Badger Vaccination

Will it reduce culling - No it will not

Over a period of many years the best scientific evidence available has repeatedly continued to demonstrate that the reservoir of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in badgers is very low. The statistics obtained from badgers tested have consistently shown that the rate of "infectious bTB" present is under 4% and the likelihood of transmission to cattle as a result of this is extremely low.

We, as a Group, firmly believe that badger vaccination is a positive step in helping to create a healthier badger population and will clearly be of benefit in minimising any reservoir of the disease that may otherwise occur. Indeed, Defra funded research has shown that vaccinating badgers (which don't have bTB) can significantly reduce the risk of such animals, (and any cubs that they may subsequently have), from contracting the disease. Vaccinations are only allowed to take place in the period from 1st May to 30th November in any year. In August 2011 a small number of Defra accredited lay vaccinators were trained from organisations across the country.

Steve Hawkes, from our Group, was one of the first to successfully complete the four day course and achieve the necessary standards in respect of the written and practical fieldwork examinations to gain full accreditation in badger trapping and vaccination. In late October of that year the first trapping and vaccination of badgers in Warwickshire took place. The following year, in addition to carrying out surveying, trapping, and vaccinations across three different sites in the county on behalf of our Group, Steve also assisted Warwickshire Wildlife Trust who were embarking on vaccination projects too. This involved surveying two of their sites, obtaining the necessary licence, carrying out preparatory trap-siting, and pre-baiting work, and doing the subsequent successful vaccinations which followed.

Further vaccination projects were completed over the following years 2013 to 2015 but vaccinations were halted between 2016 and 2017 due to a shortage of BCG vaccine. New supplies were sourced for use from 2018 when vaccinations were resumed and over 2018 and 2019 further highly successful vaccination projects have been completed over five different sites. The total number of badgers that Steve has inoculated in the seven years that such projects have taken place in Warwickshire since 2011 is now well in excess of 100. Vaccination helps to make our badger population more healthy but we do not feel that this has very much of an impact upon the situation in relation to bTB in cattle. We believe strongly that the long-term solution to this lies firstly in much more rigorous and frequent better testing of cattle. (The current test is only around 60% accurate at best in identifying positive reactors within a herd, thereby leaving many animals in the herd carrying the infection). In addition to improved testing measures tougher controls over the movement of cattle, especially those reared in bTB hotspots should be implemented. Much improved bio-security procedures wherever cattle are kept should also be enforced.

Along with the Badger Trust, most of the country's leading scientists and vets, and other major conservation organisations, we strongly oppose the Government's ongoing inhumane slaughter of badgers as a way of controlling the spread of bTB.

But how do the recently elected government view the bTB issue and what is planned in relation to culling of badgers, vaccination of badgers and cattle, and other measures from now onwards? George Eustice, now the environment secretary and former Minister of State at Defra for five years, comes from a farming background in Cornwall and the family have a herd of South Devon cattle amongst other livestock. He has previous "form" in relation to demonising the badger and cherry-picking of statistics to suit the culling argument. In early March 2020 he announced that the government would be phasing out intensive culling in favour of vaccinating badgers and cattle. He suggested that culling would be phased out as their relative four-year cycles end and the government intends to deploy a cattle vaccination within five years. He also said that vaccinating badgers in affected areas will reduce populations with the disease in a bid to eradicate it. However he added that the government will retain the ability to introduce new cull zones where evidence points to an ongoing role of badgers in maintaining the disease. All of this was announced under the title of "Defra (2020) Next steps for the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England. The government’s response to the Godfray strategy review of 2018".

Most of the newspapers ran dramatic stories, talking of a seismic shift and U-turn in government thinking on badger culling and bTB. There was also talk of a "shift in political emphasis", a "rowing back" and "viable exit strategy". It was as if they had failed to read and digest properly some of the crucial details buried within the 109 pages. Unsurprisingly, some organisations and individuals stated that the report was to be welcomed and offered hope whilst others were rather more cautious or cynical. Let’s unpick what actually happened and what it might mean for badgers and the efforts to stop badger culling.

Does this mean a shift away from badger culling and towards badger vaccination? No, not really. Vaccination of badgers was always a part of the strategy, even if a neglected one. The 2018 Godfray review called for a move away from lethal control but only by way of conducting a comparison between supplementary culling and vaccination. This would be controversial and expensive to carry out, take many years, and lead to more speculation and bickering over modelled results. Most would advocate vaccination over culling, but the level of vaccination, up to a few thousand badgers a year, does not make it an acceptable trade-off for continuation of mass culling for another decade. Especially when it will never be possible to attribute changes in bTB herd breakdown rates to badger vaccination, rather than any one of a number of other interventions. This is exactly the same as is happening now with badger culling.

But the badger culling is coming to an end isn’t it? No, absolutely NOT, many having been misled by what they have read or have been told. Nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow the public have been conned into thinking culling is ending because of the generality of the Godfray group review. The facts are that we are now at "peak cull", over 40 cull areas are in-hand and much of the High Risk Area is being culled. Last year, this year, and next year will each see around 40,000 or more badgers shot in more (futile) culls. After that, culling tails off, but in reality the truth of that is only because they are running out of badgers to kill. 70% of badgers across English "cattle country" will have been killed. Even so, don’t expect killings to drop below 15,000 at any time before 2030 - by which time up to 300,000 badgers (the vast majority in good health) will have died. It could be fewer, (but not much fewer), as culling starts up in the Edge Areas and potentially becomes more widespread in the Low Risk Areas too as the failed policy causes more spread eastwards. The fact is, it is business as usual with the government killing machine. This is Defra keeping to a plan which, as reported in Farmers Weekly on 11th March 2020, is to maintain the badger population to one badger per square km, or below, to reduce the possibility of badger to cattle bTB transmission.

But the government accept badger culling isn’t working, don’t they? No, quite the opposite in fact. All Defra offer is deception, cherry picked data, and selective use of models. Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) has been fought in court for three years and whatever you believe about the science, bTB went through the roof in Gloucestershire in 2018, (the first year of SBC) with a 130% increase. Then in 2019 it remained at the same levels as before culling started. Yet the Defra response repeats time after time only the equivocal study stating there was a reduction in Gloucestershire of 66% by 2017. This being based on questionable modelling by a small number of government paid scientists. Why do they do this? Simply because claiming success and progress is the Defra justification for continuing culling. This is despite the then Chief Scientific Advisor Ian Boyd, confirming in legal papers in June 2019 that there is no way to determine the direct effects of badger culling from individual areas, or areas combined after many years. The only stop button is if bTB falls away.

Why do Defra mislead us? Defra are desperate to retain credibility on this issue, and are trapped within their own failed policy and bad epidemiology advice. They surely realise by now that badger culling with other actions is not delivering bTB control and that the problem remains with cattle testing, lax cattle movement controls and poor biosecurity (hygiene) measures in place wherever cattle are. Responsibility for bTB policy within the government has changed hands over the last couple of years. Nobody wants to own it. The Defra response now continues to show all the signs of a government refusing to deal with their past oversights and misjudgements. It is bereft of the will to take charge of the immediate measures needed including pre-movement testing with modern blood tests, the only measure that can drive infection rates down in the short term.

So does the report just repackage old policy with no good outcome? The sorts of cattle measures being promoted are positive, but very long promised and overdue and they don’t go anywhere near far enough. A test trial to distinguish infected as opposed to vaccinated animals (known as a DIVA test) to enable cattle vaccination would be welcome, but another five year wait to find out beckons. Six monthly bTB testing is being expanded in the High Risk Areas "over the next few years" in addition to the Edge Areas. This was a no-brainer in 2012 but now can’t take place all at one go because, quite simply, too many bTB positive cattle would be detected. There is suggestion of compulsory post movement testing in the Low Risk Areas and Edge Areas only. This should have been mandatory everywhere as it is precisely how Scotland eliminated bTB by 2009 to become declared TB-Free. There is a suggestion to incentivise biosecurity by a compensation penalty for those who don’t adhere to biosecurity recommendations. This has been done in Wales for a while and can only help. There is also talk of improved slurry management, which is good, but large scale applied research is needed, not just small scale investigations. Most noticeable in respect of all the above is a lack of detail as to the extent of any action, nor a clear timetable for implementation.

Where does badger protection really stand after this report? The wait continues regarding permission for the case against SBC in the Supreme Court. A hope for positive news remains. An end to this unscientific experiment has been signalled but it should never have started. The recently released Defra report reflects more than anything, a stubborn entrenchment of its thinking, their lack of new ideas or acceptance of external criticisms and how badly they are stuck in failing policy. There is desperation in them clinging to the 2019 APHA "Downs" modelling paper when they know the conclusions are unreliable.

What does this say about Defra’s competence? Many badger groups have worked incredibly hard on badger vaccination which does provide clan immunity. But this does not necessarily prevent these badgers being shot if they stray beyond an ownership boundary. Unfortunately there is no evidence that badger vaccination assists in bTB control and mass vaccination gives life to the ‘finger of blame’ that points to badgers being heavily involved in the transmission of bTB to cows, which is uncertain at best. Indeed evidence indicates that some 95% of herd breakdowns to bTB are through cattle passing it onto other cattle. Badgers are still being unscientifically blamed for a significant proportion of cattle bTB infection, leading to a nonsensical question on the potential benefit of culling versus vaccination. Never in a million years will badger vaccination protect cattle from bTB, it can only protect badgers. Cattle need their own vaccine. The very recent suggestion by Defra that badgers should be snared to facilitate vaccination indicates quite clearly their lack of understanding of the physical injuries inflicted by snares. Snare restraints must be opposed at all cost.

What are the Group's future plans in respect of badger vaccination work? Warwickshire Badger Group plan to carry out further projects to inoculate badgers against bTB on an ongoing, yearly basis. This means that, at times, there may be an opportunity for new and existing members to help Steve Hawkes in the extensive survey and cage-trap work which precedes vaccination. It is important and satisfying work that should help with badger conservation. Although vaccination is only permitted to take place between May and November in any given year, the very important survey side of things, (finding active setts in each project area), can be carried out all through the year. It is very possible that the current coronavirus situation (as at 26 March 2020) will result in badger vaccinations for 2020 being postponed - but that is something we will find out in due course.

Steve Hawkes
26 March 2020