped that this balanced approach will avoid killing healthy badgers and lead to a reduction in the transmission of TB to cattle.
Northern Irish agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill visited the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Dard) team behind the project to see for herself this “vital” research programme.
She said: “This year all captured badgers will be identified, assessed, sampled and vaccinated.
“Next year all captured badgers that are TB test negative will be vaccinated and released, while those testing positive will be removed.
“In addition, up to 40 badgers will have GPS collars fitted so that their movement can be recorded and analysed.”
Ms O’Neill added that eradicating bovine TB would require a “joined-up approach between government, industry and farmers, but she was encouraged by the high level of cooperation she witnessed.
“This continued cooperation will help us add to the pool of international knowledge and assist in designing the longer term path to eradication,” she said.
“I know the results of the TVR research project will be of interest to those in the south of Ireland, in Britain and further afield who similarly grapple with the difficulties inherent in bovine TB eradication.”
The second year of the pilot badger cull in England got under way in Somerset and Gloucestershire 10 days ago.
Unlike the Irish trial, marksmen in England are testing a “blanket approach” which involves removing at least 70% of badgers – including sick and healthy animals – in the cull zones.
“Next year all captured badgers that are TB test negative will be vaccinated and released, while those testing positive will be removed.”
Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister
This week, farm minister George Eustice told Farmers Weekly: “We would be really interested in learning lessons from Northern Ireland. We would be keen to see the results.”
But he cautioned there were a “number of factors” that might not make the Irish approach successful.
“The diagnostic test that we have to detect TB is only about 60% effective in badgers. There may be badgers that you are vaccinating and releasing that may be already infected.
“Also, the BCG vaccine is only 60-70% effective on badgers. You could be vaccinating badgers that would not benefit from that vaccine.
“It is not a perfect solution in our view. But nevertheless, it is an important piece of trial work that the Northern Irish government is undertaking.”
Over the next five years, cattle TB incidence will be monitored in the Banbridge area and in several similarly sized non-TVR areas. Information will then be compared between the TVR and non-TVR areas to identify any change in TB incidence in cattle.
It is anticipated that a final report on the TVR project could be ready by 2019.
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