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Everyone hates Bovine Tuberculosis

Both farmers and wildlife enthusiasts can agree on their hatred for the disease, though for differing reasons. Rosie Woodroffe, ZSL, urges this Government to urgently implement their eradication strategy, moving towards vaccination as a primary focus.

June 2020

To farmers, it’s the insidious disease that can see apparently healthy and productive cattle suddenly marked for slaughter, and businesses already at the margins of profitability pushed closer to the edge. To wildlife enthusiasts, it’s the reason that ten of thousands of badgers are killed each year in a campaign that already covers 70% of South West England. In a debate that has become a by-word for bitter controversy, everyone agrees that the world would be a better place without bTB.

Good news, then, that the government has a new strategy for eradicating bTB from England.

If only it would implement it.

The new strategy reflects the two main conclusions of a recent policy review, namely, that attention needs to focus on the 94% of TB-affected herds estimated to be infected by other cattle, rather than the 6% estimated to be infected by badgers, and that badger vaccination should be evaluated as the primary way of reducing transmission from badgers. The new strategy promised improved testing of cattle, research towards vaccination of cattle, and a transition from culling to vaccination of badgers. Many of the proposed changes were carefully thought through, for example recognising the barriers to the wider roll-out of badger vaccination, and proposing ways to overcome them. Convinced that badger vaccination would be a more cost-effective tool in the fight to eradicate TB, as well as being more humane and less environmentally damaging than culling, wildlife groups welcomed the new strategy.

But this was just a recipe and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Since publishing its new strategy, the government has not announced implementing any of its planned actions. Understandable, perhaps, as the covid-19 pandemic forced the country into lockdown just 18 days after the strategy was published. Yet, since then, the government has found time to announce two new measures, and they both undermine the new strategy rather than supporting it.

First, 10 weeks after announcing that an “immediate next step” would be to pilot badger vaccination in areas which had recently completed their four-year culling licences, the government licensed another five years of culling across every inch of land that would have been eligible for such a pilot in 2020. This land – seven cull zones in total – covers an area the size of Gloucestershire, yet still, apparently, no space could be found to conduct the planned vaccination pilot.

At the same time, the government opened a public consultation on licensing no-cull buffers around land where badgers are vaccinated. This sounds nice, but close reading reveals serious concerns. The proposal seems to have been formulated to facilitate culling around vaccinated land, especially in Derbyshire.

Here, lobbying stopped the issue of a cull licence in 2019, due to concerns that the government should not pay for one team of people to vaccinate badgers and then licence another team to kill the same badgers. In the legal wrangle that followed, it emerged that the National Farmers Union had rejected a government offer to allow culling as long as no badgers were killed within 200m of vaccinated land. The government’s right to deny the cull licence was upheld by the High Court, but it continues to offer these narrow no-cull buffers. The buffers are almost pointless: they are too narrow to protect badgers and, in any case, they will seldom be licensed because they have to be requested by the landholder. Tensions between neighbouring landholders over TB management are often difficult enough – asking a farmer to legally prevent culling on their neighbour’s land is likely to be a step too far for many.

The government’s strategy entails starting a transition from culling to vaccination by entering “into a dialogue on the benefits and practical aspects of badger vaccination”. Nevertheless, its recent actions risk making badger vaccination more unpopular with farmers, who are likely to perceive vaccination as an annoyance which prevents culling on land where this would otherwise be licensed.

Likewise, the government expressed “an ambition to collect evidence on the effectiveness of badger vaccination on cattle bTB incidence”, but its plan to allow culling close to vaccination areas will foil this ambition by making vaccination appear less effective (because culling increases cattle TB on adjoining land).

The government’s new strategy appears to recognise that what is needed is vaccination on large spatial scales, alongside careful evaluation of the outcomes. The strategy recognises the barriers to achieving this outcome, and lays out ways to overcome them. But the strategy is not being implemented. Transitioning from culling to vaccination is a Herculean undertaking, which was never going to happen quickly. But unless it starts soon, it will never happen at all.

Rosie Woodroffe, Biologist, ZSL

Follow @ZSLConservation and @RosieWoodroffe

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.