Farm Ireland

Saturday 15 December 2018

Lockdown - dairy farmer on recovering from losing almost 50 cows to TB in three years

South Kerry farmers are picking up the pieces after the worst outbreak of bovine TB in decades

IFA Kerry chairman Pat O'Driscoll on Valentia Island. Photo: Don Mac Monagle
IFA Kerry chairman Pat O'Driscoll on Valentia Island. Photo: Don Mac Monagle
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

Dairy farmer John O'Neill has been reflecting on what his legacy might be in the aftermath of the devastation caused by the worst outbreak of bovine TB in his memory.

Mr O'Neill and his wife Noreen milk 50 cows near Caherciveen, Co Kerry. They lost 16 cows two years ago and were hit again in 2017 when they lost 33 more.

"For over 40 years we had no problem whatsoever," Mr O'Neill said. "It was never an issue until we got hit with it almost two years ago."

There were over 360 reactors in total from around 75 herds on the Iveragh Peninsula that tested positive for TB in the 12 months leading up to December 2017. So far this year 15 herds have been restricted.

The O'Neills, like many of their neighbours, have already signed the consent forms from the Department of Agriculture and the South Kerry Development Partnership allowing licensed personnel onto their lands to carry out a badger cull.

While dozens of farms remain in lockdown, the Department of Agriculture confirmed the evidence to date supported the view that badgers were contributing to the spread of TB.

John and Noreen O'Neill on their farm in Cahirciveen: the O'Neills lost 16 cows to TB two years ago and 33 last year. Photo: Don MacMonagle
John and Noreen O'Neill on their farm in Cahirciveen: the O'Neills lost 16 cows to TB two years ago and 33 last year. Photo: Don MacMonagle

The Department also confirmed there was no evidence of deer involvement in the outbreak, despite the concerns of some.

For the O'Neills, dairy farming has been their life as well as their business. They milk 50 cows in their spring-calving herd, keep their replacements and sell the bull calves.

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The shed where the calves are kept is Noreen's domain and is kept as immaculate as her kitchen. Their young animals are never affected by scour.

Biosecurity measures like the disinfection of wellingtons are a force of habit on the O'Neill farm. They've also invested in new deep concrete water troughs, recommended by the Department because badgers can't get into them.

"Look, we're at the end of our farming careers and it's not going to make such a big impact on us, we're probably going to cut back numbers anyway, but this could impact severely on young farmers starting out," Mr O'Neill said.

"For that reason, I think it's important we come to grips with this disease and I feel it can be tackled with a bit of cooperation and goodwill on all sides.

"We have to be positive about it and just let the Department and the South Kerry Development Partnership in to survey all the farms and badger setts."

Mr O'Neill says he feels this is a step in the right direction and he's fully in favour of a vaccination programme for badgers.


"Really we have an ideal location, we're surrounded on three sides by water on the Iveragh Peninsula and we have a range of mountains in between, so there's very little badger movement.

"If we put our minds to this thing properly, we should lead the way in getting this TB problem sorted for once and for all."

There's very little movement of livestock onto the Iveragh Peninsula. Most of what's produced is sent out. Breeding bulls are brought in. However, farms are fractured which can lead to a lot of movement in the area.

"For many years here we enjoyed disease-free status and it was a big selling plus," he added.

"We certainly have to get a handle on this and the legacy I would like to leave for the industry is to tackle this head on."

Kerry IFA chairman Pat O'Drisoll, whose suckler farm is on Valentia Island, says so far the island is TB-free but people are nervous.

Animals on a farm in Ard Cost near Portmagee, where the island is accessed by bridge, had just had their second test and the results were clear. "The next neighbour along the line is always worried, of course," he says.

"Those who don't have it and are near it are dreading it. The guys who have had it and are getting out of it are afraid of relapse."

He's confident in the Department of Agriculture and its speedy reaction to the outbreak, even if the compensation for slaughtered animals is poor.

Mr O'Driscoll feels the situation was made worse by a certain amount of "hysteria" surrounding it.

There are 15,300 animals in the Iveragh Peninsula and there were 360 reactors in total from around 75 herds.

"When you look at it nationally, the figure is on a par with the national figures (around 2.8pc) but we were coming from such a low base."

Farmers have been told the disease seems to have got into the badger population and is spreading. "But once they can get the badger population down, it breaks the cycle," Mr O'Driscoll adds.

Farmers in the area report healthy badger populations with new setts springing up. Generations of farmers have happily co-existed with the badger.

Fragmented farms are also exacerbating the problem, where neighbouring animals are in contact over ditches and can contract the disease from the saliva of an infected animal.

"One thing we are calling for is a vaccination programme and it's an ideal area for it and it might eliminate the chances of another outbreak like," says the IFA man says.

"I have no problem with badgers. There's a healthy population of them on my farm and I'd like to see them there. A lot of farmers have a 'grá' for them and there is a fear they're being scapegoated.

"But what the Department is talking about is lowering the badger population, not getting rid of them," he said.

The Department confirmed there are currently 48 herds restricted, with 14 of those having passed the first of the two clear tests required to regain trading status. Ten herds have been derestricted, while 37 animals have been identified as reactors so far this year.

A spokesman said the Department has a vet inspector visit all herds with more than two reactors to try and find a cause, while high risk groups in the herd are identified and blood tested.

A survey is carried out in cases where badgers are identified as the source and the animals are captured and removed. The South Kerry Development Partnership are providing personnel to assist herdowners in identifying the location of badger setts and the information is passed on to the Department.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said there were early indications that it was showing signs of improvement in south Kerry. "The rate of reactor disclosure and herd restrictions has abated," he said.

The Agriculture Department said it was reviewing policy options countrywide to further reduce the risk of cattle to cattle transmission, in addition to the existing controls within the programme, with a view towards providing better protection for the almost 97pc of herds which are not infected and to protect our access to export markets.

"The Department recognises the personal stress and financial difficulties which TB causes to farmers. The compensation scheme is based on an objective, market-based valuation of animals which is fair and transparent," a spokesman said. "Additional supports such as income supplement, Hardship grant and Depopulation grants are also provided to farmers who meet the eligibility criteria for these payments."

The TB eradication programme has seen reactor numbers drop from roughly 40,000 per year to roughly 16,000 per year over the past 15 years.

"However, in the past few years, that downward progress has stalled and for this reason, we are keen to renew our TB strategy to further drive towards eradication," he said. It has strongly focused on the problem in Wicklow, with "significant improvements" in the last year in particular.

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