Introduction to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)

This page provides information and advice on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) including symptoms, what to do if BSE is suspected in your cattle as well as BSE testing of human consumption cattle.

What is BSE?

BSE is a brain disease of cattle for which there is no treatment. It is confirmed after the death of the animal by examining its brain tissue.

BSE is notifiable and there is a Departmental slaughter and compensation scheme.

How do I recognise BSE?

Most cattle with BSE gradually develop signs over a period of several weeks or months, although some can worsen very rapidly. Stress appears to bring on the signs more rapidly in some animals, particularly when brought in before calving or if transported. Most suspects will show several of the signs listed below, although some may also be seen in other diseases:

  • apprehension
  • nervousness (flighty)
  • reluctance to - cross concrete, turn corners, enter yards, go through doorways and permit milking
  • (occasionally) aggressive to cattle and humans
  • manic kicking when milked
  • head shy, with head held low
  • high stepping, particularly of hind legs
  • difficulty in rising (downer cows)
  • tremors under skin
  • loss of condition, weight or milk yield
  • increased licking of muzzle

How many confirmed cases of BSE in cattle have there been in Northern Ireland?

Between 1988 and 2014, a total of 2189 cattle in 1517 herds have been confirmed as cases of BSE.

What if BSE is suspected in my cattle?

If you suspect your cattle have BSE you must, by law, report a BSE suspect case to the Department immediately, by contacting your local Divisional Veterinary Office (DVO). If you are unsure, you may wish to take advice from your Private Veterinary Practitioner (PVP) who will notify the DVO if he suspects BSE. A Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Veterinary Officer will visit you as soon as possible and examine the animal after contact with the DVO has been made. 

Early reporting of BSE cases

By reporting early you:

  • allow more thorough clinical examination
  • reduce stress on suspect animal
  • reduce risk of injury to handlers 

If the Department's Veterinary Officer suspects that your animal may be suffering from BSE, you will be issued with a notice restricting movement of the animal from your farm. Milk from an affected or suspected animal must be disposed of in such a way that it cannot be consumed by a human or an animal, other than its own calf. Until the disease has been confirmed, the responsibility for the animal, including treatment, rests with you and your own Private Veterinary Practitioner (PVP).

Once the officer believes that the animal is affected by BSE, the valuation, slaughter and disposal of the animal will be arranged as soon as possible, at the Department's expense.

You will be paid compensation for the animal whether it is confirmed to have BSE or not based on its market value. However, there is an upper limit on the compensation payable and this is published by the Department each month. 

BSE compensation price for April 2015

The compensation rate payable for any animal suspected of having BSE, valued in the month of April 2015 will be either:

  • the animals assessed value; or
  • £1,226

whichever is lesser.

BSE testing of human consumption cattle

Since 1 March 2013 there is no longer a requirement to TSE test all cattle aged over 72 months before they are allowed to enter the food chain.

To note at risk cattle are still required to be tested it they over 48 months old.
The testing age was increased gradually since 2005 by the EU based on consideration of scientific evidence and assessment of the risks to human consumption.

Specified risk material, such as brain and spinal cord, which are most likely to harbour BSE infection, are removed from all cattle before they enter the food chain.

Cattle born or reared in the UK before 1 August 1996 or imported into the UK before 1 August 1996 are excluded from entering the human food chain. Such cattle are restricted on farm until natural death or they are killed appropriately and the carcases rendered.

Cohorts of BSE positive cases

Animals born into or reared in the same herd (within time limits) as BSE positive animals have to be destroyed. Compensation will be paid by the Department.

A requirement under EC Regulation 999/2001 as read with Commission Decision 411/2007/EC is for the cohort animals, born on or after 1 August 1996, of BSE positive cases to be identified, slaughtered and completely destroyed. The definition of a “cohort” is set out in the EC Regulation and means a group of bovine animals which includes both:

animals born in the same herd as the affected bovine animal within 12 months preceding or following the date of birth of that animal; and
animals which at any time during the first year of their lives were reared together with the affected bovine animal during the first year of its life.

On notification to the Department of a clinical suspect BSE animal, or the receipt by the Department of a positive result to a rapid screening test in respect of an animal sampled under the TSE monitoring programme, cohort animals born on or after 1 August 1996 are automatically identified on the Department’s Animal & Public Health Information computer System (APHIS) and a notice is served restricting their movement off-farm. Restricted cohort animals remain the responsibility of the herd keeper. If BSE is not confirmed in the suspect animal the movement restrictions will be withdrawn from the suspect animal and those animals which are not confirmed as cohorts.

Where BSE is confirmed in the suspect animal those animals which are confirmed as cohorts will be valued on-farm and slaughtered. A brain stem sample will be taken from the cohort carcase for BSE testing and the carcase destroyed. Cohort animals cannot go for human consumption. Compensation for cohort animals slaughtered by the Department is paid at the market value.

Offspring of BSE positive cases

A requirement under EC Regulation 999/2001 and the domestic Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies Regulations (NI) 2010 is that certain offspring of BSE positive cases are identified, slaughtered and completely destroyed.

Tracing

On notification to the Department of a suspect BSE animal, or on receipt by the Department of a positive rapid screening test result in respect of an animal sampled under the TSE monitoring programme, relevant offspring of the animal concerned are automatically identified on the Department’s Animal & Public Health Information computer System (APHIS) and a notice restricting movement off-farm is issued. Restricted offspring animals remain the responsibility of the herd keeper.

If BSE is confirmed in the suspect animal the restricted offspring animals born within 2 years prior to, or after, clinical onset of BSE in the dam will be valued and slaughtered by the Department. A brain stem sample will be taken from the offspring animal for BSE testing and the carcase destroyed. If BSE is not confirmed in the dam, the movement restrictions will be withdrawn and no offspring animals would require slaughter.

Compensation

Compensation for offspring animals, slaughtered by DARD, is paid at the market value.

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