Bovine TB is an endemic disease of cattle which has proven difficult to eradicate in Great Britain and Ireland. It is described as a ‘slow-moving’ disease, meaning that infection can persist undetected in cattle and herds for years causing unexpected or persistent breakdowns. It’s easy for some to blame these breakdowns on badgers.

Recent research suggests that cattle to cattle and cattle to badger transmission poses a more significant risk than any TB infection in badgers. There is compelling evidence of widespread cattle to badger transmission in Northern Ireland. The distribution of TB strains strongly suggest that the disease is being spread of large distances by cattle movement and then spilling into the local badger population. The 17z TB strain found in badgers in England had originated in County Down and was traced to a bull imported from Northern Ireland to Cumbria.

Slurry, which is a known vector of TB, poses a significant risk to badgers whose feeding habits make them very susceptible to infection. Badgers use their nose to ‘snuffle’ for worms and grubs in soil. Consequently, they are at great risk of inhaling TB bacteria from infected pasture and it is inevitable that the disease will be found in the badger population.

There are 1.7 million cattle in Northern Ireland (the highest density in Europe) producing 17 million tonnes of slurry annually. In contrast, there are only 34,000 badgers, which equates to a density of a mere 2.4 badgers per square kilometre. One bovine contaminates pasture equivalent to 500 badgers. Simple mathematics alone indicates that any risk from badgers is insignificant compared to the huge reservoir of undetected infection in cattle.

This reservoir of undetected infection in cattle is a direct consequence of inadequate herd testing and poor infection control measures. It is no coincidence that the UK and Ireland use the least effective TB test to screen herds. Other countries that have successfully controlled TB use a more sensitive TB test along with effective measures to control the spread of disease between cattle.

A clear TB test does not mean a herd is TB-free. The routine skin test at standard interpretation can miss up to 50% of infected cattle, especially in chronic herds which pose the highest risk. Some infected animals never test positive and the disease is only discovered when they are sent to slaughter. Many of these animals have been infecting other cattle for years.

The financial and emotional cost of breakdowns causes great stress and hardship to farming families. Our farmers deserve better. Farmers will benefit from a more reliable TB test and financial support to play an effective role in tackling this disease.

Wales, which has rejected badger culling, has already halved the number of new TB incidents in cattle through more effective herd testing and infection control measures. This is a proven model that Northern Ireland has apparently chosen to ignore.

It is in everyone’s interest to develop and deploy an effective evidence-led bovine TB strategy in Northern Ireland. Badger culling will cost farmers and tax-payers millions of pounds for no proven benefit. This money could be better used to fund more effective measures and support farming families. A cull will damage the image of Northern Ireland farming and alienate consumers at a time when the industry faces unprecedented challenges.

Bovine TB