Thank you to those who have contacted me recently regarding badger culls.
Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in the UK and a major challenge across the world. It has had a devastating effect on the UK’s cattle industry and presents a risk to other livestock and wildlife species, as well as domestic pets and humans.
An independent multi-year scientific review concluded that cattle and badgers can transmit the disease to each other and that badgers are a significant source of infection in cattle. This led to culling being conducted as one of a number of control measures.
Culling badgers can lead to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time. The National Farmers Union reports that there is clear evidence that badger culls are working.
Peer-reviewed research in the Downs report demonstrated the effectiveness of the culls in the original pilot zones of Gloucestershire and Somerset, which showed a 66% and 37% reduction respectively in new TB breakdowns.
Badger cull areas now cover nearly 70% of the High Risk Area (HRA) and 13% of the ‘edge area’ as part of a complete strategy. Annual government figures for TB infections in the HRA show a decline of 34.4% from 2,473 to 1,622 since culling began in 2013. It also shows the number of herds under restriction has declined by 25% from 2,723 to 2,043 since 2013.
The UK is not alone in carrying out badger culls to control bTB. Badger culling is undertaken in Ireland, France and Switzerland. Deer and wild boar are also culled in the Baltic countries, Germany, Poland and Spain. Authorities in Australia, New Zealand and the US have culled other species identified as transmission vectors for bTB.
- In Australia, there has been a national eradication programme spanning almost three decades. It enabled official bTB-free status to be achieved in 1997. Their comprehensive package of measures to tackle the disease in domestic cattle and wildlife included rigorous culling of feral water buffalo.
- New Zealand is close to eradicating bTB by tackling the disease in wild brushtail possums which are recognised as the main vector for bTB in New Zealand. The New Zealand government and agricultural industries acknowledged that eradicating bTB required a joint programme in livestock and wildlife. Vets found scientific proof to support a long-held suspicion that the invasive brush-tail possum was carrying bovine TB and passing it back to farmed cattle and deer. As a result of a management programme including possum culls, the number of infected cattle and deer herds in New Zealand dropped from 1,700 in the mid 1990s to 43 in 2016. This represents an annual infected herd period prevalence rating well below New Zealand’s 0.4% target.
- The Republic of Ireland has reduced bTB with a comprehensive eradication programme which includes badger control. Over the same period, bTB increased from 0.8 to 9 per cent in England. Ireland began routine badger culling after experiencing massive problems in the 1960s – 160,000 cattle were found to have bTB and slaughtered in 1962 alone. Irish authorities have since turned things around to the extent that the number of cattle with bTB was initially reduced to below 50,000 and by 2020 it had fallen further to 21,289.
- In Michigan, US, wild white-tailed deer are considered a reservoir for bTB. A comprehensive control programme including deer culls and on-farm mitigation strategies was conducted. Michigan initially reduced the average annual number of livestock herds affected with bTB to single figures, but new infections continue to be reported in both populations. Deer culling has been subject to political opposition and by 2018 bTB incidence in cattle was seen to be increasing while it also increased in wild deer.
Bovine TB was once isolated to small pockets of the UK with just 0.01 per cent of cattle affected, but it has spread extensively through the West of England and Wales. In 2012 in England alone, over 5.5 million bTB tests were performed, leading to the slaughter of 28,000 cattle at a cost to the taxpayer of nearly £100 million.
At one point in that year, 26 per cent of herds in the South West and West were placed under movement restrictions. It is estimated that the cost of controlling bTB will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked.
The Government is committed to using all of the tools at its disposal and continuing to develop new ones. In high-risk areas, herds are tested annually and any cattle that test positive are slaughtered. Stricter cattle movement controls were put in place to reduce the risk of importing TB-infected animals from higher risk areas.
Vaccinating the badger population has been investigated as a potential answer. The Government funded and developed an injectable badger vaccine and made £250,000 a year available to support and encourage its use. The Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme (BEVS) covered central counties of England most vulnerable to the spread of the disease from the South West and West Midlands.
The aim was to create a buffer zone to help prevent the spread of bTB to new areas of the country. However, the scheme encountered several challenges to vaccine delivery and identified unanswered questions regarding the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing transmission. DEFRA has commissioned a pilot to understand how delivery might work.
The Government’s Animal Plant and Health Agency recently made a breakthrough in the development of a potential bTB vaccine for cattle, following 20 years of Government funding and research. Field trials started last year and will be conducted until 2024 on behalf of Defra, the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government.
There is hope that this intensive work will lead to a viable vaccine and validated DIVA test to check for infection. This could greatly enhance efforts to control and eradicate bTB and bring a swifter end to badger culling. However, trials are ongoing and the safety of the potential vaccine for the cattle industry has not yet been confirmed. Therefore, it cannot yet replace effective culling.
The development of a deployable cattle BTB vaccine was a top priority outlined in the government’s response to an independent review of its 25-year bTB strategy, led by Professor Sir Charles Godfray.
I hope that this answers any questions on this subject.