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Saturday 20 September 2014

Culling infected cattle 'is more effective in TB fight'

Published 08/07/2014 | 02:30

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At least 6,000 badgers a year are to be culled
Action: Deer populations in Wicklow have grown

THE Department of Agriculture's plans to continue culling 6,000 badgers a year are in the spotlight following a report in Britain which claims that depopulating infected dairy and beef herds would be more effective at controlling the disease than culling wildlife.

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The research carried out by researchers at Warwick and Cambridge universities showed that, while a whole-herd culling policy would lead to a 20-fold increase in the numbers of farm animals being slaughtered, it would be the only effective measure for a long-term reduction in disease levels.

While the researchers assumed that culling badgers would half the rate of environmental transmission of the disease, it would only reduce the annual rate of increase in TB cases from 10pc to 6pc.

"Ultimately it is a question of whether we value having a wild badger population more than the reduction in bovine TB," said Professor Matt Keeling of mathematical epidemiology at Warwick.

The findings of the study, published in the academic journal Nature, have been rejected by the British Minister for Agriculture, George Eustice.

However, the Irish Wildlife Trust's Padraic Fogarty said that the study backed up what they had been saying for years.

"Culling animals absolves farmers from having to address the real biosecurity issues at farm level such as better movement controls, increased hygiene, improved segregation between herds, and storage of feedstuffs," said Mr Fogarty.

The latest development in the debate on how best to control TB comes at a time when farmers in Wicklow have called for a major cull of deer populations in the region.

"Deer densities should be about four to five deer per square kilometre but some experts now suggest that there are about 14 to 15 deer per square kilometre in Wicklow," said Wicklow IFA chairman Tom Shortt.

He believes that deer are being encouraged to come down off the mountain in search of more palatable fodder.

"In the past, burning meant there was a crop of small tender heather on the mountains. Now that's stopped the heather is very tough and very strong and the deer just don't like that," said Mr Shortt.

Hardship

IFA president Eddie Downey also weighed in on the issue.

"It is causing major hardship for families. The deer have come down from the uplands and once they get a taste for young sweet grass they tend to hang around," he said.

"No-one likes to hear it but a cull is needed," Mr Downey said.

With almost one in every 12 herds in the area locked up with TB, infection rates in the southeast are running at approximately double the national average.

The Department of Agriculture agrees the levels of TB in the region are being driven by wildlife, especially badgers.

They believe that the higher than average levels of TB in Wicklow are largely due to delays in implementing a badger cull in the area as a result of staff shortages.

"This has been addressed and the badger culling programme is now being implemented more effectively," the Department said in a statement.

Badger culling in Ireland has been ramped up since it first started in the 1980s to the point where more than 40,000 badgers have been culled here in the last seven years.

Environmental groups campaigning against the culls claim that close to 100,000 badgers have been killed by the Department over the last three decades.

Department vet Margaret Good said that whole-herd culls have "always been part of our repertoire of controls to tackle TB in bovines. But for whole herd culling to be effective in Ireland we need to tackle all the potential sources of infection.

"If we did not tackle all sources the newly reconstituted herd would, almost inevitably, experience further outbreaks of TB. Depopulation only worked if we also did disinfection, rested pasture, culled badgers, tested neighbouring herds and removed the infected animals on those neighbouring farms if any were detected. This remains our policy for serious breakdowns," she said.

Targeted kills show results

Despite considerable research, no test on live badgers has proved itself reliable in detecting TB infected animals to allow selective culling.

For this reason, the Department has pursued a blanket cull of badgers in areas where TB levels are higher than average. This was based on the results from two major research projects involving the removal of badgers in Offaly in the early 1990s and the Four Area Project in the 2000s, which showed that badger removal reduced the risk by 14-fold of future herd breakdowns.

The Council of Europe rejected a complaint from the Irish Wildlife Trust about the threat to the badger population posed by the subsequent badger culling policy implemented by the Department. The Council noted that badger numbers are being maintained at safe but lower levels.

The results from the targeted culling have been impressive from a farming point of view. The national cattle herd incidence has fallen from 7.5pc in 2000 to 3.9pc in 2013. During this period, the number of TB reactors has declined from 40,000 to 15,600. This is the lowest recorded since the commencement of the TB eradication programme in the 1950s. In fact, the incidence of TB in Ireland has fallen to new record low levels each year since 2010.

A peer-reviewed study compared the levels of TB in Ireland with those in Britain and Northern Ireland, where no badger culling is practiced. In the 15 years up to 2010, the animal incidence of TB increased by 380pc in England, 190pc in Wales and 74pc in the North. During the same period, the incidence in Ireland fell by 32pc. The prevalence of TB in Ireland in 2013 was 0.26pc, half the level recorded in Northern Ireland.

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