Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

The TB eradication scheme is a continuing national scandal

Recently there was an amount of self congratulation in official quarters when it was revealed that Ireland's cattle TB reactors fell below 20,000 head for the calendar year of 2011.

Others suggest that we should hang our heads in shame at this statistic.

Over a decade ago the Irish Bovine TB Eradication Scheme (BTE) was described as "the greatest scandal in the history of the Irish State which was still trundling along after 50 years of failure."

The speaker was no crank or lightweight. This was the conclusion of Dr Ken Whitaker, architect of the Irish economic expansion plan of the 1950s, and voted Greatest Irish Person of the 20th Century.

Mind you, in the past decade we have had the new scandals in our State, such as benchmarking, cowboy banks and dozy regulators, which have dwarfed even the TB scandal. But within farming the BTE scheme still remains our bad apple.

Before euro billions became part of our daily lingo, the BTE scheme was identified as having cost the Irish state £1bn punts by Dr Whitaker. What began as an eradication scheme morphed into an industry. For farmers, TB spelled hardship. For others, it spelled jobs for the boys.

The drive to rid Ireland of bovine TB began with a voluntary effort in 1950. Since 1962 the scheme has been mandatory for all cattle farmers, who must undergo a compulsory annual TB test. It's still thriving in 2012, with no end in sight.

Ironically, the scheme made strong early progress. Advancement was such that by 1965 annual TB reactors had fallen from the almost 200,000 hd/yr in the 1950s down to 23,400 head in 1965. The then Minister for Agriculture, Charles J Haughey, was so confident in the success of the BTE scheme in 1965 that he declared Ireland as "TB attested" which was science-speak for TB free.

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But after 1965 reactor numbers started climbing again. There followed decades of rows, controversy, incompetence and frustration as reactor incidence kept on spiking.

Meanwhile, other countries addressed and beat their cattle TB problem. Countries that began their TB eradication programmes much later than Ireland have long closed the book on the disease.

The list of countries that have been declared TB-free include the Scandinavians in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, the Eastern Europeans in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and the middle Europeans in Austria and Switzerland.

Further afield, successful eradication has been achieved in most parts of the US, in Canada and also in Australia. More recently, our neighbours in Scotland have declared their cattle herd TB-free.

The Australian eradication experience is very relevant to Ireland. They too had a problem with wildlife carriers for the disease. In their case TB was rife in wild buffalo and water buffalo. Their farms were vast, often with little or no fencing between neighbouring cattle stations.

Australia embarked with TB eradication in 1970. The fact that it dragged on until 1996, when the country was declared TB-free, was a source of much annoyance to them. Definitely the Aussies would never have tolerated the Irish scenario of TB eradication.

In addition to herd testing, herd restrictions and reactor slaughter, Australia culled an estimated 400,000 buffalo.

Over this period, TB in Ireland continued to attract huge focus but we continued to run up blind alleys. Report after report came out with the blame for lack of progress being fired in all directions. The tuberculin used in the test was blamed.

This was changed in the early 1970's and the concentration changed. Cowboy vets, cowboy dealers and even cowboy farmers, were all given the blame, while the Department vets continued to assume that animal to animal transfer was the prime mechanism of TB spread.

This theory was finally debunked when a trial at Abbottstown in Dublin showed practically no TB transfer between two contiguous pens of cattle where one pen was TB positive.

Untold hardships were endured and costs incurred before the prime cause of persistent TB in Ireland was addressed -- our badgers and wild deer.

The first TB infected badger was identified in Ireland in 1974 but it took almost another two decades before the penny dropped that the wildlife reservoir was where the focus should really be. In 1985 29pc of badgers captured in a Galway trial showed up with gross TB lesions infected with exactly the same M Bovis organism which caused cattle TB.

The game changer in Ireland came with the East Offaly badger project which ran from 1989 to 1994. This project showed that cattle TB incidence nose-dived in a pilot area where badgers were trapped and removed. This contrasted with no drop in cattle TB where badgers were left untouched.

This posed a dilemma. Nobody wants to eliminate the country's entire badger population, estimated at close to 100,000 but the evidence suggests that if we solve our badger TB we solve our cattle TB.

Among the myths and promises we have been fed along the TB roadway were that a TB vaccine for badgers and a blood test for TB were both imminent. Neither has arrived, although a badger TB vaccine is at last being trialled in both Britain and Ireland.


Meanwhile the Irish Department of Agriculture continues to tinker with the badger issue, monitoring badger TB in some areas and removing them in TB black spots. Most of this is under-the-radar stuff.

But national TB eradication policy is still centred on more testing and restricting of herds. Earlier this year the Department brought in major changes that included locking up of herds contiguous to a breakdown. Herds will also be automatically locked up where 12 months has elapsed since the last annual test.

The pre-movement TB test, which imposed huge cost and hardship on farmers, did nothing for TB eradication but brought major revenue to vets. It was not abandoned until 1996.

Despite teams of scientists carrying out forensic analysis and monitoring of testing data and procedures for decades, it has only been discovered recently that cattle suffering from liver fluke can show false negative to the TB test. Similarly the TB test may not work on persistently infected cases of IBR.

It seems that the Department emphasis is to keep the jobs for the boys at all costs.

I know that it is important to keep a viable veterinary service back-up for farmers but there must be a better way of achieving this than dragging out the BTE scheme for another half century.

Indo Farming