Q&A: Chief vet outlines bovine TB strategy for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s chief vet, Robert Huey, explains the next steps in the government policy to eradicate bovine TB in cattle herds. Hayley Parrott and Philip Case ask the questions.

What are your key areas of research and development for the next 5-10 years?

There are seven evidence and research projects related to bovine tuberculosis (bovine TB) currently commissioned by Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera).

These include studies on farm fragmentation, livestock purchasing, the role of deer, strain type analysis and the risk of M. bovis transmission through slurry and animal faeces. 

See also: Photos: How to badger-proof your farm

Which of those have you secured funding for?

All of these projects are fully funded.

What will happen after Brexit to the budget to tackle bovine TB from Europe – is that going to be replaced or lost?

EU contribution to the Northern Ireland bovine TB programme in 2020 is expected to be in the region of €1.85m (£1.67m). In 2019-20, the overall cost of the bovine TB programme here was £36.3m and is currently forecast at a similar amount for this financial year.

This is the final year of the EU’s contribution towards bovine TB eradication in the UK. Therefore, from 2021, the Northern Ireland bovine TB programme will be financed solely from UK expenditure.   

Is there conversation happening with the wider government about how trade deals could allow different management of TB outside the EU?

The Northern Ireland bovine TB eradication programme, which has been approved by the EU Commission, facilitates access to export markets by Northern Ireland’s export-dependent livestock and livestock product sectors. This trade is worth £1.7bn a year to the beef and dairy industry.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the programme must remain aligned with EU law. The EU will, therefore, maintain interest in the Northern Ireland bovine TB eradication scheme, which provides necessary guarantees to maintain arrangements for trade in live animals.

Third country trade in beef and dairy is not generally subject to bovine TB requirements. An exception to this is a significant new developing trade opportunity with China, which has included strict eligibility specifications for the export of beef.

These include herd clinical case freedom from bovine TB and a number of other farm diseases. It is anticipated that this trade opportunity will become open to Northern Ireland in the coming months and further detail will be made available when arrangements are finalised.

How do you see the roles of all the different diagnostic tests for bovine TB?

There are currently only two tests approved under EU legislation as diagnostic methods for the granting and maintenance of bovine TB disease-free status, the tuberculin skin test (as a single intradermal test or as a comparative test as used by Daera) and the interferon-gamma assay (IFNG). 

Both of these tests, based on cellular immunity, are used within the Northern Ireland bovine TB programme.

The IFNG test is currently used along with the skin test to improve the sensitivity of the skin test in herds with known infection and the aim is to extend the use of this test over the next few years.

The extended use of this test will be ensured by making the IFNG test compulsory if it is considered of benefit to the herd, and also including the compulsory removal of IFNG reactor animals, even when they are skin test negative.

The sensitivity of the skin test may also be improved by applying a more severe interpretation of results and this is sometimes applied with high-risk animals/herds.

Antibody detection tests have been validated by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) for bovine TB control, namely the IDEXX test and the Enferplex test.

These are not intended to be an alternative to the cellular, immunity-based tests and they are not commonly used within the Northern Ireland programme as they are considered unlikely to give a significant benefit over the combined use of the skin test and the IFNG test in infected herds.

That does not negate consideration being given to their use in limited situations where they may be deemed useful. A number of other tests are under development but are unlikely to play a role in the Northern Ireland bovine TB programme prior to official OIE approval.

Will you be following any advice in the Godfray report? If so, please state which areas.

A new strategy to reduce and, ultimately, eradicate bovine TB in Northern Ireland is being developed.

Based on the work of a TB Strategic Partnership Group (TBSPG), which published its recommendations in 2016, and the department’s response to these recommendations, which was the subject of a public consultation in late 2017/early 2018, strategy proposals are currently being considered by the minister (Edwin Poots).

The department is cognisant of the recommendations made by Sir Charles Godfray for bovine TB control and eradication in England and Defra’s response to his recommendations.

Officials regularly liaise with colleagues in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland to share knowledge and best practice with regard to the bovine TB programmes in each jurisdiction. We will continue to monitor policy developments in England with interest.

What role do you think the private vet plays in TB?

The private vet completes a biosecurity questionnaire with every herd keeper for whom they carry out bovine TB testing once per year. This contains details of their land parcels and wildlife and affords the vet the opportunity to discuss herd biosecurity improvements with the herd keeper.

Private vets liaise with local Daera patch vets regarding bovine TB breakdowns and assist them in obtaining vital information, for example herd health details of the farm in question.

Private vets also play a role in encouraging the herd keepers to complete the IFNG test when contacted by the patch vet, thereby showing a united front in assisting in resolving the breakdown.

What role do you envisage the culling of badgers and/or vaccination will have in your future policy on bovine TB?

To tackle bovine TB successfully, all factors in the spread of the disease must be addressed and this includes the role of wildlife as a reservoir of infection.

Following the public consultation on the department’s response to the TBSPG’s proposals, officials have developed wildlife intervention options which are currently being considered by the minister.

How do you view the split of responsibility between the government and farmers in tackling the disease going forward? 

The department recognises that the cost of bovine TB, both to the public purse and to farm businesses, is much too high. It recognises that to successfully tackle bovine TB, all the factors that contribute to the spread and endurance of this costly disease must be addressed.

It is only through working in partnership with the farming community will progress be made to reduce bovine TB levels in Northern Ireland. To this end, officials continue to work with all stakeholders to finalise the NI bovine TB eradication strategy, which will then be subject to consultation.

Farmers have a key role to play in the prevention of bovine TB and disease generally through following best practice in herd health, biosecurity and purchasing. 

The department’s website has helpful guidance while the farmer’s vet can offer valuable advice through the use of the biosecurity checklist developed by Daera.

Biography: Robert Huey

Robert Huey

Robert Huey © Daera

Robert Huey was appointed as chief veterinary officer (CVO) for Northern Ireland in November 2013.

He joined the veterinary service in 1989, having spent five years in general mixed veterinary practice in Maghera, County Londonderry.

From 2002 to 2009 he was responsible for the delivery of meat hygiene services for the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland.

Dr Huey has been awarded a fellowship by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and an associate fellowship by the Royal Agriculture Society.