The Agriculture Minister has announced a plan to wipe out badgers that have bovine tuberculosis.
Michelle O’Neill has announced tests will be conducted into how badgers infected with bovine TB, which costs millions of pounds annually, can be culled.
Officials will test badgers, vaccinating and releasing those that test negative. Those that test positive will be “removed”.
The plan could lead to a healthier badger population, she said.
It is estimated that the administrative cost of TB to Northern Ireland is £8.25m a year.
The minister told the agriculture committee she had asked her officials to design specific wildlife intervention research.
She said: “This approach will focus on removing diseased badgers and protecting uninfected ones. This balanced approach would avoid killing healthy badgers and could lead in time to a healthier badger population incapable of transmitting TB to cattle,” Ms O’Neill said.
Farmers hailed the move as a positive step.
Ulster Farmers Union president Harry Sinclair said: “It is pointless to continue with the current situation where cattle go down with TB, the animals are slaughtered, and the farm re-stocks and eventually goes down again with TB because the disease remained on the farm in wildlife.
“Whilst the minister’s announcement is a tangible step forward, farmers will be concerned that it could entail a lengthy five-year research programme. It is our view that the programme should be regularly evaluated and if the results are favourable then the entire project should be rolled out across the industry.
“It is also our expectation that TB compensation rates to farmers should remain in place.”
Green MLA Steven Agnew welcomed the vaccination programme.
The Northern Ireland Badger Group also said it welcomed the minister’s announcement of a science-led badger strategy.
Badgers are Ireland’s largest land carnivore and have been present on the island for 6,000 years. They are stout animals with a coarse grey coat of fur and a small, white-tipped tail. They can easily excavate extensive networks of tunnels and chambers, called setts, which they use for shelter and breeding. Badgers and their setts are protected by law.