I thank the Minister of State for taking this important matter. I know he prioritised doing so and that he has a genuine interest in the issue to which it relates. His assistance with this serious matter is much appreciated, particularly as it is affecting farmers in County Waterford and further afield. This Commencement matter, a number of parliamentary questions that were submitted in recent weeks and other questions sent to the Minister of State's office emanate from a meeting I held with Waterford members of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, a couple of weeks ago, at which the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was present. At that meeting, it was brought to my attention there has been an increase in bovine TB outbreaks in the west Waterford and north Cork areas. The people present felt there was a strong correlation between vacancies in the regional veterinary office responsible for the administration and delivery of the TB eradication programme, which seeks to put effective controls in place.
As the Minister of State is aware, in 2020 bovine TB rates rose above 4% for the first time since 2012. While the specific cause of each of TB outbreak varies, it is a well-established fact that badgers play a central role in the spreading of TB to cattle. In order to eradicate TB, we have to address the risk posed by badgers. I know the Department, through the regional veterinary offices, is committed to removing badgers from areas in which there is a severe TB outbreak in cattle, which has been shown to be linked to badgers and is committed to vaccinated badgers where the risk posed to cattle by infected badgers has been brought under control.
Unfortunately, the success of the programme is determined by the number of staff available to carry out vaccinations and, in many cases, remove badgers from areas where there is a challenge. There clearly is a challenge in Waterford, particularly in the western part of the county. The figures with which I have been provided show herd incidence of bovine TB on 21 October 2019 stood at 2.3%. Today it stands at 4.78% and rising, which is very concerning and the impact of rising TB outbreaks is far-reaching. The disease causes untold hardship for farmers and farm families in rural island whose herds have to be culled. While the Department operates a good TB compensation scheme, it does not compensate for the distress and fear widespread among the communities I represent due to the rising number of cases.
How many vacant posts exist in the Waterford and Cork North regional veterinary offices? What is the current incidence rate within these regional veterinary office, RVO, areas? When will these posts be filled?
While of course we must support farm families who are unfortunate enough to suffer TB outbreaks, there is an element of being penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to having vacancies in our RVOs. On one hand we are paying out in excess of €19 million in compensation for the culling of 22,245 animals across 5,217 herds and on the other hand we have 86 staff vacancies according to a reply I received to a parliamentary question. If we filled these vacancies it would have a dramatic positive impact on bringing the incidence of TB outbreaks under control. From my interactions with farmers, I know they are committed to working with the Department and the regional veterinary offices, but they must have the confidence the staff are in place in those regional veterinary offices to help them in tackling what is a very serious problem. I would appreciate the Minister of State's response in the matter.