Cattle movements in Northern Ireland form a robust network: implications for disease management

Emma Brown, Adele H. Marshall, Hannah J. Mitchell, Andrew W. Bryne

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The movements of undetected infected animals can facilitate long-distance pathogen spread, making control and eradication difficult by (re)infecting disease-free populations. Characterising movement patterns is essential in understanding pathogen spread and how potential interventions, particularly animal movement restrictions, could help as a control mechanism. In Northern Ireland (NI), cattle movements are important contributors to a significant portion of agricultural trade. They can be disrupted due to statutory interventions, for example, during bovine tuberculosis (bTB) control. Identifying populations at risk of becoming infected would allow for improved resource allocation. This could be through targeting herds with an above-average risk of becoming infected or spreading (amplifying) infection, and restricting their movement to manage future outbreaks.

In this study, cattle movements were investigated using social network analysis (SNA) at the monthly temporal scale across NI during 2010-2015. Targeted and random herd restrictions were compared and their impact on the structure and connectivity of the networks’ was assessed (e.g. connected component subgraphs). This work was contextualised in relation to bTB, the most persistent infectious disease currently impacting agriculture in NI, where reduced connectivity would represent potential reduced vulnerability from infection introduction.

There was seasonal variation in network size and level of connectivity with spring and autumn being the largest and most connected due to common farming practices in NI. Across the study period, there was limited inter-annual variation in global network metrics. On average there were 6.28 movements between each pair of nodes each month, low reciprocity (mean of 0.155) and the networks were moderately accessible with an average path length of 4.28. Movements were not confined to within each disease management area but frequently occurred between these areas (mean assortativity of -0.0731) and herds with high degree interacted with herds of low degree (mean assortativity of -0.351). The Giant Weakly Connected Component (GWCC) spanned most of the networks (between 75% and 100% of nodes); however the Giant Strongly Connected Component (GSCC) included, at most, 23% of the network. There was heterogeneous contributions across NI with little participation in the GSCC from some disease management areas, and the GSCC was comprised predominantly of ‘beef breeders’, ‘beef rearers’, and ‘other/mixed’ type herds. Targeted restrictions were more effective at fragmenting the network than randomly restricting movements when 25% of nodes or more were removed. Cattle networks in NI are extremely interconnected and robust to movement restrictions, suggesting potential vulnerability to movement-facilitated pathogen spread, such as bTB.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104740
Number of pages9
JournalPreventive veterinary medicine
Early online date31 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - 01 Oct 2019


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