Government-backed badger vaccination programmes aimed at tackling the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle are set to be rolled out in England.
The move is seen by opponents as the “beginning of the end” of the controversial badger culls. Plans for a national cull rollout were abandoned in April, after independent scientists concluded the night-time shoots had been neither effective nor humane.
Farming minister George Eustice met wildlife and farming groups on Tuesday to discuss how they could set up the new badger vaccination programmes and offered to provide vaccines, cages, training and four years of matched funding.
The projects will target the edges of TB hotspots, such as the south-west, in order to create buffer zones of badger immunity and prevent TB from spreading. The edge areas run from Hampshire to Oxfordshire to Nottinghamshire and up to Cheshire. More than 26,000 TB-infected cattle were slaughtered in 2013.
Eustice told the Guardian: “Bovine TB is devastating our dairy and cattle industry and is continuing to spread across the country. There is a badger vaccine available which could have a big role in helping to prevent the spread of bovine TB to new areas of the country.”
He added: “If we can encourage groups to take up our offer and develop widespread vaccination projects, it could go a long way to preventing bovine TB spreading any further, and mean we can concentrate on driving back the disease in areas where it is rife.”
Ministers have also been tightening restrictions on the movement of cattle since the start of 2013 and the latest data suggests TB infections in cattle are falling as a result.
Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, said: “I think it is the beginning of the end of a national badger cull. Farmers are looking for alternatives and this means you have to put more effort into badger vaccination.”
He said: “Vaccination has huge public support and could see relations improve between farmers and wildlife groups. In contrast, the cull has little public support and is seen as wasteful, indiscriminate and cruel. This is a positive use of taxpayers’ money rather than the wasteful use of it for culls.”
Prof Rosie Woodroffe, part of the team behind a decade-long badger culling trial that concluded culling could make “no meaningful contribution” to TB control, said: “It is great they are investing in badger vaccination but my concern is that they are only focusing on the edge areas. If the main transmission is cattle-to-cattle, this will have no effect.”
“If they were serious about vaccination, they would be looking at doing it in some high-risk areas,” she said. “There is every reason to expect that vaccination ought to be effective in reducing TB in badgers in hotspots. Some of the farmers we work with are desperate to vaccinate.”
John Royle, NFU chief farm policy adviser, said: “We have always said that vaccination of both badgers and cattle has a role to play in the control and eradication of bovine TB. It is important that all available options that can help in the fight against bovine TB are used so the disease can be wiped out.”
In June 2013, Woodroffe told the Guardian that volunteer-led badger vaccination programme would be cheaper than a cull. The two pilot culls in 2013 in Gloucestershire and Somerset cost millions of pounds, including a large policing bill. Along with many other scientists, Woodroffe has warned that ineffective culling is likely to make TB in cattle worse.
Eustice met the Badger Trust, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, RSPCA as well as the National Farmers’ Union and the Countryside and Landowners Association. The Wildlife Trusts and National Trust are already carrying out badger vaccination projects on their land.
The new badger vaccination programme will use available injectable vaccines, but research is continuing on an edible vaccine which would make administering it even cheaper and easier. Research on a cattle vaccine is also continuing.
Source: The Guardian