7 Jul 2011, 7:46 PM
This site has tried to steer clear of the wildlife reservoir issue, as we believe it is a red herring and taking time, attention and resources away from the real flaws of the existing system regarding dealing with bovine TB. However, it is a difficult subject to avoid and as one if the main aims of this website is to highlight the problems and indirect consequences of the existing policy, it is difficult to avoid the badger issue. This is particularly relevant as the policy is now affecting more than just the farming community because of the threats to wildlife. This case study therefore demonstrates the commitment of those who are strongly opposed to the unnecessary killing of wildlife.
It is clear from the media reports, various surveys, ‘opposition’ groups and internet postings that there is an overwhelming majority of the public who are against any form of badger culling. This has probably been exacerbated because the science seems to be against culling and even the experts cannot agree among themselves. Whilst many members of the public would seem to prefer leaving wildlife out of the issue, many believe that vaccination of badgers (using BCG vaccine) is preferable to culling this much-loved species. As culls loom closer we have been astounded at the amount of public opposition to such action, which appears to be supported only by a vocal and desperate farming lobby, although we know that not all farmers support culling.
It is to the credit of some of the groups who are anti-cull that they are not merely campaigning and objecting but are actively setting up, at their own expense, badger vaccination areas now an injectable vaccination is licensed and available for badgers. However, the process is not cheap.
The Food and Environment Agency (FERA) are currently responsible for the licenses, training courses and procedures (see www.fera.defra.gov.uk/wildlife/ecologyManagement/documents/guidanceNotesMay11.pdf for full details). Briefly, in order to cage trap and vaccinate badgers, an individual must be:
1. Accredited – has attended and passed the Fera training course in Cage Trapping and Vaccination of Badgers.
2. Certified - has applied to Fera for and received the Certificate of Competence.
3. Licensed - has applied for and received a Natural England license to trap badgers for the purpose of vaccination. They must already be accredited and certified in order to be issued a license.
To give some idea of the costs involved, the initial training course is around £700 and the Certificate of Competence (valid for just one year and must be renewed annually) is £2065 (but this can cover up to 5 trained vaccinators).
The first vaccination areas have been approved and the vaccination process started.
Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT) is making history by putting its money where its mouth is. It became the first ever private organisation in the UK to start a vaccination programme for badgers on its own land. Apparently the Trust accepts that badgers are part of the wildlife reservoir of bTB and a disease vector, but it does not believe that culling badgers is the bTB panacea. Instead it believes vaccination, bio-security and accurate testing procedures offer the most complete and trustworthy package. The trust will fund the entire process itself, including set up costs of around £5,000 and staff time. It is prepared to repeat the process for at least five yeas, according to its chief executive, Dr Gordon McGlone.
The GWT accepts that BCG alone is not the solution to bTB, but it does have an immediate effect with no associated negative impact. The Trust believes that culling, as its most vocal supporters admit, produces an increase in bTB in neighbouring herds through perturbation and as yet no proven benefit. Indeed, the Independent Scientific Group research concluded that culling should not be part of the government ‘toolbox’.
Funded by the Trusts’ members following an appeal, the vaccination trial is aimed to contribute to finding a practical solution to a serious animal disease problem. The Trust has paid for staff to be specially trained to vaccinate badgers against bovine TB across its nature reserves in the Stroud Valleys. The trial will also explore the practicalities of small-scale vaccination usage in the field, so GWT can advise other Wildlife Trusts in the UK and landowners.
Of course it was in Gloucester that the first badger was tested positive for bTB some 40 years ago and for the past 35 years the GWT has played an active role in the badger and bovine TB debate. Its vaccination programme began in June 2011 and it will continue for three months.
Another group, the National Trust, has embarked upon a four-year badger vaccination programme that will pave the way to the widespread use of vaccination as a way of tackling bovine TB in cattle on its land. It has started with its Killerton estate in Devon.
Funded by the National Trust itself (which owns many farms in so called hot-spot areas), the programme intends to demonstrate vaccination as a viable alternative to culling as a means of controlling the wildlife reservoir of the disease.
Mark Harold, Director for the National Trust’s South West region, said: 'In many areas of the UK there are clearly practical problems in implementing an effective cull of badgers to reduce bovine TB in cattle. In these instances, vaccination of badgers would appear to be the most effective ways of controlling the wildlife reservoir of the disease. With the advent of oral vaccines, this approach could be significantly cheaper too. This programme will show how badgers vaccination can be deployed over a large area, and will pave the way for more widespread use of vaccination as an effective alternative to culling. We're in a unique position as a major landowner to help find a solution to the blight of bovine TB that costs millions and affects farmers’ livelihoods. We recognise that both cattle to cattle transmission of bovine TB as well as badgers infecting cattle need to be tackled.'
Eighteen tenant farmers will be involved in the vaccination programme and work will began in May 2011. The programme will last until 2015 and covers an area of 20 square kilometres on the Trust’s Killerton estate, in the heart of cattle rearing country, in Devon. It is also one of the so-called hotspots for bovine TB in the county.
The administration of the vaccine to the badgers will be carried out by trained and licensed experts from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA). The programme will cost £80,000 each year. Badgers will be caught in live traps, without being harmed, injected with the vaccine and then marked so that they are not given the vaccine twice during a trapping operation.
Mark Harold said: 'The evidence to date suggests that a vaccination for badgers should be one of the tools we use to tackle bovine TB. As it doesn’t result in the ‘perturbation’ effect it will not expose our tenants to the increased risk of bovine TB breakdown that comes with culling.'
The next group to address the issue is a much smaller, but no less committed group of individuals in the infamous Intensive Action Area (IAA), Pembrokeshire. The group, Pembrokeshire Against the Cull (PAC), set up in 2009, punches well above its weight. It is made up of several hundred concerned landowners, farmers, tourism operatives and interested individuals who do not want a cull of badgers in Pembrokeshire. These individuals have campaigned hard and have achieved much public support. They have frequent, well-organised meetings and events that are attended by between fifty and two hundred and fifty people depending on whether it is a public or landowners’ support meeting. They have raised substantial funds and although many in the group would prefer to see wildlife left out of the issue their compromise is to campaign hard for badger vaccination in preference to any culling. In this respect they have taken the first steps to developing a badger vaccination programme in West Wales. The first introductory training course, organized by PAC with Dyfed Badger Watch & Rescue and The Welsh Wildlife Trust was held in July 2011. Around thirty people attended this and another is planned in the near future for those unable to make this one.
The course gave a fairly detailed introduction to badgers. Of particular interest was the fact that the UK, Ireland and Sweden hold 50% of the population of the Eurasian badger (Meles meles). In the UK there is around one badger in every square kilometre, with an estimated total of 340,000 (considerably less than many of our other mammals; cats, for example, number around 8 million, including 1 million feral cats). They live in social groups (apparently unique for this particular species of badger) of 2 – 23 individuals but generally around 6, with territory of between 30 and 150 hectares per group depending on location. They dig setts, which are carefully ventilated and some of these can be hundreds of years old. It is a tough life for a badger. Around 40-50,000 are estimated to be killed by traffic each year. The average lifespan is just 8 years but they could live up to 20 years. Mortality rates are high for cubs, with around half dying in their first year. Humans remain their biggest threat and they became a protected species because of previous widespread persecution and badger baiting. The population fluctuates, depending on weather conditions. A lot of digging evidence does not mean badger numbers have increased. As we have had two very cold winters (2009/10 and 2010/11) numbers have reduced lately. Only one or two females in the group will produce young and they practice delayed implantation. Embryos can be reabsorbed too so breeding is controlled depending on conditions. They are extremely clean animals. Research has confirmed very low densities of fleas and other parasites, probably because they move sett regularly, having main sets and outlying ones. They defecate mainly in latrines in areas set aside for this purpose.
The remainder of the course was spent looking at legislation relating to badgers, tracking methods, surveying techniques and concluded with practical sett surveying.
It was an enjoyable two days and the passion these people have for badgers is amazing.