Guest blog: Badgers - nothing is black and white

Badger - Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography

On 5th March the Government announced it would phase out its intensive badger culling strategy and move more towards non-lethal interventions, such as cattle vaccination. Does this mean there is light at the end of the tunnel for both cattle and badgers? And what can we do to play our part?

Background

Bovine TB (bTB) and the badger cull policy are complex and emotive issues that affect the lives of many farming families and cause great concern amongst conservationists, scientists and badger protection groups.  Thousands of cattle and badgers have been killed in an attempt to control it, and the Government estimates bTB costs the taxpayer around £100 million a year.

The Government has identified three bTB risk areas in England[1].  Low risk areas (LRA) lie in the north, east and south-east of England with high risk areas (HRA) covering the south-west and west-midlands  Edge areas (EA) lie in-between.  Each risk area has a different strategy to combat bTB.  Somerset lies within the HRA and so parts of the county are subject to intensive badger culling.

Badger in the evening sunlight

adult badger - Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

As an alternative strategy, scientific research has proven that there are significant benefits in vaccinating badgers[1] [2] and there are several vaccination projects licensed in England, many run by Badger Groups and Wildlife Trusts, working in collaboration with farmers including Somerset where, since 2012, Somerset Badger Group’s dedicated trained lay vaccinators and volunteers have been collaborating with farmers and landowners and other organisations offering low cost badger vaccination and sharing expertise.

Since Somerset lies in an HRA, Somerset Badger Group receives no financial help from the Government whereas in the EA the Government financially supports badger vaccination through its Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme[3].

Between 2013-2018 Government figures show 67,318 badgers have been killed through licensed badger culls, including 7,966 in Somerset.  Figures for the 2019 culls have not yet been published but it is expected that over 45,000 badgers will have been killed, potentially taking the total number killed to over 100,000.

The total estimated cost of the culls to taxpayers is £60 Million and this does not include the cost to participating farmers.  Areas which have completed 4 years of intensive culling can apply for a 5-year supplementary badger cull licence[1].  West  Somerset, West Gloucestershire and one area of Dorset now have supplementary cull licences in place.  An independent review[2] of bTB strategy was carried out by Professor Sir Charles Godfray in 2018.  It recommended re-examining cattle vaccination and that it was highly desirable to move from culling to vaccination of badgers.   More accurate bTB diagnostic tests for cattle have now been developed which would support the deployment of a cattle vaccine. The Government’s response[3] to the Godfray Review was published on 5th March 2020.

What does the Government’s Next Steps Strategy mean for cattle and badgers?

Recent news headlines about the Government’s response heralded the end of the badger cull with a shift towards non-lethal controls instead, i.e. vaccination of both cattle and badgers.  The Government’s top priority is to develop and deploy a cattle vaccine within the next 5 years.  It also intends increasing the use of more accurate bTB testing, strengthening controls over infected herds and incentivising farming best practices for managing bTB risks. This I believe is a major step in the right direction and should eventually mean that many fewer cattle need to be killed prematurely.   

Badger

Badger - Andrew Mason

It is important to note the strategy does not mean that badger culling will stop.  Intensive badger culls already take place in over 57% of the HRA and the strategy confirms an intention by 2021 to increase the area by another 20%[1], and to continue to issue additional 5-year supplementary cull licences until badger vaccination can be effectively deployed[2].  Thus, for the foreseeable future many more thousands of badgers will continue to be killed and it is difficult to know how much of Somerset will be affected.

Longer term, the Government is looking at 4 different badger vaccination schemes[3] including vaccination in areas where 4 years of culling has taken place, starting with a pilot.  There is also a commitment to introduce a programme to train more lay vaccinators.  However, their plan to introduce ‘complementary’ vaccination within a cull area and to allow more culling in EAs raises legitimate concerns over how to ensure already vaccinated badgers are not killed.

On the positive side, the Government’s plans ‘to develop a scheme to support badger vaccination in areas where farmers have decided not to cull or have been unable to organise sufficiently to do so’[4] opens up a real opportunity for those farmers to consider working collaboratively with groups like ours and other organisations to make this planned Government backed scheme a reality.

In conclusion, with the Government’s commitment towards a deployable cattle vaccine by 2025 and the phasing out of intensive badger culling, replacing it with badger vaccination, I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel for both cattle and badgers.  It offers a real opportunity for increased collaboration between farmers, other landowners, badger groups, wildlife trusts and other organisations to help deliver a more humane, non-lethal control of bTB which will significantly benefit farmers, their cattle and our wildlife.

 

Vanessa Mason, Chair, Somerset Badger Group     11.03.20

 

[1] Bovine TB Risk Map for Great Britain - https://tbhub.co.uk/preventing-tb-breakdowns/bovine-tb-risk-map/

[2] Chambers, M.A. and others (2011) Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccination reduces the severity and progression of tuberculosis in badgers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278, 1913-1920

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2010.1953

[3] Carter, S.P. and others (2012) BCG Vaccination Reduces Risk of Tuberculosis Infection in Vaccinated Badgers and Unvaccinated Badger Cubs. PLoS ONE, 7, e49833.

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0049833

[4] Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme 2 (BEVS2) - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/badger-edge-vaccination-scheme-2-bevs-2

[5] Bovine TB: authorisation for supplementary badger control in 2019 - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bovine-tb-authorisation-for-supplementary-badger-control-in-2019

[6] Bovine TB Strategy Review 2018 - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/756942/tb-review-final-report-corrected.pdf

[7] A strategy for achieving Bovine Tuberculosis Free Status for England: 2018 review - government response - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-strategy-for-achieving-bovine-tuberculosis-free-status-for-england-2018-review-government-response

[8] A strategy for achieving Bovine Tuberculosis Free Status for England: 2018 review - government response page30 para 67 - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/870414/bovine-tb-strategy-review-government-response.pdf

[9] A strategy for achieving Bovine Tuberculosis Free Status for England: 2018 review - government response page30 para 72(a) - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/870414/bovine-tb-strategy-review-government-response.pdf

[10] A strategy for achieving Bovine Tuberculosis Free Status for England: 2018 review - government response page30 para 70 (a – d) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/870414/bovine-tb-strategy-review-government-response.pdf

[11] A strategy for achieving Bovine Tuberculosis Free Status for England: 2018 review - government response page30 para 71 (e) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/870414/bovine-tb-strategy-review-government-response.pdf