Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Questions (64)

Willie Penrose


64. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on whether the role of deer in the spread of tuberculosis needs to be taken seriously and investigated in a comprehensive scientific manner. [13961/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

We have spent approximately €7 billion since the mid-1950s to try to eliminate TB in the TB eradication programme. Another €1 billion is promised by this aspirational date of 2030. The Minister has a better chance of winning the lotto than of eradicating TB. Has he any views on the possible role of deer in the spread of TB in cattle?

The role played by deer in the spread of bovine TB is the subject of a detailed scientific investigation being carried out by officials from my Department in collaboration with UCD, focusing on the genetic relationship between strains of bovine TB isolated from cattle, deer and badgers in County Wicklow. Previous work carried out by my officials in this area had demonstrated that the same strains were circulating in the three species in the Calary area of Wicklow. A related investigation carried out by the Calary deer steering group, which involves my officials, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Coillte and the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, is continuing to conduct a survey of the level of TB in culled deer in that area.

In other parts of the country, there is little or no evidence of deer playing a significant role in the spread of TB in cattle, although they may be a spillover species. In any area where there are local concerns about deer and TB, my officials are willing to test culled deer for TB free of charge through the regional veterinary laboratories. In this way, if there are areas where deer may play a role locally, this can be detected.

I am glad that the Department will play a positive role in testing any culled deer with regard to this possibility. I agree that deer are considered to be spillover hosts as opposed to maintenance hosts. Professor Simon More was before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and we had an intensive discussion on the epidemiology of it. No conclusive scientific connection is believed to exist between deer and the spread of TB, notwithstanding that they are localised areas. This is the problem and this is apparently prevalent in New Zealand, North America and parts of the UK. Nevertheless, I urge the Minister to focus on it, especially in the area of Wicklow that he referred to. Other areas in the country are sporadically affected. Notwithstanding that there is not scientific evidence, there is anecdotal evidence from people that deer can act as a host in the spread of TB. That may just be somebody speculating but I am glad that the Department is on top of it and that it is running that study in conjunction with Professor More from UCD.

In his opening remarks, the Deputy alluded to the cost of the TB eradication scheme since its introduction in the 1950s. It is a staggering amount. My own figure is in the region of €5.5 billion in today's money to take out approximately 2.5 million reactors in that period. It is a devastation that visits farmers if their herds go down with it. If we continue to do the same thing that we have been doing by and large since we introduced the TB scheme, we will be here in 2050 and will have the same level. I note the Deputy's observations about the stated ambition to get rid of it by 2030. If we keep doing the same things that we are doing by 2030, we will not get rid of it. That is why the challenge for the TB forum is maybe to step out of its comfort zone and see what steps we could take, difficult though they may be to contemplate, that would drive us to meet that ambition. That ambition will deliver for all farmers if we achieve it and it is a significant task to have set that TB forum. I welcome the work that it is doing and await its reply with interest.

I agree with the Minister. The definition of foolishness is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. The taxpayers must be bewildered and bemused by this. In our area, we used to talk about draining the Shannon. Of course, it never happened. There is a better chance of draining the Shannon than getting rid of TB. I say that confidently. I will be leaving here in five or 12 months. I hope I will live for a few years and look back and the Dáil will still be talking about TB eradication. It is frightening that we are not able to get to it. It has been done in New Zealand. It is down to such a low level that it has virtually been eliminated. We have to target areas and engage in risk targeting and such things that Professor More spoke about. It will be difficult and hard to sell and there is already resistance in the TB forum from some farm organisations. At the end of the day, the question will be whether the taxpayer will continue to fund it.

I listened with interest to the professor's contribution at the committee. It was interesting, challenging and thought-provoking. I have deliberately refrained from public commentary on what has been in public media about the deliberations of the TB committee. It was tasked with a job and I would like to see it present its report. The Deputy is right that if we continue to do the same things as we have been doing, we will not get to that situation. We need to turn the tables around. Some 97% of herds are currently TB free. The challenge is to keep those 97% TB free and to make progress with the 3%. I acknowledge it is a significant problem for herds that go down. The 3% sometimes dominate the debate and we are not sufficiently concerned about how we keep the 97% and get to 100% TB free. That is the challenge between now and 2030. To do that, we will have to do things differently from how we are doing them.