Dáil Éireann - Volume 496 - 12 November, 1998
Adjournment Debate. - Bovine Tuberculosis.
Ms Fox Ms Fox
Ms Fox: I welcome the opportunity to address this matter which I have attempted to raise for some time. The ongoing TB problem in Wicklow has reached emergency levels in farming communities in the east and west of the county. It seems to have many strands, each of which are causing problems in their own right. TB levels in west Wicklow have been alarmingly high for some time now, but east Wicklow has not experienced the levels of TB it is currently experiencing for many years. Herd after herd has gone down with the disease, particularly in the Roundwood, Newtownmountkennedy, Kilcoole and Enniskerry areas and many others have gone down in the south of the country.
The east Wicklow area was almost disease free until a few months ago when a number of herds tested positively in the Roundwood area. Some of these herds were eventually depopulated and  farmers are now beginning to restock. There is no point in these farmers restocking when no real effort has been made to source the cause of the infection and eradicate it.
I am aware of one case where a farmer is currently restocking, having been depopulated six months ago. Neighbours on both sides of him have cattle infected with TB and common sense would seem to indicate he is walking into a minefield. One of his neighbours had six reactors and subsequently discovered that two further animals, which had cleared the test, showed lesions. This reveals a huge flaw in the testing system and is evidence that the skin test system is very unreliable. Another neighbour has had reactors on his farm for the past four months — he is awaiting settlement of a dispute over possession of the animals. His cattle have not been tested in the past four or five months and should be tested now to establish how many animals are involved.
I question whether permits should be issued to take reactors off farms prior to any effort being made by the Department to take possession of the animals on the Minister's behalf. The farmer to whom I have referred has communicated with the Department on a number of occasions stating he is agreeable to the Minister removing the infected animals under the authority of law. The option of taking possession seems to be constantly by-passed because it is an easier route to issue permits.
Farmers are also very unhappy with the performance of the eradication scheme in this area. Bureaucracy and the numbers of officials employed have reached untold levels, yet the problem seems to be getting worse and worse. On the ground it is felt it has turned into big business and frustration is rapidly growing. Panic is beginning to set in in some areas. In the context of livelihoods we can sympathise with their frustration.
Another strand to the problem is the fact that infection is being spread freely in the area. Infected wildlife is causing a TB epidemic in County Wicklow, a fact accepted even by the local DVO. On the ground little or nothing is being done to combat the problem. Deer are allowed to wander freely around the area. They eat from round feeders on farms and many mornings are found grazing freely on farmers' private land. The deer population has increased up to four times in the Wicklow uplands. Testing of the deer, if there has been any, has been minuscule. It would be very unwise to continue in this vein. The Department of Agriculture and Food must test a substantial number of deer to see exactly the extent of the problem. The only move which has been made in this regard is to allow a worker from Coillte to shoot deer on certain infected lands. However, this is not the person's full-time job. There has been a wink and nod suggestion to farmers that they shoot deer on their land on sight. Unfortunately, not too many farmers in east Wicklow have the correct calibre of gun or permit required to shoot deer. There is a clear  need for more co-operation between the Departments of Agriculture and Food and Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands which should come together, source the carriers of this terrible disease and eradicate it.
In Kilcoole the common denominator seems to be the badger. There is also a national protected area nearby where badgers are allowed wander freely on the land. I am not aware if any of these badgers have been tested or, if so, what the results have been. Scientific research in County Offaly has proved that the removal of badgers on a large area reduces the incidence of TB reactors to approximately 0.04 APT. I impress upon the Minister that it is time for such a scheme in east Wicklow.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. N. O'Keeffe) Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. N. O'Keeffe)
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. N. O'Keeffe): I thank the Deputy for raising a matter which is of concern to the farming community in County Wicklow and generally. As the Deputy is from a farming background, her interest comes from a practical knowledge of how a disease breakdown can severely disrupt the operation of farm businesses and I agree fully with everything she said.
In recent years the incidence of bovine TB as measured by the number of reactors disclosed per 1,000 animals tested has been decreasing. Currently, however, there is an increase in infection levels. I also understand that the level of bovine TB is also increasing in Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.
I assure the Deputy that every effort is being made to identify the factors contributing to the problem. My veterinary officials are, inter alia, in discussion with their counterparts in other jurisdictions with a view to determining whether a common causative factor exists. Research in bovine TB continues at my Department's dedicated tuberculosis investigation unit and elsewhere.
The incidence of TB has also increased in County Wicklow this year and a special testing programme is under way in the course of which virtually all herds in the east of the county will have been screened twice during 1998. In addition, a wildlife investigation programme is in place to determine the extent to which badgers and deer have TB lesions on post mortem. I listened very attentively to the issue concerning deer. I agree with the Deputy and am aware of the problems they are creating.
The Deputy will be aware that my Department is in ongoing consultation with the interested organisations at local level and nationally in the animal health forum. My officials are also in discussion with Dúchas as regards the potential implications of infection in the wild deer population should samples currently being sent for laboratory analysis show a significant lesion level. I am advised that some infection has been detected in examinations undertaken so far.
The servicing of badger snaring licences has commenced. Results of Wicklow post mortems to  date have shown a positive TB rate of 7.3 per cent which is not unduly high by national standards. Further work is under way in this respect.
I assure the Deputy that the situation in County Wicklow is under close examination with a view to turning the situation around as quickly as is feasible. While the current situation is naturally a cause for concern, overall the position remains that we have a good health status with some 99 per cent of the country's cattle being clear of the disease.
I invite the Deputy to meet with my officials next week so that she can further outline to them her concerns. I am aware of the difficulties and the high costs to farmers and the State, which the Estimates show is £43 million. It is very commendable that the Deputy has raised the matter.
Dáil Éireann 496 Adjournment Debate. Bovine Tuberculosis.