Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine response on Bovine Disease Controls

A recent article by the Irish Times did not correctly portray the response by Minister Coveney to Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan. The Irish Deer Society would like our members to be fully aware of the response which is located below. The article only served as a headline to continue the current trend of portraying deer in poor light.

Please read the article and Q&A below.

Recent Article:

Bovine Disease Controls

12. Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan   asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine   in view of a report (details supplied) and the findings of the study that badgers avoid fields of cattle and farm buildings containing cattle, if he will acknowledge that badgers have been wrongfully vilified; if he will accordingly suspend his Department’s practice of badger cull, which to date has resulted in the snaring and killing of a large number of badgers; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [18538/15]

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan:   The question relates to a recent report after a four year study which indicates that badgers do not seek out cattle and actively avoid them. In that case is there not a justifiable reason to suspend the culling of badgers?

Deputy Simon Coveney:   I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. She and I have spoken about badgers many times and I know where she is coming from.

The badger removal strategy, which has been part of our TB eradication programme for some years, has been developed in response to research which has demonstrated that the eradication of the disease in cattle is not a practicable proposition until the reservoir of infection in badgers, with which it has also been found they share localised TB strains, is addressed. This is based on a number of studies which showed that badger removal had a significant beneficial impact on the risk of future breakdowns, with areas where badgers were not removed being some 14 times at greater risk than in areas where badgers were removed.

It is also notable that there has been a significant improvement in the disease situation in Ireland both in the cattle and badger populations since the badger removal programme was put on a more structured footing in 2004. The incidence of TB in cattle has fallen by almost 40% since 2008 and is currently at record low levels. It is particularly interesting that the incidence of TB in Northern Ireland, where badger removal is not prioritised, is approximately twice as high as on this side of the Border.

The study referred to by the Deputy is ongoing and is designed to find out how exactly the disease transmission between badgers and cattle takes place with a view to building up a comprehensive picture of badger movements and helping to design a viable vaccination programme for badgers, which is my Department’s preferred way of addressing the issue, if we can make it work. The fact that badgers tend to avoid buildings does not mean that they do not transmit disease to cattle. The position is that badgers can and do transmit TB to cattle via faeces, urine or latrines, and strain-typing has shown that badgers and cattle share the same strain of TB which is prevalent in the locality. Apart from this, research has shown that, as I have stated above, the removal of badgers from a locality has resulted in a significant reduction in the incidence of TB in cattle.

My Department endeavours to ensure that the badger culling programme takes place as humanely as possible. The restraints used in the capture of badgers are approved under section 34 of the Wildlife Act 1976 and research conducted within UCD has shown that damage or injury to captured badgers is minimal and is lower than with other capture methodologies. The badger removal programme is based on research, is conducted humanely and only to the extent where it has been found to assist in reducing disease levels and, through the evidence of the sustained reductions in disease levels, both in cattle and badgers, has demonstrated its effectiveness. I am confident it can be replaced by a badger vaccination programme in due course and, as far as I am concerned, the sooner the better but I need to do it on the basis of science.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan:   I suggest there could be other reasons for the improvement in the reduction in the levels of bovine TB apart from the cull of the badgers. There is no doubt that everybody wants a cattle herd free of bovine TB. It was interesting to read this report which was carried out by the Minister’s Department, Trinity College and the National Parks and Wildlife Service over four years. What it discovered was that badgers actively avoid areas where there are cattle, whether in a yard or out in the wild. They have been observed on their nightly wanderings and if they come into a field where there are cattle they divert somewhere else. In the meantime, 80% of the badgers being culled are perfectly healthy animals. We are aware that even though there are licences to shoot them, they are culled in most horrific circumstances. We have seen badgers caught in the trap where they are shot. Poison has been laid. Slurry has been left in some of the traps in order to further intensify the cruelty. This is being carried out under licences issued by the Department.

There is a need for a more holistic approach to bovine TB rather than blaming the badger for everything. I hope the Minister will look at the report which provides interesting findings and see the impetus for the vaccine.

Deputy Simon Coveney:   We will look at the report. It would be dishonest of me to say that I do not think that the badger targeted cull programme is being done in as humane a way as we can do it. If there are other suggestions as to how we can do it better, we would happily take them on board but to suggest it is not working would be wrong. This has been a hugely successful programme where we have virtually halved bovine TB in Ireland. We have less bovine TB in Ireland now than at any time since 1954 when records began. The UK has not had success in reducing the incidence of bovine TB. I suggest this is partly because it has not been able to take the same approach towards a targeted culling programme where it is aware of a localised bovine TB problem and outbreak.

I want to move to a vaccination programme where we vaccinate badgers against TB.


(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Simon Coveney:  ] We will do that when we feel we can do it and maintain the approach that we have at the moment, which is driving down TB numbers. I do not think we can do that purely on animal welfare grounds without having negative consequences for the spread of TB. However, as soon as we feel we can do that, we will do it. I will happily look at the report to which the Deputy referred. If she knows of instances where badgers were trapped inappropriately, I would like to hear about it. We have an approach which insists that traps are set in the most humane way possible. However, the idea that badgers actively avoid cattle because they are shy animals, which they are, and therefore there is no connection between the two does not stack up when one looks at how TB is actually spread, through urine, faeces and so forth.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan:   There must be other reasons for the reduction in the levels of bovine TB. This cull of badgers has been called slaughter masquerading as science.

Deputy Simon Coveney:   It is not slaughter.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan:   A farmer who gave a presentation recently before the Committee of Public Accounts acknowledged that he had been responsible, along with an official from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, for inhumanely slaughtering 4,000 pigs. This is the type of thing that is going on. We had lots of discussion on the Animal Health and Welfare Bill and there was so much expected of that legislation, which has gone a long way but it is disappointing that inhumane treatment continues.

Deputy Simon Coveney:   It is also inhumane that we have to slaughter cattle because they have TB when we know that we can get the incidence of TB down. That is no more humane than the badger cull. What is humane for me is to get TB out of the herd, which is what we are trying to do, and out of the badger population too. In that way, we will not have to target cattle and badgers. We have other questions with regard to deer in Wicklow, for example. Are they spreading TB and if they are, how can we manage that in a practical way? Can we have a targeted, humane cull to try to deal with killing off a disease that has bedevilled Irish agriculture for more than 50 years? We want to stop killing animals because they are carrying or spreading TB. The way to do that is to eradicate TB, which is what we are trying to do. That is in the welfare interests of animals as well as the interests of farming.