Bovine TB

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is an infectious disease of cattle. It is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis), which can also infect and cause TB in badgers, deer, goats, pigs, camelids (llamas and alpacas), dogs and cats, as well as many other mammals.

Bovine TB is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted from affected animals to people, causing a condition very similar to human TB. However, the risk of people contracting TB from cattle in Great Britain is currently considered very low.

This page aims to provide a comprehensive introduction to our work to tackle the disease.

Latest news

28 February 2011: Bovine disease compensation payable during March 2011

18 February 2011: Provisional TB statistics for Great Britain are now available for November 2010

31 December 2010: Statistics for TB in non-bovine species are now available

11 November 2010 – Defra launches new support service for TB affected farmers

8 November 2010 – the following material has been made public:

  • Safety and efficacy data from the studies used to license the injectable badger vaccine, BadgerBCG
  • Computer modelling comparing badger control strategies for reducing bovine TB in cattle in England
    To view this material, and supporting information, please see the Research section of this page

15 September 2010 – the following material has been published:

14 September 2010: Details of a training course in trapping and vaccinating badgers as part of the Badger Vaccine Deployment Project have today been published on the Fera website

Earlier news

Key facts and figures

  • Bovine TB is a largely regional problem, concentrated in the West Midlands and South West of England.
  • 93.6% of cattle herds in England were officially bTB-free on 31 December 2009.
  • 25,557 cattle were slaughtered for bTB control in England in 2009 (compared with 27,455 in 2008).
  • Government spend on bovine TB in 2009/10 was about £63 million in England.
  • Monthly statistics are published

What is the case for government action?

Alongside maintaining vigilance over risks to public health, the main rationale for government intervention is to mitigate the economic impact of the disease on the farming industry and to meet EU legal requirements.

The original reason for government’s involvement in tackling the disease was to protect public health. Pasteurisation of cows’ milk, together with a comprehensive cattle testing/slaughter programme, and inspection of cattle carcases at slaughterhouses, have significantly reduced (to a very low level) the risks to human health.

Bovine TB is having a serious impact on many farm businesses and families, especially in the West and South West of England. Thousands of cattle are slaughtered each year at huge financial and emotional cost to farmers. The area of England affected by bovine TB has grown from isolated pockets in the late 1980s to cover large areas of the West and South West of England. The costs to the taxpayer are rising year by year and there is a strong case for early effective action to turn this around.

No single measure will be enough to tackle the disease on its own. We need to use every tool in the toolbox. There is a significant reservoir of infection in badgers and evidence suggests, without addressing the problem in the badger population, it will not be possible to eradicate bTB in cattle. Cattle measures will remain the foundation of our bTB eradication programme but we also need to deal with the disease in badgers. The farming industry, the veterinary profession and government need to work in partnership if we are to eradicate the disease.

Current situation and background

There has been a long-term (over 25 years) increasing trend in bTB incidence in cattle, driven by both cattle-to-cattle and badger-to-cattle transmission.

A wide range of measures is in place to tackle, and reduce further spread, of the disease, including:

  • Regular cattle herd surveillance testing
  • Slaughter of test positive ‘reactor’ cattle
  • Herd movement restrictions on bTB breakdown herds
  • Zero tolerance of overdue herd tests
  • Use of additional, more sensitive diagnostic tests
  • Pre-movement testing (paid for by farmers) of cattle from high risk herds
  • Farmer advice, including husbandry guidance

Badgers and bovine TB

The Coalition has committed, as part of a package of measures, to developing affordable options for a carefully-managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine TB.‪‪‪

Defra has been looking at all the key relevant evidence, including published scientific evidence from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) and subsequent post-trial analyses, to draw up proposals, which have been published for public consultation.

The government’s proposal is to issue licences to farmers/landowners who wish to cull and/or vaccinate badgers at their own expense. These licences would be subject to strict licence criteria to ensure badger control is done effectively, humanely and with high regard for animal welfare.

We welcome your comments and responses to the consultation (our website also contains details of how to submit your response):

As part of Defra’s commitment to tackling the issue of bovine TB, government has invested in a significant research programme looking into the development of vaccines for both cattle and badgers.

A Badger Vaccine Deployment Project (BVDP) is being funded by Defra to assess and maximise the viability of using injectable badger vaccine and to help us move towards the long-term goal of an oral badger vaccine. Badgers on up to 100km2 of land in Gloucestershire are being trapped and vaccinated over 5 years using the injectable badger vaccine licenced in March 2010. The deployment project aims to build confidence in the principle and practicalities of vaccination.

Testing for bTB

The primary screening test for bTB in cattle in Great Britain is the Single Intradermal Comparative Cervical Tuberculin (SICCT) test, commonly known as the tuberculin “skin test”.

This is used throughout the world to screen cattle, other animals, and in a modified version, people for bTB. It is the internationally accepted standard for detection of infection with M. bovis. All cattle herds are subject to regular ‘routine’ testing, the frequency of which is based on the local disease incidence e.g. herds in high bTB risk areas are tested annually.

The more sensitive gamma interferon blood test (g-IFN test) is used in addition to the SICCT test in prescribed circumstances. In addition, Pre-Movement testing is a statutory requirement: cattle 42 days old and over moving from a 1 or 2 yearly tested herd must have tested negative to a bTB test within 60 days prior to movement.

Cattle Compensation

Government compensation is paid to owners of cattle compulsorily slaughtered for bTB control purposes. Since February 2006 compensation in England has been determined primarily using table values, which reflect the average sales price of bovine animals in 47 different categories. The categories are based on the animal’s age, gender, type (dairy or beef) and status (pedigree or non-pedigree).

Other farmed/domesticated species

In England, bTB is rarely self-sustaining in most species other than cattle and badgers. Nevertheless, Defra has controls in place to deal with suspected or confirmed cases in other species.

TB in wild and captive deer is a notifiable disease under the Tuberculosis (Deer) Order 1989 and suspicion of disease should be reported to Animal Health (AH). Following investigation, movement restrictions can be imposed on farmed animals. Defra is currently reviewing the controls for non-bovine species, in particular South American Camelids (llamas and alpacas), goats and deer.

Bovine TB occasionally affects cats and dogs and owners should seek advice from their vet. More about TB in other species.

Research

A significant amount (over £8.7 million in 2009/2010) is spent on a wide-ranging bovine TB research programme with a portfolio comprising projects looking at vaccine development; licensing studies; new diagnostic tests and disease epidemiology to support vaccine use.

Vaccination of either cattle or wildlife is considered a potential long-term policy option for reducing the risk of bTB in Great Britain. As such, a substantial part of the Defra research programme focuses on this.

The injectable badger vaccine, BadgerBCG, was granted a Marketing Authorisation by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate in March 2010 to be used for the active immunisation of badgers to reduce lesions of tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium bovis. The safety and efficacy data required for licensing the vaccine were generated from the following studies:

The laboratory studies with captive badgers demonstrated that vaccination of badgers by injection with BCG significantly reduces the progression, severity and excretion of Mycobacterium bovis infection.  A key finding of the field study, conducted over four years in a naturally infected population of over 800 wild badgers in Gloucestershire, was that vaccination resulted in a four-fold (74%) reduction in the proportion of wild badgers testing positive to the antibody blood test for TB in badgers. The blood test is not an absolute indicator of protection from disease so the field results cannot tell us the degree of vaccine efficacy.  While the findings indicate a clear effect of vaccination on badger disease, data from the laboratory and field studies do not lend themselves to giving a definitive figure for BadgerBCG vaccine efficacy.

A scientific paper summarising the results of the injectable BCG badger vaccine research has been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Computer modelling (PDF 478 KB) by the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), completed since the publication of the consultation document, examined the strategies contained in the consultation proposals.  These were using badger culling combined with vaccination (i.e. ring-vaccination around an area of culling) and comparing these to culling-only, vaccination-only and do-nothing strategies.  The Fera modelling assumed a vaccine efficacy of 70%.

The results of the modelling were that:

a) A combined strategy of vaccination in a ring around a culling area was more successful than the cull-only strategy, which in turn was more successful than the vaccination-only strategy, both in reducing the number of TB infected badgers and cattle herd breakdowns.  Ring vaccination partly mitigated the detrimental effects of culling.  However, the combined strategy requires about twice as much effort than either single approach done in isolation.

b) Culling of badgers should continue for at least four years to realise a clear benefit.  However, low rates of land access for culling, or low culling efficiency, or the early cessation of a culling strategy was likely to lead to an overall increase in cattle herd breakdowns (whilst this is not the case for vaccination).

An injectable badger vaccine was authorised for use in March 2010. Work to develop useable cattle and oral badger vaccines is ongoing. Cattle vaccines are currently prohibited under EU legislation as they are based on BCG, which interferes with the statutory primary diagnostic test, the tuberculin skin test. Vaccinated cattle would therefore react as if infected and herds could not be declared Officially TB Free (OTF).

We are therefore developing a diagnostic test to differentiate between Infected and Vaccinated Animals (a so-called ‘DIVA test’). Changes will be required to EU legislation to allow this test to be used in place of or alongside the tuberculin skin test to confer OTF status

Further details of Defra’s TB research projects:

The Bovine TB Eradication Group for England (TBEG)

TBEG was established in 2008 to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on bovine TB and its eradication. The membership of the group includes representatives from the farming industry, the veterinary profession, Defra and Animal Health.

Advice and support for farmers

The provision of better support for bTB-affected farm businesses has been identified as a priority by TBEG. In October 2009 TBEG recommended a number of new measures aimed at helping owners of bTB restricted herds to maintain their businesses and avoid some of the practical problems created by movement controls.

Farmers wishing to find out more about bTB should contact their local AH office and/or refer to any of the TB In Your Herd publications.

For bTB affected cattle farmers we are also developing a package of government-funded advice (based on the latest scientific evidence) covering veterinary; biosecurity; and business issues. Farmers can now access free business support, through the Farm Crisis Network (FCN). FCN agents will provide practical support, sign-post businesses to sources of other more specialist advice, and for those in greatest financial need a dedicated FCN Business Support Group will advise farmers on their options.

Working in partnership, Defra, NFU, Animal Health and Fera have developed TB biosecurity training events for farmers which will be rolled out, across England, later this year.

We are also working with the profession to deliver enhanced private veterinary support. A pilot scheme has been launched in the South West where farmers under TB restrictions for 12 months or more, as well as those experiencing their first breakdown, will qualify for a visit from private vets trained in all aspects of TB: the vets will provide tailored advice to help farmers understand how TB spreads and what can de done on their farm to reduce risks. Joint TB meetings for private vets and their farming clients are also being trialed with two events held in the Midlands so far.

Support provided under the advice scheme complies with EU state Aid rules.

Defra has worked with NFU and Animal Health to develop a series of ‘quick guides’ for farmers affected by TB, sign-posting them to a range of additional support and providing contacts for further TB advice. These form part of the ‘TB In Your Herd publications

Relevant legislation and regulations

Key publications and documents

Page last modified: 2 March 2011