Badger culling to be phased out in favour of bovine TB vaccinations

Badger culling will be phased out in favour of vaccinations in new government approach to controlling TB in cattle

  • The UK Government will be launching field trials of a vaccine for use on cattle
  • If successful, this will be deployed across the UK within the next five years
  • Alongside this, a vaccine will also be used to inoculate badgers against TB
  • The moves may lead to the end of the controversial mass culling of badgers

Intensive badger culling will be phased out in favour of vaccinations in a new approach to controlling tuberculosis in cattle, the government has announced.

The strategy to tackle the spread bovine tuberculosis (TB) will now incorporate field trials of a cattle vaccine that is likely to be deployed within the next five years.

In addition, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced plans to vaccinate badgers against the disease.

Badgers are known to transmit TB to livestock — but programs culling the animals have proven controversial with animal welfare groups.

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Intensive badger culling will soon be phased out in favour of vaccinations in a new approach to controlling bovine TB in cattle, the government has announced

WHAT IS BOVINE TB?

Bovine tuberculosis is a disease of cattle that can also infect badgers, deer, goats, pigs, dogs and cats. 

The disease is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium bovis. 

This is related to the microbe that causes tuberculosis in humans. 

Bovine tuberculosis is typically transmitted aerially through coughs and sneezes.

It causes fever, coughing, weight loss, pain, diarrhoea and ultimately death.

Badgers are the most significant wildlife reservoir for the bacterium.

In the United Kingdom, most bovine tuberculosis outbreaks occur in the South West and the West Midlands. 

The move spells the beginning of the end of the controversial policy of intensive badger culling, which some farmers have argued is necessary to control the spread of bovine TB, a disease that has been devastating the beef and dairy industries.

Culling has been undertaken in 40 areas of England, despite opposition from animal welfare and wildlife groups, who have said  that the culling is both ineffective and inhumane.

According to the Government, culling reduced the incidence of TB in Gloucestershire and Somerset — the two areas where such was first introduced — by around 66 and 37 per cent over a four-year-period.

However, officials have announced that the current intensive culling policy will start being phased out in the next few years, to be replaced with Government-supported badger vaccination schemes.

Despite this, however, culling would remain an option where disease assessment indicated it was needed, the authorities noted.

The shift in strategy has been made possible through a breakthrough by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) which will allow for field trials of a cattle vaccine, with efforts to accelerate the vaccine’s deployment to within five years.

Previously it was not possible to vaccinate cattle, as tests for the disease could not differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals.

Now an effective so-called ‘Diva’ test which can differentiate between the two has been developed and will be tested alongside the vaccine in field trials.

The strategy to tackle the spread bovine tuberculosis (TB) will now incorporate field trials of a cattle vaccine that is likely to be deployed within the next five years

‘Bovine TB is a slow-moving and insidious disease, leading to the slaughter of over 30,000 cattle every year and considerable trauma for farmers as they suffer the loss of highly-prized animals,’ said Environment Secretary George Eustice.

‘The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease as demonstrated by recent academic research and past studies.’

‘But no-one wants to continue the cull of this protected species indefinitely so, once the weight of disease in wildlife has been addressed, we will accelerate other elements of our strategy.’

This, Mr Eustice added, will include ‘improved diagnostics and cattle vaccination to sustain the downward trajectory of the disease.’

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced plans to vaccinate badgers against the disease. Badgers are known to transmit TB to livestock — but programs culling the animals have proven controversial with animal welfare groups

‘This ground-breaking research carried out by Apha has enabled us to embark on the first step of the field trials required to license the cattle vaccine and test it,’ said UK Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss.

‘Whilst there is no single way to combat this damaging and complex disease, cattle vaccination will be a new tool for our multi-pronged approach to tackle it and, importantly, prevent it, providing vital support to our farming communities.’

There are also plans to improve the cattle testing regime as to intercept the disease earlier and eliminate it from herds more quickly.

The moves — which come in the wake of an independent review of the UK Government’s bovine TB strategy — represent a ‘seismic shift’ in approach, said ecologist Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London

The changes come after the UK Government has spent ‘an estimated £60 million of public money killing over 100,000 badgers in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory,’ Badger Trust CEO Dominic Dyer told the Telegraph.

‘The Government are right to state that far too much emphasis has been based on killing badgers by the farming industry.’

‘Too little effort had been made to improve biosecurity, introduce risk based trading and tighten cattle movement controls.’

‘Now we have left the EU we are also seeing a much needed emphasis by the Government on the need to move forward with cattle vaccination trials.’

‘The Government has finally come up with a long term exit strategy from badger culling based on cattle-based control measures and TB vaccination in both badgers & cattle.’

‘This is better for tax payers, farmers and the future of our precious wildlife.’

The moves — which come in the wake of an independent review of the UK Government’s bovine TB strategy — represent a ‘seismic shift’ in approach, said ecologist Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London.

The focus on cattle-based measures such as the vaccine for livestock, Professor Woodroffe added, was ‘appropriate, because the best estimates show that most cattle herds that acquire TB are infected by other cattle herds.’

However, she added, efforts to eradicate the disease entirely must also have a focus on badgers. 

‘Vaccination is the most promising form of badger management because, unlike culling, it has the potential to eradicate TB from badgers, as well as being cheaper, more humane, and more environmentally friendly,’ Professor Woodroffe said.

She added that she welcomed the shift to badger vaccination, a process which will include piloting vaccination in areas which have recently been culled, and support for vaccination in areas where farmers have chosen not to cull. 

WHY DID THE PREVIOUS STUDY CONCLUDE THAT BADGER CULLS WERE INSTEAD BACKFIRING?

Researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Imperial College London tracked 67 badgers in different areas of Cornwall with different culling policies. 

Published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, the research found that badgers visited 45 per cent more fields each month.

The odds of a badger visiting a neighbouring territory after a cull increased 20-fold, potentially increasing the risk of TB transmission to both cattle and other badgers.

The scientists said the changes were witnessed as soon as culling began, meaning even badgers that were killed may have first spread the infection over wider areas while management was being implemented.

However, the animals spent less time outside of their setts in culled areas – spending on average 91 minutes less per night out and about.

Researchers believe this could be linked to reduced competition and increased food availability as badgers are removed from the population.

Lead author of the study, PhD researcher Cally Ham, explained: ‘Badgers spend a large proportion of the night foraging for food above ground, and as culling reduces the size of the population, competition for food will also be reduced.

‘We believe this accounts for the reduced activity levels, as well as bold individuals becoming obvious targets for culling and being quickly removed from the population.

‘Because culling partly relies on shooting badgers moving around at night, the fact that badgers were active for fewer hours per night could actually be undermining culling efforts to further control badger numbers.’

Professor Rosie Woodroffe, at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, added: ‘In contrast, studies have shown that vaccination prompts no changes in badgers’ ranging behaviour.’

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