The Government has said it plans to phase out ‘intensive’ badger culling in high-risk areas of England during the next phase of its 25-year strategy to stamp out bovine TB.
In an announcement today (March 5), Defra outlined its intention to accelerate deployment of a cattle vaccine in the next five years, after a ‘globally significant breakthrough by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA)’.
Additional improvements to the cattle testing regime to help identify and manage bTB earlier on farms have also been proposed, and more badger vaccination will take place in areas where the four-year cull cycle has ended.
Though Defra Secretary George Eustice acknowledged the trauma bovine TB causes farmers, and admitted the badger cull has led to ‘significant reductions’ in bTB levels, he said: “No one wants to continue the cull of this protected species indefinitely.
“Once the weight of disease in wildlife has been addressed, we will accelerate other elements of our strategy including improved diagnostics and cattle vaccination to sustain the downward trajectory of the disease.”
Ministers will retain the ability to introduce new cull zones where local evidence highlights an epidemic in badgers carrying the disease.
This combined approach is hoped to aid the Government’s goal of eradicating bovine TB by 2038.
NFU deputy president, Stuart Roberts, said any move away from culling should not be rushed and must be based on scientific evidence, adding culling had to continue in areas where bTB is endemic in order to get on top of the disease quickly and reduce further transmission.
“The NFU supports tackling the disease in every possible way but it is frustrating that too often culling and badger vaccination are given a false equivalence,” said Mr Roberts (see below for full statement).
“Vaccination may have a role to play in areas where TB has not taken hold, but it is important to note vaccination has never been demonstrated to reduce the disease with the same efficacy as culling, nor has it ever cured an infected badger.
“We welcome other measures to assist in eradicating this disease such as further funding and research into cattle vaccination and look forward to the results of field trials.
"However, we are still currently waiting for answers if an effective, practical and accessible cattle vaccine is achievable which can protect our cattle within a cost-effective framework.”
UK chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said ground-breaking research by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (AHPA) had enabled industry to ‘embark on its first step’ of the field trials required to licence a cattle vaccine and test it.
“While 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”, she added.
Phil Latham, Cheshire dairy farmer, said: "With epidemiological evidence highlighting badgers carrying TB, the decision to change strategy direction is utterly bonkers, as for the first time in 25 years we have a strategy that is changing the trajectory of the disease.
"There is no scientific evidence which demonstrates vaccinating badgers will reduce TB levels in cattle.Strategy must be based on science rather than populist, political agendas."
Professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, Sir Timothy O’Shea, said: “Field implementation is going to be a significant challenge but one that will only happen if there is a substantial dedicated effort to accomplish it.
“The benefits if successful would be substantial. It should not be forgotten however, that the role of infected badgers is well established, and future projections of Tb risk in cattle must continue to consider this.”
RSPCA head of wildlife, Adam Grogan, said the organisation ’cautiously welcomes the Government’s announcement of a move away from culls towards badger vaccination, with proposed improvements to cattle based measures being the best solution for badgers, cattle and farmers’.
The latest statistics on bTB in England show the overall number of new herd incidents of the disease were down by 9 per cent in the last year (to Nov 2019), a 10 per cent reduction in the number of herds not officially free of the disease and a 4 per cent reduction in the total number of animals slaughtered due to the disease.
NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts said: “Bovine TB continues to devastate family farming businesses across large parts of the country. Last year nearly 33,000 cattle were slaughtered in England because of this terrible disease.
"In order to control and eradicate bTB it’s important to see that the report acknowledges the need to retain intensive culling in a targeted way where the epidemiological evidence requires it. The NFU has always been absolutely clear that any move away from an intensive culling policy – whether that’s in 5 years, 10 years or longer- should not be rushed and sufficient science and evidence must support any such move. In areas where TB in badgers is endemic, we must retain culling as a vital tool enabling industry to get on top of the disease quickly and reduce further transmission.
“As Defra Secretary of State George Eustice acknowledges, there is clear evidence that badger culling as part of the government’s 25-year eradication strategy is working. The latest peer-reviewed research definitively shows the significant impact culling badgers has on reducing TB levels in cattle alongside farmers enhancing their biosecurity on farm and robust cattle movement controls.
"The NFU supports tackling the disease in every possible way but it is frustrating that too often culling and badger vaccination are given a false equivalence. Vaccination may have a role to play in areas where TB hasn’t taken hold, but it is important to note vaccination has never been demonstrated to reduce the disease with the same efficacy as culling, nor has it ever cured an infected badger.
“We welcome other measures to assist in eradicating this disease such as further funding and research into cattle vaccination and look forward to the results of field trials. However, we are still currently waiting for answers if an effective, practical and accessible cattle vaccine is achievable which can protect our cattle within a cost-effective framework.
“Sir Charles Godfray noted in his review of the government’s bTB strategy that there are no easy answers. That’s why we must use every available option – cattle testing, cattle movement controls, biosecurity, vaccination when available and where appropriate, and control of the disease in wildlife in areas where it is endemic. Only by employing this comprehensive approach will we stand a chance of achieving what everyone wants – healthy cattle, healthy wildlife and a TB free England.”