The Bovine Tuberculosis eradication programme implemented by my Department contains a comprehensive wildlife strategy in order to limit the spread of TB from badgers to cattle. Under this strategy, capturing is undertaken only in areas where an epidemiological investigation carried out by the Department’s Veterinary Inspectorate has found that badgers are the likely source of infection and capturing takes place under licence issued by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Despite considerable research in both Ireland and the U.K., no test on live badgers has proven efficacious in reliably detecting TB infected badgers and thus it is not possible to determine whether a badger is infected with TB prior to culling.
The culling programme is undertaken by trained Farm Relief Service contractors as humanely as possible and is monitored and supervised by staff from my Department. The Farm Relief Service staff label and identify the badger carcasses but no further information is gathered at this point. Samples for culture are harvested from a selection (50%) of badgers annually with a view to establishing the general level of infection in culled badgers. The badger carcases are disposed of by rendering.
There has been a very significant improvement in the Bovine TB situation in Ireland since the introduction of an enhanced badger removal programme in the early part of the last decade. Cattle herd incidence has fallen from 7.5% in 2000 to 4.1% in 2012. The number of TB reactors has declined from 40,000 to 18,500 during the same period. This is the lowest recorded since the commencement of the TB eradication programme in the 1950s. While it is difficult to quantify the precise impact of badger culling on the incidence of TB in Ireland, my Department believes that much of the improvement in the TB situation in cattle is in fact due to the badger removal programme. It is noteworthy that a recent peer-reviewed study, Bovine tuberculosis trends in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, 1995–2010 (Abernethy et al., 2013), published in the Veterinary Record, found that, during the period studied, the animal incidence of TB increased by 380% in England, by 190% in Wales and by 74% in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, the animal incidence in Ireland fell by 32% in the same period.
The low incidence of TB over the past 4 years in particular is encouraging and indicates that the incidence has moved permanently to a new low level. The incidence of TB in 2013 is running at about 10% below the levels recorded in 2012. The badger culling programme has brought about a situation where, for the first time since the programme was introduced in the 1950’s, eradication is now a practicable proposition.