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Priority Questions - Tuberculosis Incidence

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 755 No. 1

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 3.  Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan  asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney  the current badger population in Ireland; and if he can provide independent peer reviewed evidence that supports badger culling as a proven successful strategy in the eradication of bovine TB. [7543/12]

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney There are no accurate statistics available on the current badger population in Ireland. However, based on the results of the four-area project, the best estimate available to my Department is that there are approximately 80,000 to 90,000 badgers in the country.

There is considerable peer-reviewed research showing that the removal of badgers results in a reduction in the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle. In Ireland the first major research project took place in east Offaly between 1989 and 1995. This study demonstrated that, following the removal of badgers, the risk of herd breakdowns in the removal area was significantly reduced, the risk of a TB breakdown in a herd being 14 times higher in the control area compared with the removal area. The next significant study, known as the four-area project, was conducted from 1997 to 2002 in four different areas of the country. This project demonstrated that the total number of herd restrictions in the removal areas during the study period was almost 60% lower than in the pre-study period. A further study showed that targeted badger removal in County Laois between 1989 and 2005 had a significant beneficial impact on the risk of future breakdowns.

The United Kingdom has also conducted significant research into the role of badgers in the spread of TB and the impact of the removal of badgers on the incidence of TB in cattle. The most recent research was conducted by the Independent Scientific Group, which directed the randomised badger culling trial, RCBT. The initial findings of the trial showed a 19% reduction in the incidence of TB in cattle in the removal areas but a 29% increase in the areas surrounding the removal area. However, the effects of the cull continued to be monitored after the cessation of culling and a recent report by the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, concluded that, overall, from the beginning of the cull, there was a 28% reduction in confirmed incidences of TB in the cattle herd in the culled areas when compared with the survey-only areas. In addition, confirmed TB herd incidence on the land 2 km outside the culling area was comparable with that in the survey-only areas.

I am satisfied that the badger culling strategy, which is an important element of my Department’s bovine TB eradication programme, has contributed to a significant reduction in the incidence of bovine tuberculosis here. Since 2000 the number of reactors has declined from 40,000 to 18,500, the lowest recorded since the commencement of the eradication programme in the 1950s. It is interesting to note that the incidence of TB in Britain, which does not implement a badger removal programme, has increased substantially from 6,000 reactors in 1999 to 33,000 in 2010. I understand, however, that DEFRA intends to implement a pilot badger cull in the autumn.

[84]My Department intends, in the coming years, gradually to replace badger culling with badger vaccination and, with this in mind, we have been funding research in UCD and collaborating with DEFRA on research into a vaccine to control tuberculosis in badgers. Research to date has demonstrated that oral vaccination of badgers in a captive environment with the BCG vaccine generates high levels of protective immunity against challenge with bovine TB. However, field trials are also being undertaken to assess the impact of the vaccine on the incidence of disease in field conditions. If these trials are successful, badger vaccination will be incorporated into the eradication programme. However, it will be some years before the trials are completed and targeted badger removals will continue in the medium term. While no one likes badger culling, we have a responsibility to protect our beef herds, in particular, and our dairy herds. We have historically had a problem with TB. We are making phenomenal progress in reducing the incidence of TB, as reflected in the figures provider earlier. We now have a lower level of TB in Ireland than at any time since the 1950s. The targeted badger culling programme has played a significant and positive role in this. Badger culling only takes places in areas where it is perceived that there is a problem.

It is estimated that there are between 80,000 and 90,000 badgers in the country.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan I thank the Minister for his reply. I acknowledge the problem of bovine TB and do not want to take from that particularly serious issue for Irish farming. However, there is a divergence between the research mentioned by the Minister and research which I received from the Irish Wildlife Trust, namely, independent peer reviewed scientific research which shows that culling of badgers has little or no effect on the eradication of TB and that it increased infection levels. It also states that even if all badgers were removed the same levels of TB would remain.

Is it true that 75 staff are engaged in work on badger culling? Also, is a review of this practice due in the coming months?

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney It is probably appropriate to compare two different strategies, namely, what is happening in Ireland in terms of TB and what is happening in the UK. The UK has tried to treat badgers for TB rather than cull them. In Great Britain, which does not implement the badger removal programme, incidences of TB have increased substantially from 6,000 reactors in 1999 to 33,000 in 2010. I am not suggesting this is purely because of badgers but there are many studies to show that badgers are a major contributory factor in the spread of TB.

I will continue to review our TB eradication programme. However, what we are currently doing is working. It is hoped we will reach a point whereby TB will be entirely eradicated from herds in Ireland, at which time — perhaps long before then — our approach towards badger removal will be reviewed.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan The use of the snare involves extended periods of suffering for badgers, leaving the young unattended. I do not understand how we, as a humane country, can justify the use of such a cruel instrument. A recent newspaper article reported that people engaged in badger baiting in the North of Ireland had been arrested. We need to ensure much more humane treatment of animals. The Minister and I will have to agree to disagree about whether badger culling is effective in eradicating TB.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney I agree with the Deputy on the boarder issue of badger baiting and the need for a new approach towards animal welfare. I will soon publish a new animal welfare Bill. I know the Deputy’s concern in this matter is genuine and hope she will participate in the [85]debate on the forthcoming Bill. I have strong views on animal welfare, which will be evident from the new animal welfare Bill. The Deputy and I might perhaps have a more detailed debate on the boarder issues of animal welfare during debate on that Bill.

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