Badger cull: position statement

Essex Wildlife Trust position statement: Bovine TB in Cattle and the Badger Cull

Introduction

Badgers are being culled as part of a government initiative to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle. In September 2017 the Government licenced 11 new areas for badger culling in western England. Further areas were licensed in 2018 and 2019. 2020 saw the largest ever cull authorised by the government, with culling taking place in six additional counties, including Derbyshire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Shropshire and Warwickshire.

Recent Government proposals suggest an end to granting cull licences in 2022, however this could still result in another 130,000 badgers culled during the following four years to 2026.

Essex Wildlife Trust is fully aware that TB in cattle is a significant problem for farming in the UK and that urgent action is required to combat the disease. The Trust believes that action to address bovine TB should be based on clear scientific evidence that can be effectively applied in practice. The government has now launched a consultation on measures to reach bovine TB-free status in England by 2038.

Essex Wildlife Trust believes that the best means of tackling bTB are through a sustained programme of vaccination with a BCG vaccine (Bacillus Calmette Guerin), alongside improved biosecurity measures with improved testing and controls on cattle movement.

Current Position Statement from Essex Wildlife Trust

Essex Wildlife Trust does not support a cull of badgers and will not allow culling on its land.

Essex Wildlife Trust does support methods which reduce the risk of cattle contracting bovine TB (bTB) because the Trust recognises the devastating impact this disease can have upon livestock owners.

Essex Wildlife Trust would be willing to pursue the deployment of BadgerBCG on its nature reserves subject to the criteria:

  • Evidence of badgers present on site; and,
  • Grassland on site or immediately adjacent where cattle are present
  • The correct licence from Natural England
  • Appropriate veterinary and technical support

The Trust urges Defra to pursue the following as a matter of priority:

  • Support landowners to improve on-farm biosecurity and deployment of the injectable BadgerBCG vaccine;
  • Continue to develop an oral vaccine for badgers;
  • Complete the deployment of a licenced bTB vaccine for cattle; and,
  • Secure changes to the regulations to permit the commercial deployment of a bTB cattle vaccine and the entry of meat from vaccinated cattle into the human food chain.

Essex Wildlife Trust believes that the scientific evidence shows that a badger cull is not effective in reducing bTB in cattle partly because it is neither practical nor acceptable to achieve a massive reduction in the number of badgers and partly because other forms of wildlife have been demonstrated to carry bTB.

Background information

At present in some parts of England (particularly the South West) there is a relatively high incidence of bovine Tuberculosis (Bovine TB) in cattle. Farmers and vets are keen to eradicate Bovine TB and they believe that one of the main reasons for the continued presence of Bovine TB is that badgers are carriers and therefore pass it onto cattle. They believe that one way to help control and eradicate Bovine TB is to cull badgers in the areas of the country where Bovine TB is prevalent.

All cattle are tested for Bovine TB by intradermal tuberculin test into the skin of the animal in two sites on the neck. Three days later the test is interpreted based on the size of the reaction in the skin. If the size of the reaction is above a certain size they are regarded as a reactor. The herd is then put under movement restrictions, all reactors are compulsorily slaughtered and subject to post-mortem. These routine tests are carried out every one to four years depending on the locality of the farm.

Badgers were first linked to Bovine TB in cattle in 1971 when the bacterium M. bovis (Mycobacterium bovis) was found in a badger carcass. In response to this, badger culling was undertaken in localities where Bovine TB occurred, though in the last 30 years the culling strategies have changed several times.

Vaccination has the potential to reduce bTB without negative impacts of perturbation (perturbation is explained below) arising from a badger cull. The current status of vaccine development is:

  • Injectable badger vaccine available since March 2010;
  • Cattle vaccine not yet available
  • Oral badger vaccine not yet available

The deployment of bTB vaccines is in its early phase. BadgerBCG as a vaccine does not cure badgers of the disease but after a five year programme the social groups that have been treated should have high level of resistance to the bTB disease. BadgerBCG alone is not the solution to bTB but it does have an immediate effect with no known associated negative impact other than cost. The Wildlife Trusts have calculated that the cull of badgers is significantly higher than vaccinating them - it costs £496.51 to kill a badger compared with £82 to vaccinate a badger.

Essex Wildlife Trust is prepared to contribute to solving a serious and long established disease of cattle and badgers by vaccinating badgers on a selection of our nature reserves at our own cost.

Culling badgers

Badgers are being culled as part of a government initiative to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle. Pilot badger culls commenced in 2013 in Gloucester and Somerset amid much opposition. More than 300,000 people supported a petition opposing the cull. An Independent Expert Panel (IEP) was appointed by Defra to assess the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of the 2013 culls. The panel deemed the culls 'ineffective' and 'inhumane' in 2013, with no significant improvement - and further failures - in 2014. Despite two parliamentary debates, a prominent opposition campaign and the support of numerous experts and high profile figures, the number of areas increased in 2015 to include Dorset. In August 2016, the Government announced seven new cull licenses across three new areas (Cornwall, Devon and Herefordshire) for an extension of the cull.

In September 2017 the Government licenced 11 new areas, and authorised two new supplementary licenses in Gloucestershire and Somerset, bringing the total number of badger cull areas to 21.

2018 saw a further 11 sites announced, in at least the following counties: Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Cheshire, Somerset and Staffordshire and the Low Risk Area in Cumbria.

In 2019 Defra made an announcement about the new badger cull areas, including the reauthorisation of licences for 29 existing areas alongside a further 11 additional areas.

In 2020, the largest ever cull was announced, taking place in 6 additional counties, including Derbyshire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Shropshire and Warwickshire.

Now, in 2021 the Government has proposed suggesting an end to granting cull licences in 2022, however due to the length of granted cull licences this could still result in another 130,000 badgers culled over the next four years. A consultation on the badger cull is running from 27 January – 24 March 2021.

Problems with the cull

It has been proved from previous culling research that when badgers are culled within an area, those badgers that are on the periphery of the culling are socially disturbed by the culling and this results in movement of the badgers on the edge of the area, this is known as the perturbation effect, potentially taking bTB with them or contracting animals already infected with bTB. Badger social groups are stable and even infected badgers stay mostly within their restricted social territory. Indeed, the research clearly shows  that where badger culling took place there was actually an increase in the levels of Bovine TB in cattle, not a decrease as was hoped.

Does Essex Wildlife Trust support the cull?

No it does not.
Firstly, the scientific findings of the Randomised Badger Culling Trials (RBCT) indicate that localised or limited culling of badgers leads to an increase in the incidence of Bovine TB in surrounding areas due to the perturbation effect.

Secondly, the Trust believes that recent scientific findings suggest that badger culling over large areas is not only impractical but will result in potential negative effects through perturbation (see above). This will be exacerbated because of the difficulty of removing all badgers from a Bovine TB hot spot, because they have the ability to avoid traps and snares, and the potential use of a closed season when females are lactating. Essex Wildlife Trust also believe that there will be significant non-cooperation of landowners to a badger culling policy, which will mean that complete extinction of badgers in an area is not possible so the perturbation effect will apply.

Will Essex Wildlife Trust allow badgers to be culled on its land?

No. Essex Wildlife Trust will not allow voluntary access to its nature reserves for badger control. The Trust believes that licenses to cull badgers should not be granted to farmers under any circumstances at present.

Essex Wildlife Trust believes that licensing farmers and landowners to cull badgers would result in the following:

  • An increase in the lack of regulations and scientific rigour associated with this problem.
  • An increase in Bovine TB in cattle due to the perturbation effect.
  • An increase in animal welfare concerns from inappropriate training and lack of skills required to kill badgers humanely.

What action could be taken to reduce Bovine TB?

Essex Wildlife Trust accepts that Bovine TB in cattle is a significant problem for farming in the UK and that urgent action is needed to combat the disease.

Essex Wildlife Trust believes that  Government action should focus on addressing  cattle-to-cattle transmission as the most significant route of infection for Bovine TB.

Research has found that bTB bacteria can survive for months either on fields or in slurry. Strict biosecurity procedures are key to tackling this key route of the spread of bTB. Defra should provide as much support as possible to farmers to make sure these procedures and rigorous tests are in place. This approach would contribute considerably to reducing the spread of bTB between cattle and badgers.

bTB can have a devastating impact on the lives of farmers. The Wildlife Trusts continue to work with farmers to find solutions that work for everyone.

Essex Wildlife Trust believes that as a priority, action to reduce the disease should involve improvements in cattle testing and stricter movement restrictions (including pre and post-movement testing). All testing should be immediate and apply to animals over six weeks old.

Improving herd health is also imperative and improved biosecurity on farms. To tackle the disease in the long-term more investment is needed to develop an effective vaccine for cattle.

If new scientific evidence were to be produced, Essex Wildlife Trust would review their current position on opposing the badger cull.

Essex Wildlife Trust is prepared to vaccinate badgers against bovine TB on its own land and encourages other landowners to do the same.