Splitting Wales into low, intermediate and high-risk TB zones, as introduced under the Welsh government’s new control strategy, is widely accepted as the correct approach to tackling the disease.
A raft of new measures are being introduced in high-risk areas, including the slaughter of inconclusive reactors in herds with lingering breakdowns.
There will also be lower slaughter compensation if a farm with more than one holding number has moved cattle between those sites.
But, in a move that has surprised and pleased farmers, plans for the annual test to be replaced with twice-yearly testing throughout high-risk areas have been scrapped.
“There was an overwhelming response from beef farmers who said it would put them out of business,” Wales’s chief veterinary officer, Christianne Glossop, told Farmers Weekly.
“We have listened to them and six-monthly testing will only apply to higher risk herds in high-risk areas.”
In another change to the original plan, there will be no pre-movement testing of cattle from or within the low-risk area, though there will be post-movement testing to prevent imported infection.
Post-movement testing will also be introduced in the intermediate risk areas in October 2018, to help stop the disease spreading from neighbouring high-risk areas.
Most of the new measures come into place on 1 October this year, to give farmers time to get to grips with the new system.
But there is one policy that could start immediately – badger culling.
Agreed by the Labour-led Welsh government for the first time under the new control programme, this will be used at a farm-scale level on about 60 holdings with long-term TB breakdowns.
Dr Glossop said badgers would be cage trapped, anaesthetized, blood tested and humanely destroyed if infected, an exercise which will be undertaken by government vets and support field operatives.
“Badgers that test negative will be microchipped and released, but if further analysis of blood samples confirms disease, the aim is to catch these badgers again,” she said.
Farming unions have generally welcomed the new policy, which acknowledges the presence of the disease in wildlife.
NFU Cymru president, Stephen James, said: “This targeted approach will mean that only diseased badgers are culled. This is a step forward towards achieving the government and industry’s shared aim of a bovine TB-free Wales.”
But the Farmers’ Union of Wales added it would “seek to ensure that any strategy for badger removal be extended, if benefits could be conferred elsewhere in Wales”.
Meanwhile, the British Veterinary Association’s Welsh branch has urged caution over the trap, test and remove policy.
“We know there are limitations in the diagnostic tests that are currently available, which could result in infected badgers being released,” warned branch president, Sarah Carr.
Badger controversy rumbles on
For most farmers in the new high-risk TB area, the badger cull will have little or no impact, as it is only being rolled out on 50-60 holdings.
But Monmouthshire beef finisher Nigel Bowyer believes it could be extended further in due course, pointing out that the government’s TB strategy report refers to persistent herd breakdowns as the “initial” focus of a cull.
Mr Bowyer’s herd has been under TB restriction since March, the fourth time he has experienced a breakdown.
An element of his business is contract-rearing cattle, so he must get a licence when he imports new groups of calves onto the farm.
Mr Bowyer’s holding falls in a high-risk zone, but he is philosophical.
“Yes the new cattle controls are going to be a greater burden for farmers, but recognition has finally been given to the link with wildlife and that has to be a step in the right direction.”
Wildlife charities don’t agree.
Lizzie Wilberforce, conservation manager at the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, insists local badger culling has the potential to significantly worsen bovine TB in the surrounding area.
“We do not believe that these risks can be adequately controlled and that the proposal, therefore, carries the possibility of making the disease picture significantly worse,” she said.
“We are very disappointed that, after several years of sound, evidence-based policy in Wales, we are facing progress being put in jeopardy by un-tested, risky proposals at the expense of our wildlife.”