Vaccination of badgers was rolled out in 2018, in an attempt to prevent the transmission of TB from badgers to cattle. In recent times, the culling of badgers has increased to a point that there are now more of them destroyed than before vaccinations began. That's according to Pádraic Fogarty, campaigns officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, speaking on Today with Claire Byrne. Claire also heard the views of farmers concerned about bovine TB from TJ Maher, chair of animal health at the I.F.A.
TJ explains that Ireland is obliged to run a TB control programme under EU law:
"Our animals are tested annually. And that programme as farmers costs us over €60 million. Now, the key point here is that it has been identified the world over, that you cannot remove TB out of the livestock population, if you don’t control TB in the wildlife population."
The I.F.A.’s animal health chairman says that vaccination of badgers has been successful in some areas and less effective in others. A TB breakout is very stressful for farmers, he says, and it means their farm is effectively in lockdown for what could be up to a year. TJ Maher believes that badger density must be reduced, as a priority:
"It’s in farmers’ best interest to get to a situation where we have a cattle population and a badger population that do not have TB. That is the ultimate goal for all of us."
Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife trust is in strong agreement with TJ that TB is an enormous problem and we all want to be rid of it. He just doesn’t think killing badgers is effective in battling the spread of bovine TB:
"The problem here is that we have been slaughtering badgers now for decades and it’s not working. If you were able to show me evidence that this is actually getting a handle on the problem, you might have something to take a hold of. But TB rates have gone up."
The culprit is the jump in cattle numbers, Pádraic says, particularly in the dairy sector. He says the most likely source of infection for cattle is other cattle:
"There’s no doubt about it. This is a disease in cattle and it is mostly spread between cattle. This is recognised by the department, who say that cattle-to-cattle transmission is the dominant factor here, not the badgers."
Instead of putting the emphasis on culling badgers, Pádraic says, we should be working on measures that reduce the risk of cattle-to-cattle infections:
"The department themselves suggested there should be what’s called a risk evaluation, so that farmers are not buying cattle from TB herds that are at risk. We’re not seeing the buyer security measures, so, for instance, the measures that farmers can take on their farm to reduce transmission."
As well as tightening up controls in terms of risk when cattle are bought and sold, Pádraic says on-farm measures like protecting food troughs, keeping badgers out of barns and maintaining healthy hedgerows should be given priority.
TJ Maher says that the wildlife programme, which includes badger culling, has yielded great results in the past:
"When the department introduced the wildlife programme 20 years ago and was worked effectively for 10-15 years, we got our incidence rate down to 2.5%."
TJ says that following the financial crash, the numbers working on the wildlife programme have been reduced. He says that in recent years, badgers have been increasing in number and that this is a problem:
"The badger has proven to be extremely adept at managing to improve its population density. It is absolutely without doubt critical to ensure the badger population is controlled as part of the overall programme."
TJ says that as an example, County Wicklow has low cattle density, but still has one of the highest rates of TB in the country. TJ agrees that if a herd is infected via wildlife, then further transmission can happen cattle-to-cattle:
"The reality is if you don’t have disease on a farm and you bring in disease in through the badger, then the disease can spread from animal to animal. But the key point of the programme is to manage and control the population of the badger."
The numbers we should be worried about are the numbers of cattle, Pádraic Fogarty says:
"If we have a population problem, it’s surely that we have too many cows and cattle in this country. Not only is it the main source of greenhouse gas, and water pollution, but we also see now that it’s responsible for the spread of disease."
Padraic says the figures don’t really stack up, with six and a half million head of cattle in Ireland and an estimated 100,000 badgers, he doesn’t see how the badgers can be spreading most of the disease:
"I think it’s kind of ridiculous to be continuing to blame wildlife for a problem that is completely related to animal agriculture in this country."
TJ disputes this and says that farmers want to remove sick badgers. He says that testing testing badgers for TB doesn’t always yield results in time to protect the herds.He says there is a well-established way of achieving this end:
"It is the policy and the experience, that to make the population healthy, reduce the density, then you vaccinate and you allow the population to redevelop and that has proven successful."
There was no disagreement that certain relevant data on badgers and TB are missing from the debate.There is no accurate count of the current badger population, Páraic says, and to add to that, there are no solid figures on how much TB is spread between cattle and how much is picked up from wildlife:
"The department themselves have looked at trying to apportion how much of this has been cattle-to-cattle and how much is to do with wildlife and they said it’s too complicated."
If you’d like to hear more of the arguments on both sides of this debate, you can listen back to the full segment here.