Seanad Éireann - Volume 114 - 23 October, 1986

Adjournment Matter. - Westmeath-Longford Bovine TB Incidence.

Mrs. McAuliffe-Ennis: I should like to thank the House for affording me time and opportunity to bring forward a matter of a very serious nature about which there is a growing and increasing body of public concern. I brought this matter to the attention of this House today because Longford and Westmeath now have the highest incidence rate of bovine TB in Ireland. The situation after 32 years of the bovine TB eradication scheme is critical. Some years ago there were incidences of bovine TB in herds here and there; today in Longford in particular the incidence rate and the crisis are so great that inconclusives are now reactors. Will the Minister tell me why there is such a high incidence rate of bovine TB in Longford? Set against this background the Minister has decided to scrap the current three year round of testing. The current three year round of testing is now finished in mid term. It is over. I want the Minister to confirm what everybody knows, which is, that the Government have abandoned the scheme. Can the Minister assure me that the system of testing used was the best available until the current round was abandoned? I also want to know what scheme, or new test, or additional test the Minister intends to introduce for the future.

Bovine TB is now a serious economic issue in the light of the beef situation within the EC and in face of the reality that many families in County Longford [886] are being impoverished and their incomes wiped out by this disease. It is also an issue of serious social concern because of the general public fear that contaminated meat will arrive on their tables. There is a growing body of concern and the implications are obvious and clearly serious.

Can the Minister tell me what causes bovine TB? I realise that where all conventional precautions have been taken such as testing, double farm fencing, disinfection of trucks and equipment and reducing mobility, still incidences of bovine TB exists and, in the case of Longford-Westmeath, at a higher level than anywhere else in the country. Why is this the case?

In this context I wish to ask the Minister if he can say categorically whether there are any links between wildlife and TB incidence. Can the Minister tell me if there are any links between bovine TB incidence and the badger? I expect the Minister will tell me that this is currently under investigation, but I will go a step further. There is a wide body of expert opinion which claims that there is a very definite link. In the midland area, where badgers have been tested in high areas of TB incidence, between 30 and 40 per cent have been found to have TB.

The law is most peculiar in this area. Badgers are a protected species and the Department will take no action until someone somewhere establishes whether TB is transmitted by or to the badger. This is not good enough. It is merely an excuse to sit on the fence. Dithering on this crucial aspect is nothing short of negligence and is scandalous.

I ask the Minister to instruct his Department immediately to adopt a policy in this matter. I suggest that the Department should contact Mr. Roger Muirhead, OBE, of Glenamaddy, County Galway. This man is a veterinary surgeon. He is an OBE by virtue of the fact that his work in the eradication of TB has been recognised. To quote a recently published article he is described as a world renowned expert on the subject of TB and in particular on the subject of the link between bovine TB and the badger.

[887] Acting Chairman (Mr. Daly): The Senator may not name individuals.

Mrs. McAuliffe-Ennis: I am not saying we must start a programme of eliminating badgers. I do not think that anybody in his right mind would propose such a line of action. We should proceed with testing and take out known setts of infected badgers. There is good sound reason and a good sound body of opinion for believing that there are links between badgers and TB so to merely say we cannot do anything until we establish whether the badger transmits the disease or whether badgers are infected by bovine TB is not enough.

The Dáil committee on Public Expenditure have made a recommendation to scrap the former scheme. This has been done and in its place should be a team of proven experts in the field to draw up and manage a scheme with the required back up and funds. It should be set up for a required period. Strict departmental controls of the operation of this new scheme should be enforced and there should be a total review of compensation levels to bring them into line with realistic market prices. There should be strict control of the disposal of reactors. The expertise in Ireland in the past can only be measured by the failures of the past. As a first step, Minister, I am giving the crisis situation in Longford in particular but also in Westmeath. I ask the Minister to proceed to set up a pilot scheme in that area, to carefully monitor the progress of that scheme and to allow and promote flexibility of attitude within the Department to delve into previously held unconventional approaches.

The Minister will recall that the Department of Agriculture for years ignored the opinion of a well known expert on brucellosis.

Finally, and after many years, they condescended and called in his assistant. The result of that call is now history.

Acting Chairman: While the Chair has no objection to the Senator sharing her time with another Senator I would have preferred to have notice of her intentions [888] at the outset. In any event the Minister has to be allowed 10 minutes to reply. Are you sharing your time, Senator?

Mrs. McAuliffe-Ennis: I would be quite prepared to allow Senator Cassidy to contribute.

Mr. Cassidy: I thank you for the opportunity. I support my Westmeath colleague, Senator McAuliffe-Ennis in her plea to the Minister and I congratulate her for bringing in this serious motion relating to the midland area. I fully agree with all her comments. I would like to ask the Minister whether it is true that County Longford is now the worst county in Ireland for TB? If it is, will he have a look at the situation and give an extra special financial allocation to Longford and Westmeath to deal with the serious situation existing there? I realise that the Longford situation is so serious that it should get 100 per cent support. The Department should attend to this situation immediately and make it a priority county.

Acting Chairman: I understand why the Senator shared her time.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture (Mr. Hegarty): The intervention by the Senator gives me a very welcome opportunity to inform the House about what we are doing in the midlands in relation to TB and to assure the herdowners there that the situation is receiving top priority in the Department. While the subject matter for debate refers to both Longford and Westmeath the TB situation in Longford, to refer to Senator Cassidy, is by far the more serious so far as those two counties are concerned. Westmeath has had a bad history as regards TB going back many years. In contrast Longford's problems are of more recent origin and it now occupies the unenviable position of being the worst affected county in the country.

During the very intensive 1985-86 round all herds in Westmeath were tested and the amount of testing undertaken in Longford was the equivalent of 150 per [889] cent of the herds there. At the end of the round 206 herds or 5.29 per cent of the herds in County Longford were locked up and in County Westmeath the corresponding figures were 194 herds restricted, a prevalence level of 4.25 per cent which is bad, too.

Against this background, despite the severe cutbacks in our budget this year, we ensured that the highest allocation of funds in the entire country went to Longford and very substantial funds were given to Westmeath also. This enabled us to operate special programmes of testing not alone in Longford and Westmeath but also in the adjoining areas of Leitrim and Cavan.

The results from this year's intensive programme have revealed a very serious TB situation in Longford and, while the situation is still unsatisfactory in Westmeath the problems there are not exceptional. A particularly worrying aspect in Longford is the high percentage of herds showing reinfection at the six month check test. This was the factor that led us to alter the test interpretation for County Longford and to accelerate the investigation of a possible wildlife link in both counties. The more severe interpretation of the test means that we no longer allow animals in the inconclusive category. There is a view, sometimes expressed by farmers' interests, that all inconclusives should be declared reactors. We do not go along with this blanket approach but we do feel that in particular problem areas this step has to be taken. Post mortem results in Longford confirm that this approach is justified. This is an aspect on which we are doomed to criticism no matter how we proceed. If we remove all inconclusives we are accused of overkill; if we leave inconclusives for further testing we are accused of allowing disease to spread. I feel that the present policy of tailoring the test interpretation to the circumstances of the farm or area concerned is a wise one which has my support and which will have to be developed in future.

As regards wildlife, for some time we have been investigating this aspect in no less than seven areas in County Longford [890] and, in co-operation with the Wildlife Service, we will be commencing further investigations in Westmeath shortly. We worked on over 100 farms in the Longford-Westmeath area in the case of this link. It is too early yet to draw firm conclusions from the results so far. We are, therefore, looking to a combination of intensive-testing, strict interpretation of tests, investigation of wildlife, and comprehensive advice to farmers to bring results in these counties.

Looking to the future we would hope to base our plans on a full round of testing in 1987 accompanied by special programmes for the worst affected areas. The additional allocation for Longford was in the region of £260,000. Westmeath would be a major beneficiary of a special programme. In the case of Longford we have under study the possibility of a more selective programme to cope with the particular situation there. Indeed, I would say that the problems in Longford get and will get more attention in the Department than those of any other county.

An essential precondition of success will be the active involvement of the farming community. Longford and Westmeath are difficult areas as regards TB spread with fragmented holdings — and I have to say this — inadequate fencing and an exceptionally high volume of cattle movement. Speaking as a farmer and as one who has had long experience of trying to control disease I would have to say that one of the reasons we are having so many problems with disease is the number of times that all calves are moved from the time of birth until they are slaughtered. This does not apply in any other EC country. We have this unfortunate problem.

Some have said that our internal tourists are our calves. There is another factor again that does not apply in other EC countries and it is this business that we have of selling off our diseased animals to traders. That is the most charitable word I have for them. They actually buy the cattle from the farmers, chiefly because the farmer is not near enough to a meat plant to do his own thing. Very [891] often these cattle end up in other farms, not inside in the meat plant and tags have been switched. We have got some tags back from the North of Ireland ministry which had been switched. These diseased animals could be fine fat animals. They switch the tags and they put them on old scraggy animals. The scraggy animals go into the plants and the grants are paid.

We have now a system operating in County Cork. I believe it will be much more dramatic than anything we have tried to date. We have persuaded Bandon AI Station, with Ballyclough, to organise the total collection of diseased animals within the county. It is mandatory. One is not allowed to send an animal any other way. There was a bit of a stir for a while but it settled down. We launched the scheme. It is imperative. This is the way one has to do it.

Mrs. McAuliffe-Ennis: It might be worth considering.

Mr. Hegarty: I should like to think we could consider this. There has to be the co-operation of the farming community. We are putting the cattle over three meat plants so there is no great favouritism between any meat plant. The important thing is that, because of the fact that he was pushing substantial volumes of cattle into a particular plant the cattle trader had wonderful leverage to command a good price. This group will have the same leverage in meat plants that an individual farmer would not have, so better prices will be obtained for these cattle.

With the co-operation of farmers whose relationship with the district veterinary office is basically good, we are confident that we can reverse the present trend and show worthwhile results. I must [892] warn, however, that there are no magic solutions for the eradication of TB. The measures that have been and will be taken will inevitably involve an element of inconvenience for all. We are determined to press ahead with our activities in the interest of herd owners throughout the midlands which is a priority area as far as TB is concerned.

With all humility I say that there is no mystique about the spread of TB. All the evidence both here and in the UK — I have been at it for years and years as a farm leader as well as a politician — would lead to the conclusion that the disease is spread from one farm to another by direct contact through some sort of carelessness, by people calling to the farm, by the various people who call every day in the course of their business, whether they be AI people, or whatever, not having the proper footbaths, not taking the proper precautions. There is double fencing where it applies, but how often does it not apply? The fragmented nature of our farms, where we must of necessity drive our cows twice a day across a public roadway that could be contaminated is a cause of spreading TB. The contractor for slurry spreading, going from one farm to another could spread disease. The disease occurs six or seven weeks after.

My final point is that we should start with farmers, the co-ops, and the veterinary people, with our own Department. Money is not the whole answer. If we can get that co-operation within both counties we are on the road to success.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. Wednesday, 29 October 1986.