Ulster Unionist MLA for East Antrim Roy Beggs has spoken in a stormont debate following publication of a DARD Committee report on Bovine Tuberculosis:
Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as my parents run a suckling cow family enterprise.
I notice that the Northern Ireland Audit Office has updated the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on public expenditure on bovine TB over the past 15 years. It is some £317 million, which is a huge sum of public money. Some £132 million was spent on compensation to farmers, some £86 million was spent on payments to private vets for herd testing, £71 million was spent on DARD staff costs and other costs beyond that. However, the cost to the industry is even more. A further £200 million per year is the estimated cost to farmers of the disruption involved in testing. For example, a farmer may have to transport cattle to a central test point, and there could be a cost for the labour involved, etc.
Farmers caught up in the disease with “doubtful” or “positive” reactors can face significant additional costs to their businesses. They cannot sell their animals at market, which can result in them being forced to purchase expensive additional forage. This year, winter forage is at uneconomical prices because of a scarcity. The alternative is to sell breeding stock to abattoirs. Later, after a herd has been tested as “clear”, the farmer will face the cost of rearing replacement stock.
Stress on the family farm must be one of the greatest costs omitted from the published figures. It is simply impossible to quantify the cost to personal health. A farmer’s livelihood and years of selective breeding are at huge risk until two successive “clear” tests are achieved. During that period of uncertainty, farmers do not know if one more of their precious animals will be removed from the herd or whether the entire herd will be condemned. So, there is huge pressure on the family.
DARD maintains that the purpose of the programme is to eradicate TB. It spent some £23 million in 2011-12, but the absence of a strategy to achieve that purpose is evident. Thankfully, DARD has finally utilised European Commission funding of some €5 million a year to try to improve the situation and develop an eradication plan. However, what must be of particular concern is that, despite all this investment to date, the incidence of TB in Northern Ireland has increased by some 40% over the past 12 to 18 months. The general consensus is that, to date, the programme has failed, especially given that in some areas of Northern Ireland bovine TB is rife and that the overall rates remain far higher than they were in 1996, despite hundreds of millions of pounds being spent.
The Minister and, indeed, her predecessor have spent much time campaigning for reduced compensation fees, and I recall a figure of 75% being mentioned. That figure will potentially put many farmers out of business. Not only that, but many farmers may be doing everything right and the problems may be outside their control, yet such a proposal would have innocent farmers penalised because the problem may be in the local environment and local wildlife population.
The Department’s data indicate that 70% of compensation claims were for two or more claims, but I note that the Committee report questions the usefulness of the data without further contextual information. What exactly does the 70% represent? Is it ongoing claims as a herd develops other infections, or is it that the herd has gone clear and, a year later, there has been a second infection? It is important that there is a clear understanding of what the figures are and whether it represents a problem in the area or not. I certainly have no clarity on that issue.
The RSPCA indicates that 12% of badgers are infected with TB and that it can cause them wheeziness, loss of weight and even skin alterations but that others display no symptoms. It is important that all aspects are examined and progressed, but it is of great concern that the epidemiology on farms — what is the cause? — has not been pursued.
I understand that a report into farm biosecurity has been delayed. There appears to be a lack of urgency and a lack of action, and it is important that we take action to address the disease.