Tackling Bovine TB

Published 01/06/2016   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Article by Nia Seaton, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Rapid action to tackle Bovine TB is a top priority for many farm businesses. What early policy decisions will face the new Welsh Government?

Due to its significant impact on animal welfare, farmer welfare and farm business viability, tackling Bovine TB (bovine tuberculosis) is a priority for the agriculture industry in Wales. In 2011, the UK Government’s Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimated the cost of Bovine TB breakdown to be £30,000 per herd. The latest statistics for Wales show that 8,103 cattle were slaughtered in 2015 as a result of the disease and 837 cattle herds suffered from a new breakdown of the disease. While these figures have decreased since their peak in 2009, the numbers are still significantly higher than they were 20 years ago. Previous Welsh Governments have adopted a range of policies aimed at eradicating the disease and the new Welsh Government will need to make an early decision about the future direction of its policy in this area.

What is Bovine TB and what are its effects?

Bovine TB is an infectious and chronic disease caused by Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) and usually affects the lungs and lymph nodes of cattle. In most cases infected cattle are able to transmit the disease before they show signs of being unwell, which may be many months after they are infected. Controlling TB therefore depends on detecting and eliminating infected cattle as early as possible. While cattle and badgers are the principle hosts of the disease in the UK, camelids, deer, goats and domestic animals are also susceptible.

How prevalent is Bovine TB in Wales?

Line chart showing number of new herd incidences overlying bar chart showing number of cattle slaughtered. The graph shows the changes in the number of new incidences in herds of Bovine TB in Wales over the last ten years, as well as the number of cattle slaughtered over the same period. There was a peak in new herd incidences in 2008-9 with a general downward trend since then. The number of cattle slaughtered has also declined since 2009, but the latest figures for 2015 show an increase in the number slaughtered since 2014.

What policies and strategies did the previous Welsh Governments adopt?

The previous Welsh Government had a Bovine TB Eradication Programme that was made up of a number of different elements. These included: annual testing of cattle herds; a wide range of cattle control measures such as pre-movement testing; movement restrictions on infected herds; slaughtering infected animals; and piloting badger vaccination in some areas. Two of the key principles underlining the programme were keeping the disease out of clean farms and identifying infection early. As part of this programme the Welsh Government established an Intensive Action Area, a 288sq km area located mainly in northern Pembrokeshire, to test different approaches to tackling the disease. These included tighter cattle control measures and a five-year badger vaccination pilot project. The pilot project was due to enter its fifth year in spring 2016 but problems with the global supply of the  vaccine used to inoculate badgers meant that in December 2015 the Welsh Government announced the pilot would be suspended a year early. The Welsh Government commissioned modelling work to look at the impact of halting the pilot. The modelling work indicated that stopping the project a year early will not have a detrimental effect on its outcomes. However, continued uncertainty over the future supply of the vaccine means that badger vaccination in the short term is unlikely to be a viable policy option. In 2011 the Welsh Government passed The Badger (Control Order) (Wales) 2011. This order gave the Welsh Government powers to undertake, if it wished, a badger cull within the Intensive Action Area. However, this order was subsequently revoked in 2012 by John Griffiths, the then Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development, following his decision to pursue a badger vaccination policy instead. If the Welsh Government wished in future to pursue a cull in the Intensive Action Area or in other parts of Wales, it would need to secure support for a new order through the Assembly. The use of a badger cull to remove the disease in wildlife has been piloted in other parts of the UK but has proved hugely divisive with proponents and opponents of the policy putting forward competing scientific evidence and results. There has been some work to monitor the impacts of the eradication policies in the Intensive Action Area. A report on the differences in Bovine TB breakdowns between the Intensive Action Area and other parts of Wales between 2010 and 2015 concluded that consistent trends in Bovine TB indicators have yet to been seen, but that more time is needed before any ‘meaningful differences’ in trends between the herds in the Intensive Action Area and Control Area can be identified. The UK administrations have also funded research into developing cattle vaccines and more sensitive diagnostic tests for the disease in cattle.

What happens next?

Decisions about the future direction of this policy will be a key priority for the next five years. The Fourth Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee drew attention to the issue in its legacy report as one of the most important issues facing agriculture. It will be for the new Welsh Government to decide whether it continues with the current eradication programme or adopts a different approach.

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