image captionHelen Macdonald says that Geronimo is healthy and does not have TB

Environment Secretary George Eustice has defended a controversial decision to put down an alpaca that has tested positive for bovine tuberculosis twice.

Geronimo was condemned to death by a High Court judge last month.

But his owner disputes the test results – and more than 90,000 people have signed a petition to save him.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Eustice – a former farmer – said he knew it was "soul-destroying" having to put animals down, but it was necessary.

He said bovine TB was an "insidious disease" that the UK has been wrestling with over the past decade.

"There has been a great deal of focus on the case of Geronimo the alpaca last week," he said. "However, each week, on average, we have to remove more than 500 cattle from herds due to infection in England alone.

"Behind every one of those cases is a farmer who has suffered loss and tragedy.

"Farmers understand that infected animals are a risk to the remainder of their herd, so while the loss of individual animals is always a tragedy, the farming communities have worked with our government vets in this arduous but necessary endeavour."

Mr Eustice gave an example from his family who own a herd of South Devon cattle, and recalled how one of his father's cows, Rose, had to be put down. "It was soul-destroying," he said.

media captionGeronimo's owner Helen Macdonald says the animal should be spared

Geronimo's owner, veterinary nurse Helen Macdonald who breeds alpacas at her farm in Wickwar, south Gloucestershire, claims the tests used were inaccurate. She pointed out that Geronimo had tested negative on four occasions in New Zealand.

But Mr Eustice said the tests used were more than 99% accurate when detecting positive tests – and that the tests in New Zealand were "far less reliable".

How has Geronimo been tested so far?

  • Geronimo the alpaca has been tested twice with the Enferplex blood test, says the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • It is the test that was requested by the British Alpaca Society at the time, George Eustice says
  • The UK government says this is the same test used on "a prize bull"
  • Owner Helen Macdonald says there is insufficient evidence as to the accuracy of this relatively new test when used on alpacas
  • Defra says Enferplex has a 0.34% chance of showing a false positive

Earlier this week, Ms Macdonald described her four-year legal battle with Defra as an "abject hell".

"I don't want Geronimo's last moments to be of being caught by a man who will put a gun to his head before he's shot," she said.

A second warrant to execute the alpaca came into effect on Thursday.

Defra has 30 days to visit Ms Macdonald's farm and put him down, which means a contractor could legally force entry to her property and shoot Geronimo, she said.

What is bovine tuberculosis?

  • Bovine TB is a chronic, infectious disease caused by a slow-growing bacterium, Mycobacterium bovis
  • All mammals, including humans, are susceptible to bovine TB
  • Infection is mainly through inhalation or ingestion of bacteria
  • Transmission can occur via nose to nose contact and via contact with saliva, urine, faeces and milk
  • The bacterium can remain viable in the environment from a few days to many months

Source: UK Government and TB Hub

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