The Control of Bovine Tuberculosis in Northern Ireland

18 March 2009

The Control of Bovine Tuberculosis in Northern Ireland

Mr John Dowdall, the Comptroller and Auditor General, issued his report today on ‘The Control of Bovine Tuberculosis in Northern Ireland’. Bovine TB is a contagious bacterial disease of cattle. Under the regulations, animals testing positive to the disease must be removed and slaughtered. Herdowners receive compensation from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development at full market value.


Northern Ireland has some 25,000 herds of cattle, with 1.7 million animals. At least one quarter of herds in Northern Ireland have had Bovine TB and, at December 2007, some 1,600 herds were under disease restrictions.

From 1997, there was a significant increase in the prevalence of Bovine TB in herds in Northern Ireland, rising from just under 5% in 1997 to a peak of some 13% in 2002. In mid-2003, the Department noted that Northern Ireland had “the highest [Bovine TB] levels in Europe and incidence that has risen dramatically in recent years and continues to rise”. By 2007, herd prevalence had reduced to just under 7%, although still significantly higher than the 1997 level.

Over the 10 years to March 2006 the Department spent a total of £199 million on the disease control programme, mainly compensation payments to farmers (£86 million) and payments to Private Veterinary Practices contracted to test herds for Bovine TB (£54 million).

Since 1964 the Department’s policy has been to eradicate bTB. However, from the mid-1990s, its view has been that eradication could no longer be considered anything other than a long-term goal. In the short-term, therefore, it aims to control bTB, within realistic economic constraints. A Policy Review in 2002 sought to address the high incidence of the disease. However, almost five years later, the Audit Office found that a number of the issues raised, relating primarily to animal testing and movement control, had not been finally resolved.

NIAO’s Overall conclusion

  • Bovine TB has been a long-standing major problem in Northern Ireland and the Department’s progress in tackling it has been slow. A range of initiatives, over the period from 1992 when disease levels were rising, enjoyed only limited success until 2003, when incidence of the disease began to fall. Since then progress has been made, with herd incidence of Bovine TB having been reduced by some 50% from peak levels. However, while the general trend of the disease is decreasing, it remains significantly higher than the 1997 level and it is clear that much remains to be done.

On Consultation with Key Stakeholders (Appendices 5 and 6 of the Report)

Detailed submissions were provided to the Audit Office by the main bodies representing farmers’ and private veterinary practitioners’ interests:

  • The Ulster Farmers’ Union considered that the current scheme of herd testing, restriction and removal of Bovine TB infected cattle works reasonably well. However, they consider that the control programme will never lead to eradication of the disease while a major reservoir of infection remains in the wildlife population; they recommend an overhaul of the programme if real progress is to be made.
  • The Association of Veterinary Surgeons Practising in Northern Ireland considered that the eradication programme has been unsuccessful and that factors specific to Northern Ireland have contributed to this failure. They said that other countries have met with greater success and suggest the need to look at the differences in approach which have influenced this outcome.

NIAO’s Main Findings The report highlights a range of concerns, over the period from 1994 (when the Westminster Public Accounts Committee last reported on this topic) to date. Matters covered include:

Bovine TB testing procedures (Part 2 of the Report)

  • the limitations of the Bovine TB Skin Test in detecting infected animals
  • the cost of testing carried out by Private Veterinary Practitioners (PVPs)
  • the quality of work being carried out by a number of PVPs • Departmental supervision of PVP testing
  • disciplinary action against PVPs who breach procedures

(see paragraphs 2.33 to 2.45)

Measures to combat the spread of Bovine TB (Part 3 of the Report)

  • the adequacy of boundary fencing on farms
  • the level of uptake of the ‘life-long learning programme’ by farmers
  • pre-movement testing of animals for Bovine TB
  • the extent to which wildlife is a factor in transmission of Bovine TB
  • weaknesses in the Department’s research programme

(see paragraphs 3.24 to 3.34)

EU matters (Part 4 of the Report)

  • the level of compliance with EU legislation
  • the limited extent to which the Department has availed of the financial support from the EU Veterinary Fund

(see paragraphs 4.26 to 4.28)

Compensation, enforcement and tackling fraud (Part 5 of the Report)

  • the cost of compensation
  • compensation valuations
  • enforcement of the legislation
  • tackling fraud.

(see paragraphs 5.22 to 5.37)