Bovine Tuberculosis in Northern Ireland

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:00 am on 24th March 2022.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 24th March 2022

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make another statement.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on my decisions on the way forward for a new strategy to eradicate bovine tuberculosis from Northern Ireland.

It has been a priority for me since taking up my post to put in place a new long-term strategy for the eradication of bovine TB from the cattle herd in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to now be able to update the House on the actions that I intend to introduce as part of that strategy. I believe that we need a realistic and pragmatic strategy that will move Northern Ireland towards the eventual eradication of TB in the most cost-effective way. We need to create an intensive programme that, when fully implemented, aims to finally drive this dreadful disease from our cattle population.

My Department has consulted extensively with our key stakeholders, the wider public and the AERA Committee in developing the new strategic approach. Through the farming industry and government working in partnership, our aim is to reduce and, ultimately, eradicate TB in the most effective way and within a realistic time frame.

Bovine TB is a pernicious disease that has a devastating impact on our cattle industry. It is complex and costs the public purse about £40 million each year. In addition, industry has had to bear the cost of lost production, the loss of breeding stock that has been built up over years and, of course, the huge emotional burden of seeing animals destroyed. Our efforts to date have, at best, kept the disease in check, but they have not made a significant change to incidence rates. That has to change.

The £40 million annual bill to deliver our programme provides a powerful incentive to achieve eradication. That year-on-year expenditure is a poor use of public money and has been criticised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO). That is not sustainable. The increasing pressures on the public purse and public services, particularly as we seek to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19, are key drivers for change. So, too, is our ambition to secure new trade for Northern Ireland, where the high standards of health in our agri-food sector are and will continue to be a crucial selling point for new markets.

The proposals that are outlined in my new departmental strategy are based on the experience of and evidence from other jurisdictions and on solid scientific research. Following a public consultation, I have carefully considered the views of all our stakeholders, and I have weighed those up against the evidence and information in a detailed business case and the recently completed strategic environmental assessment.

I pay tribute to the work of the TB strategic partnership group (TBSPG), which, in 2016, produced a comprehensive report and a series of recommendations to eradicate TB. Its work laid the foundations on which the new strategy is built. I also acknowledge the contribution of the TB eradication partnership (TBEP), which has played a key role in providing independent advice and challenge as my Department developed the strategy.

Fully eradicating TB will take time; there is no quick fix. It will be a difficult and challenging process for all concerned. It will require a strong, committed partnership between government and the industry to see it through to ultimate success. The new strategy recognises and seeks to address all the factors that contribute to disease spread and the maintenance of this costly disease. This is a holistic approach to TB. It will deliver measures that will reduce the impact of TB in the short term while laying the necessary foundations for the eventual eradication of this disease.

We will deliver the actions in the strategy through a series of phases once implementation commences. We will set goals for each phase that are shared by government and industry. We will review what we have achieved and, after each phase, set new targets and refresh our strategy for the next phase. The strategy addresses three key areas, broadly speaking, with new proposals that relate to cattle measures, others that relate to finance and funding, and, finally, measures that relate to the emotive and difficult issue of tackling the role of wildlife in TB maintenance and spread.

On cattle measures, I intend to introduce additional enhancements to the existing TB testing programme, including the compulsory use of the interferon-gamma blood test where deemed necessary. My officials will work with TBEP and the industry on the criteria for that testing. I also intend to introduce new powers to enable the testing of non-bovines. That will build on the current programme, support farmers suffering TB breakdowns and play an active part in getting rid of this disease.

We will also work with the TB eradication partnership, our independent advisory body and local farmers to improve biosecurity and herd health. My officials will explore how we may pilot new and enhanced approaches and provide support. That will include exploring how we can help farmers make more-informed decisions when purchasing new stock.

We will strengthen and develop our partnership with private veterinary practitioners. Our private vets are already key to the delivery of our testing and surveillance programme, and in the future, they will play an even greater role, working with individual farmers to provide farm-specific advice on how to keep their herds free of TB. We will establish local groups and governance structures in response to significant TB outbreaks to work better with farmers and vets to focus efforts to address such outbreaks and to minimise their impact.

We will broaden the scope of research into the nature and cause of TB infection and spread. We have a number of ongoing research projects, which include looking at TB in deer, the role of fragmented farms, and identifying and mapping strains of TB across Northern Ireland. The new strategy demonstrates our commitment to utilising the best scientific evidence to tackle TB and will enhance the role played by TBEP in identifying research priorities.

As I have mentioned, the annual cost of the TB programme is around £40 million, with around half of that paid in compensation for infected cattle. Compensation costs are expected to be even higher this year, at around £27 million, as compensation costs for individual reactors have risen. That is simply not sustainable and is a drain on the public purse. I have considered proposed changes to the levels and rates at which compensation is paid, including reductions from the current overall 100% value of cattle paid in compensation for those compulsorily removed under the Department’s programme.

It is right that the compensation system is looked at as part of the overall strategy. The reform will underpin the strategy’s principles of working in partnership with the industry, sharing costs, sharing delivery and sharing ownership. Changes would also help to re-balance the financial cost of our TB programme. However, I am very aware that the farming industry faces a number of challenges now and in the immediate future. Many farmers operate good buying practices and put in place strong biosecurity but still face TB breakdowns due, in some instances, to the role of wildlife in TB spread.

Taking that into account, I am not content to proceed with the introduction of a cap on individual compensation payments of £5,000, and, whilst I am supportive of a reduction on the level of compensation paid from the current 100%, I do not intend to implement that change now. Instead, I have asked officials to review the position two years after the implementation of the full strategy.

As I have emphasised, to eradicate TB, all factors that contribute to the spread and maintenance of the disease in the environment must be addressed. I am satisfied that wildlife, particularly badgers, are a significant factor in the maintenance and spread of TB. I do not believe there is any argument about whether badgers have TB or that they can represent a disease risk to cattle. They therefore play an important role in the disease picture that must be addressed.

I have considered the evidence presented to me and critically considered the experience of other jurisdictions across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

It is my intention to introduce a programme of badger intervention in areas of high TB incidence, initially through a cull of badgers. In the long term, I wish to see a move to a programme of badger vaccination. Addressing TB in cattle and badgers will, I hope, lead us to a position in which we have a healthy population of both cattle and badgers.

I am aware, however, that this is an extremely emotive matter, with strongly held positions on both sides of the debate. I assure Members that I have considered the options presented to me, the scientific evidence, the experience of other jurisdictions, the robust analysis of the necessary business case, the responses to last summer's consultation and the environmental reports. Following that consideration, I have decided that the most cost-effective and practical way forward is to implement a limited cull of badgers in specific intervention areas where there is a high incidence of TB breakdown and a high density of badgers. It is my intention that that should be delivered broadly in line with the model used in England of the shooting of badgers by skilled and trained operatives, deployed through bodies established and led by farmers.

DAERA will oversee and manage that. We will identify intervention areas and invite applications from farmer-led bodies that have the necessary resources and expertise. Shooters will be required to undergo specific training. DAERA will carry out ongoing monitoring and evaluation, ensuring that high welfare standards are adhered to. The costs for on-the-ground delivery will be fully met by the new farmer-led bodies, but I have been asked by officials to explore whether any other financial assistance can be considered prior to implementation.

For too long, a key factor in underpinning success has been the role that wildlife plays in TB spread. I have therefore asked my Department to progress the necessary work to ensure that wildlife intervention commences as soon as possible. I very much appreciate that some of the changes may be difficult. As I mentioned, this is a very emotive matter. I am aware of the concerns expressed in the consultation by many conservation bodies, of the two public petitions laid in the House and, indeed, of the concerns of some Members, but I am determined to act, because the current position cannot continue. I must do all that I can to address all aspects of TB.

It is important that I make some key points absolutely clear and dispel some of the misinformation that has occurred, particularly about wildlife intervention. This is not the wholescale removal of badgers across Northern Ireland. It is not the eradication of badgers. It is not a shooting free-for-all. It is not anti-badger. Rather, it is a targeted intervention, limited specifically to those areas where badgers may play a significant role in the maintenance of TB in cattle. Evidence from England is that that approach meets welfare standards and has been effective in contributing to reducing disease spread in intervention areas there.

As Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I recognise the challenges of TB across the industry, the need to protect and enhance wildlife, and the necessary actions that government must take to support and sustain our rural communities. We must therefore now take the steps needed to address the impact that TB has on Northern Ireland. As highlighted, it is the source of significant stress for our farm families and has the potential to inflict serious damage on the wider agri-food industry and its ability to trade on a global scale. For too long, the disease has had a devastating impact on our farming community. Since taking up office as Minister, I have made the eradication of bovine TB a top priority, and I am determined to take every action possible to achieve that goal.

I care deeply about the environment and the wildlife that lives in it. I want to see a healthy population of both cattle and wildlife and to ensure that everyone with a vested interest in the eradication of the disease moves forward together on the next steps towards bovine TB eradication. I want to work together in the short term to reduce TB levels and in the longer term to eradicate the disease from the Northern Ireland herd. The measures that I seek to progress will underpin the great ability of our wonderful farming and processing industry to trade.

This is a strategy not just for today but for the young farmers of tomorrow. I have listened to farmers, veterinary bodies, conservation groups and fellow MLAs, and, although they may have different perspectives, they all want the same thing as I do, which is the eradication of TB from Northern Ireland. I therefore ask for your support for the measures that I intend to introduce.

I thank all stakeholders for their ongoing constructive engagement with us on eradicating bovine TB. I know that success will be achieved through a shared understanding of the issue and a shared commitment to the goals that I have outlined. I commend the strategy to the House.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 11:15 am, 24th March 2022

I thank the Minister for his statement.

TB is a serious issue. It can impact on our international trade. We recently heard that approximately 1,000 cattle are culled per month as a consequence of TB, which is a very serious disease. Minister, you referred to biosecurity measures to prevent TB. Is the Department minded to support farmers in order to enhance on-site biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of TB? That is certainly something that the AERA Committee has recommended.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

One thing that we are encouraging in our future agriculture policies is wider hedges. Wider hedges can help to prevent nosing and can be augmented by good fencing. We have supported those areas in particular through fencing programmes in our environmental farming schemes (EFS). Good biosecurity should be practised by each and every farmer to ensure, through good fencing, that the animals on their farm do not have the opportunity to mix with other animals and to ensure that people who visit their farms go through biosecurity measures before entering the farms, including proper foot dips and all of that. Some of the costs are not big, but the measures involve people consistently taking appropriate steps to ensure that disease does not spread from farm to farm, albeit we believe that the most significant spread will be from wildlife to bovines and bovines to wildlife. Logically, therefore, consistently eradicating the bovines without doing the same for the wildlife in the area will only introduce fresh animals to be reinfected, and that position is not sustainable.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Minister, do you agree that the wildlife intervention is needed to maximise the success of the next phase of the policy, which is primarily vaccination, by breaking the cycle of infection and reducing the infection load?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes. If people want to see the logic of that, they can just look at the response to COVID-19. The first thing that we did was have a lockdown to reduce the incidence, and then we had a vaccination policy. We will have to do the same with bovine TB: reduce the incidence. Unfortunately, that will involve the culling of animals. Up to this point, we have culled only the bovine population, but this intervention may involve the culling of deer and badgers as well. Then there will be vaccination. You get control of the disease — get on top of it — and then you vaccinate to allow a healthy wildlife population and a healthy agricultural population to live side by side without causing each other harm.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, are you aware that the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in GB is conducting, or has conducted, clinical field trials on a cattle Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine in Hertfordshire? The Chief Veterinary Officers in England, Scotland and Wales described those as "ground-breaking field trials". Has anything further been done by the Chief Veterinary Officer and his staff here to explore the success of those trials?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We constantly monitor everything that goes on with bovine TB, because it is such a scourge in Northern Ireland. Our veterinary team has been looking at what has happened in other countries and at every other opportunity. We believe that vaccination has a role, but that we first have to break the level of TB that exists. If you have a population of badgers, for example, in which 20% or more in a local group could have TB, you have to reduce that first before the vaccination will be effective. That is the unfortunate circumstance that we find ourselves in. There is such a high prevalence of TB in wildlife populations in parts of Northern Ireland that you cannot just go in and vaccinate and hope that that will sort it out. It will work in the future, but first of all we need to break down the high incidence of TB. Unfortunately, that involves some reduction taking place in areas where infection is high.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP 11:30 am, 24th March 2022

Thank you for your statement, Minister. In paragraph 17, you say:

"I also intend to introduce new powers to enable the testing of non-bovines."

Can you expand on that, please?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes. Other ruminants can carry bovine TB. That includes deer. There are some farmed deer, which are currently not tested. There would be the opportunity to carry out tests on farmed deer. I do not fancy doing that job myself, because they can be a bit frisky. Nonetheless, we need to ensure that we find and get rid of the reservoirs of bovine TB, because, if we do not, it will continue to exist and spread. Certainly, we will be looking at the testing of farmed deer.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

My opposition to widespread culling is on record here. In the recent past, I presented a petition of over 10,000 signatures to the House. I want to record again my thanks to the USPCA and Ulster Wildlife for bringing that forward.

Last week, a report that was published in the 'Vet Record' concluded that there is no evidence that badger culling has had any meaningful impact on the incidence of bovine TB in England. Does that not, therefore, bring into question the use of public money for culling? Did the Minister consider diverting that investment towards biosecurity on farms or the use of more effective cattle testing and vaccination?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

First, we are not using public money for the intervention; it will be paid for by the industry itself. Secondly, if you want to talk about public money, we are looking at spending close to £50 million on bovine TB this year. That has already been criticised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. I note that the Member referred to one report. However, a series of evidence has been provided to us that indicates that the unfortunate process of the culling of wildlife leads to significant reductions in TB in those areas. It also indicates that it will lead to the expansion of other wildlife species, such as hedgehogs and bumblebees, because, often, a high prevalence of badgers can actually reduce the numbers of other wildlife species.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, as you know, the island of Ireland is a single epidemiological unit. We need to cooperate if we are to eradicate bovine TB. Any policy divergence between North and South could undermine proposals that are contained in the new strategy. How does the Department intend to cooperate with the Southern Government on the implementation of the new strategy?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have had discussions, particularly with the veterinary side in the Republic of Ireland, as to what they have carried out. We listened closely to what they recommended. They have been carrying out a culling policy for some years. That has led to a situation where there is considerably less incidence of bovine TB in the Republic of Ireland than in Northern Ireland. That was weighed in the decisions that we made. Perhaps it would enable us to get into a better circumstance in terms of the food that we produce if we had reduced significantly the bovine TB that exists.

I hope that, at some point, we get to a stage where we have the vaccination programme rolled out and bovine TB becomes like brucellosis — a thing of the past. That would be a laudable goal for us all, and it would lead, ultimately, to a thriving wildlife population, because we would have dealt with the disease and, therefore, badgers transmitting TB to cattle, cattle transmitting TB to badgers, badger-to-badger transmission and cow-to-cow transmission would cease. That would be really beneficial to animal welfare. To sit back and say that we should do nothing would, at this stage, achieve nothing.

Someone once said, "How do you define madness?". It is to keep repeating the same thing and to expect a different result. We have to draw a line under that and stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. Let us do something and get the different result that is really needed.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Clearly, there are some in the House who want to continue with the same old, same old and get the same outcomes at a huge cost to the public purse and to farms in Northern Ireland. The Minister is absolutely right: it is a scourge. We have seen the consequences on farms in our constituencies of what bovine TB does to our farm industry and to the economy.

On the policy announcement, does the Minister agree that reducing TB will improve our ability to access new markets? I think that the Chair of the Agriculture Committee mentioned the cost of that. When we have that intervention, we will see the benefit, which ultimately will be to the advantage of farming for everybody in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Some of the biggest markets in the world have already expressed concern at the high levels of bovine TB in Northern Ireland. In spite of the fact that you cannot transmit bovine TB through beef, people in importing countries have expressed their concerns at the high levels. From an international reputational position, we need to do something about it.

My number-one priority is that the mass cull of cows every year becomes a thing of the past. A wider cull in the first instance will lead to many more animals not getting bovine TB, and there will therefore be a healthier population of bovine animals and wildlife.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. I have to declare that I am not from a farming background, so I am listening with interest to all this. Some years ago, the Public Accounts Committee investigated bovine TB, and the conclusion was that there was no proven link of transmissibility between badgers and bovine animals. The Minister's statement says:

"it is a targeted intervention, limited specifically to those areas where badgers may play a significant role in the maintenance of bovine TB in cattle."

I am not necessarily disagreeing with the Minister's approach, but does that indicate that there is still some doubt about it?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There is little doubt about the spread of TB between badgers and cattle. There are different strains of TB across Northern Ireland; there is not just one strain of TB. It is like COVID; there are different strains. The strains in the wildlife population in particular areas are the strains that the cattle will have in those areas and vice versa. Animals in County Fermanagh will have a different strain of TB from animals in County Down, County Antrim and so forth. The linkages are very clear.

The word "may" is used because there is work to be done by the veterinary side for it to say, "It is OK to cull in that area because we believe that the evidence is strong enough to do that", and, in other places, the evidence may not be strong enough, and vets will say, "No, we are not culling in that area". A lot of the work will continue to rest with the veterinary side to make those decisions. It is not a free-for-all culling of badgers across Northern Ireland. It will be confined to high-intensity areas.

I spoke to a young farmer this week whose partner had a baby recently, and his herd has just been wiped out by half. He said, "I still have my repayments to make. I still have other things going on on my farm, and my income has dropped dramatically as a consequence". Two weeks ago, I spoke to a young farmer in County Londonderry who has lost his entire herd. There are very progressive young farmers who have really high standards of herd management, and, in spite of that, their herds are still getting infected with TB.

Many women involved in farming have written to me expressing the trauma, loss and devastation that befell the family farm as a consequence of losing so many animals. I visited a farm in Downpatrick, and I watched as many young animals that, commercially, had a lot of life left in them were loaded on to a lorry. I talked to the farmer and the family, and the devastation that was left behind there was unreal. We need to realise that is not just about the animals but about the people who farm those animals. The impact and trauma caused to them, leading to some taking their own lives, are immense. Therefore, doing nothing is not an option.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Although we have had two statements from the Minister this morning, there has been nothing about the significant damage to wildlife and the environment caused by the fires burning on our hills and mountains, which is very disappointing.

The Minister's statement talks about caring "deeply" about wildlife, yet he is happy to sign off on the shooting of protected animals. He talks about scientific evidence but ignores the scientists and the research that highlights the ineffectiveness of killing badgers when it comes to the spread of TB. Has the Minister read section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act, and, if so, why does he not view the shooting and killing of protected species as a "significant" and "controversial" matter that should be referred to the Executive?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I hear the Member, and I am sorry, but it is not me who is not listening to the scientific and veterinary advice; it is the Member. I have struggled with this for two years. I have worked with the Veterinary Service. Let us be honest: people in the Veterinary Service have the greatest expertise on this subject. They have spent years dealing with it. They took specialist university degrees to achieve that expertise, and the veterinary specialism is one of the hardest courses to get on to. Therefore, the people advising me on this matter are the best available, yet the Member tells me to ignore their advice. I am sorry; I am not prepared to do that.

Re section 20, I took legal advice on what I needed to do. Obviously, we do not have a sitting Executive at this point, and I have no doubt that some people will wish to test us, but I have done what I was legally advised to do.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement, Members. If Members are content, we will move on to the next item in the Order Paper.