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Parliamentary Questions and Answers

Adjournment Debate - Answered on 19th November 2009

Mary White, TD:

I wish to raise an issue on the adjournment, on a matter of national importance, namely, the issue of the methodology to replace the culling of badgers with more humane and effective methods, as part of the bovine TB eradication programme.

Trevor Sargent T.D. Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food:

A considerable amount of research which has been conducted over the years both by my Department and elsewhere has shown that the eradication of Bovine TB is not a practicable proposition in the short to medium-term because of the reservoir of infection in wildlife and, in particular, badgers which is seeding infection into the cattle population. The published results of the Four Area Project carried out in counties Cork, Monaghan, Donegal & Kilkenny in the late 1990ís and early years of this decade demonstrated that there was a significant reduction in TB levels in cattle following the removal of badgers. In particular, the total number of herd restrictions in the removal areas for the study period was almost 60% lower than the pre study period.

In view of this research, the Bovine TB 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, badgers are captured under licence issued by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government where they are implicated in an outbreak of TB.

Capturing is undertaken only in areas where serious outbreaks of Tuberculosis have been identified in cattle herds and where an epidemiological investigation carried out by the Departmentís Veterinary Inspectorate has found that badgers are the likely source of infection. In addition, approval to capture a sett is contingent on the total area under capture nationally being maintained below 30% of the agricultural land in the country.

With regard to the animal welfare aspect of badger culling, my Department continually monitors damage and injury to badgers captured under this programme. Badgers are captured using a specifically designed stopped-body restraint by trained Farm Relief Service contractors, who are monitored and supervised by DAFF staff. The restraints used in the capture of badgers are approved under Section 34 of the 1976 Wildlife Act and are specifically designed with a Ďstopí so as not to tighten beyond a predetermined point. All restraints are monitored daily and any badgers are removed within a maximum of 24 hours of capture. A condition of the licence granted is that restraints are checked before noon the next day. Capturing of badgers is not permitted during the months of January, February and March in new capture areas. Research undertaken by the Centre for Veterinary Epidemiology and Risk Analysis (CVERA) in UCD has shown that damage/injury to captured badgers is none or minimal while in the stopped restraint.

The recent programme for Government included a commitment that the Animal Health and Welfare Bill, currently being drafted by my Department, will include provisions relating to the replacement of culling with more humane and effective methods of control.

The preference and, indeed, our intention would be to replace culling with a vaccination programme.

With this in mind, my Department has been collaborating for some years with the Centre for Veterinary Epidemiology and Risk Analysis (CVERA) in UCD on research into a vaccine to control tuberculosis in badgers and to break the link of infection to cattle. 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. It is now necessary to undertake research to establish whether this protective effect exists in field conditions and my Department, in conjunction with UCD, has commenced work on a 3 year field trial in Kilkenny designed to assess the impact of vaccination on badger to badger transmission of tuberculosis in a natural environment. This trial involves vaccinating several hundred badgers over 3 to 4 years, with continuous monitoring of the population to assess the impact of the vaccine on the incidence of disease in the vaccinated and non-vaccinated control badger populations.

Success in the field trial will eventually lead to implementation of a vaccination strategy as part of the national TB control programme. However, it will be some years before the benefits of a vaccine can be seen (2013 at the earliest) and therefore targeted badger removals will continue in the medium term.

My Department is satisfied that the introduction of the badger removal policy has contributed to a reduction in the incidence of TB over the past number of years.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that the incidence rate of new herd breakdowns has fallen significantly between 2000 and 2008 and the average number of reactors removed in the 5-year period 2002-2008 was, at just over 26,000, 26% lower than in the preceding 5-year period. In addition, reactor numbers have remained below 30,000 per annum since 2002, the longest period since the 1950ís and, while there were a number of factors involved, it is likely that the enhanced badger removal strategy, which was implemented from 2004, is a factor in this.

In effect, this strategy is a pragmatic response, based on sound science, to a complex problem. There is considerable evidence that badgers are responsible for the spread of bovine TB and that their removal results in a reduction in the incidence of the disease in cattle. It is also the case that my Department continually monitors the animal welfare aspects of badger culling and is satisfied that the existing culling arrangements and procedures result in minimal injury to badgers while in the restraints. I want to emphasise that the objective of my Department is to find a solution that will enable both badgers and bovines to co-exist while at the same time limiting the transmission of infection from one species to the other.

In pursuit of this objective, my Department is involved to a research project with UCD on the development of a vaccine for use in badgers that would lead to a reduction in the current high levels of TB infection in that species. It is hoped that this strategy will, in the longer term, reduce the need to cull TB infected badgers as tuberculosis levels fall in both cattle and badgers.

SEE ALSO: Stop Badger Snaring

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