Today, the Government has released its plans for a new and simplified licencing system to facilitate badger vaccination. While on the face of it these plans appear to be helpful for those who wish to see an end to the culling of badgers, wildlife campaigners are concerned that they will be used as a smokescreen, to perpetuate further ‘reactive’ culling, and to prevent those who wish to protect badgers from speaking out against the culls.
Indications are that the government aims to allow vaccination in 2 of around 60 areas where badgers will be killed in 2022, with any further areas covering but a small proportion of the designated High Risk Area for bovine TB in cattle in the west of England. There are concerns that there may be restrictions, such as vaccination being promoted only once badger numbers have been decimated, and ‘gagging orders’ placed upon those who sign up to government funding – including that badger protectors would no longer be able to speak out against the badger cull.
The Government’s announcement claims that its badger vaccination plans form part of its long-term strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England by 2038. However, the strategy relies on the assumption that badger culling is working to reduce bovine TB, when current peer-reviewed scientific evidence suggests otherwise.
Government also claims that badger culling is being phased out. The reality is that it continues to be expanded, with 29 supplementary culls authorised yesterday, 25th May. A further ten new intensive badger culling zones are expected to be announced later in the year. The expected kill figure over the next 4 years is up to another 100,000 badgers. The Government wishes to retain the option to continue killing badgers in perpetuity under its proposals for ‘epidemiological culling’ which has, as anticipated also so far failed to reduce bTB herd breakdowns.
There are several reasons why vaccinating badgers might be desirable – principally to prevent bovine TB spilling over from cattle into healthy badger populations and to protect individual badgers from disease. However, there is little evidence to suggest that vaccinating badgers will prevent or reduce bovine TB among cattle – just as with culling, the move to promote the vaccination of badgers is based on the false assumption that badgers are a significant source of TB for cattle, and that badger intervention is necessary to control cattle TB, when the evidence suggests tighter cattle measures are the answer.
There are also good reasons why vaccination of badger populations previously subjected to culling is unlikely to be successful. Badger culling will reduce a population, but there is some evidence that it may increase the prevalence of TB among surviving badgers. Also, surviving badgers may be trap shy making them much more difficult to trap and vaccinate.
Ecologist Tom Langton, one of the authors of a new peer-reviewed study, With vets Mark Jones and Iain McGill has been closely monitoring & challenging government bTB strategy failures, said:
“It is depressing to see the smokescreen approach to Defra’s badger cull policy continuing. There is no evidence that vaccinating badgers, particularly after culling has massacred the population, can hold any benefit to bTB disease eradication in cattle and this was confirmed by the Godfray Review in 2018. Government is trying to normalise badger culling long-term, by initially claiming to the public that it is being phased out, when the plan is to perpetuate the so-called ‘epi-culling’ – the failed reactive culling of old.
“Failed government tactics could see the killing of thousands of badgers per year to 2038 and beyond. It is a disgusting, unethical slaughter of wildlife. It circumnavigates the legal protection of badgers under The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 and does nothing for farmers or cattle. Badger vaccinators should not be induced to mislead farmers into thinking that badger vaccination is known or expected to help control bovine TB in cattle. This is particularly unwelcome as our recently published, extensively peer-reviewed paper using government data* shows how badger culling intervention has failed to influence bovine TB herd breakdowns during the last decade, with the Chief Vet and Scientific Advisor putting out botched data and flawed argument to try to cover their trail.”
Veterinary surgeon Dr Mark Jones, another author of the recent science paper, said:
“From the lockdowns we have all suffered since 2020, we are all only too aware of the movement restrictions, accurate testing and vaccination that were necessary to control Covid 19. These kinds of measures need to be rigorously applied to cattle if bovine TB is to be successfully brought under control. Our recent peer-reviewed research clearly demonstrates that culling badgers is not reducing bovine TB among cattle herds, and while there may be good reasons to vaccinate badgers, it’s highly unlikely that badger vaccination will help control TB in cattle, and the promotion of badger vaccination continues to frame badgers as the culprit. This badger blame game needs to end.”
When the March 2020 “Next Steps” Bovine TB policy was released, there was a rumour from inside DEFRA HQ, that its senior officials were secretly in despair. This related to compromises over its content, and the prospects to implement it in the years to come.
The policy was considered by many to be, ‘something for all, but nothing for anybody’. It would require substantial increased public funding to initiate. But it was not, with bTB still spreading, the planned tailing-off of the ruinous public funding poured into this festering agri-crisis over the passing decade.
“Next Steps” formed new mountains to climb, engaging the industry with more regulation: tighter cattle testing and movement controls, and with badger and cattle vaccination. A triple-finance whammy that the 2018 Godfray Review had hinted at. To have legs, it required stakeholder acceptance of just how bad the tuberculin skin (SICCT) test sensitivity really has been, and why ‘TB-Free’ status, after a breakdown is very often untrue, allowing bTB to perpetuate within the High Risk and Edge Areas and to spread further to the east and north via cattle sales. Further, it required their resetting of farmer-psyche to help badgers, the animal they have been told and taught to eradicate, as vermin.
Influence from No.10?
The Prime Ministers interest in Bovine TB, beyond stalling the first Derbyshire cull for a year in 2019, has recently re-emerged. Rather off-message however, regarding the bTB threat in milk to humans, yet perhaps more visibly concerned with the claims of DEFRA, APHA and the Chief Vet’s bungling, in the ‘tough one’ case of Geronimo the alpaca. BTB is going to get fixed, Johnson promises.
Pressure from ‘high up’, had it seemed reawakened the badger and cattle vaccination policy options that rather looked like ‘window dressing’ in early plans back in 2011. Yet officials had just managed to maneuver them in, in 2020, but still to be largely ‘down the line’. To bite financially in a new Parliament. For now, work included a few modestly scaled badger vaccination ‘trials’ and a further look at the doomed immune-based ‘DIVA’ test (See here). Both are the epidemiological equivalents of fiddling while Rome burns. The disease is now so widespread that only mass cattle vaccination can possibly turn the tide.
DEFRA sleight of hand
The main DEFRA challenge in 2020, was how to present a policy moving from ‘proactive’, intensive, mass badger culling, to multiple small-scale farmer-lead ‘reactive-style’ intensive culling, but with minimum outcry. This was somehow miraculously achieved, with a press briefing claiming badger culling was being ‘banned’ or ‘phased out’. This was embraced by those who had not read the small print and who seemed unaware of the ‘epi-culling’ monster described within. Trialled in Cumbria since 2018, the flawed APHA ‘epi-culling’ (see here) approach kills 100% of badgers in a poorly badged ‘Minimum Intervention Area’, and most of them in a surrounding ‘buffer’ area, before trying to vaccinate the survivors left. The Cumbria ‘epi-cull’ has been a total flop, as breakdowns rose again in 2020, sinking the APHA showboat.
Figure 1. All breakdowns in the East Cumbria cull area per 6 month period, showing commencement of enhanced cattle controls and the period with mass badgers culling with a small amount of badger vaccination from 2020.
Derbyshire: a stinging rebuke of APHA ‘Risk Pathways’ approach
As it happens, after 2022, Defra will be running out of large areas of West and Central England to mass-kill badgers. So, it wants to switch to smaller badger killing areas both inside and beyond the High Risk Area, and a future approach that is simpler and cheaper to operate. For this, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has been promoting a ‘Risk Pathway’ approach, to try to ascribe badgers as the cause of many or most of the bTB herd breakdowns in, for example Derbyshire. However, the capable Derbyshire conservation folks have veterinary expertise and were onto it with a stinging rebuke of the claim that 77% of bTB in that county is down to badgers (see here).
The original bTB policy promises to undertake badger vaccination, related then to the need to help navigate culling around the national and local Wildlife Trusts, which it did successfully. And what looked like a contrived difficulty in accessing BCG vaccine for badgers in 2015, only lasted a couple of years once, under pressure, Minister George Eustice allowed the switch to a new vaccine brand supplier. Defra had decided that they could not afford to fund badger vaccination or would only fund it on a small scale, with preference for places where badger numbers had been largely culled-out. The cost and feasibility of vaccinating badgers on a large scale was probably never really factored-in at the start, and as the bTB problem has spread, the cost of doing so has escalated.
More badger meddling: a nasty rural conflict with yet more unknowns and complexity
Badger vaccination, like badger culling, holds several important technical uncertainties. The science suggests it reduces the probability of a given badger being infectious. However, as with badger culling, there is no direct evidence that it can help reduce bTB cattle herd breakdowns. The wisdom of doubling the number of uncertain interventions (see here) in tackling bTB in cattle was not lost on Defra. The approach just gives the nasty rural conflict yet more unknowns and complexity. More expense without evidence-base or any credible efficacy monitoring system.
Defra promises to the Bern Convention and a new BTB Partnership
A few weeks ago, government began to reveal what its badger vaccination plans are. Firstly, in a letter to the Bureau of the Bern Convention (see here). While repeating the falsehood of intensive badger culling being phased out, it stated that it would carry out a badger vaccination feasibility trial on ‘unculled’ farmland in a corner (7%) of Sussex, for five years.
A further commitment to train 30 vaccinators (10 a year) from 2022, to cover 2,600 sq km by 2024 was confirmed to the Bern Convention. This is partly it seems, as a replacement for a further five years of ‘supplementary badger culling’ (SBC) for 4-yr culls ending in a few years’ time. SBC is the method fiercely opposed through the High Court in recent years, that the government has pledged to closely report upon, has hidden the results of, and will terminate in January 2026.
In relation to government planning ahead, secrecy appears to surround the new ‘Bovine TB Partnership’ made up largely of farming stakeholders, the voting majority of which clearly want to see badgers culled (see here).
Defra have flagged to the partnership the ‘mountains to climb’ problems (including little money allocated), but they are apparently trying to get the ever-biddable, National Trust to front it. An online Badger Vaccination Conference this summer was shelved and APHA sent away to try do the impossible – find evidence of badger vaccination reducing bTB herd breakdowns.
A bTB ‘cordone sanitaire’ for the Edge Area
DEFRA do still seem to be hanging onto the old ‘cordon sanitaire’ concept for the Edge Area and this may also be a target for the 2,600 sq km capacity by 2024 target. The ‘cordone’ keeps moving back, like an army in retreat, due to infected cattle movements. And it is not much of a ‘cordone’ when unidentified infected cows are being transported by road into and beyond it, with regularity.
APHA has a new mapping procedure that produces their view of where badgers have or have not been infected by cattle. The grey hexagons on their map, they estimate, are bTB free and may be the kind of area for the ‘Sussex’ approach, but what status will they have in five years’ time? In truth, getting vaccination going in the key battleground counties including Cheshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, and Hampshire would require a ‘cordone army’ of 1000 people and a £12 Million annual budget, just to get off the ground. The cull areas, if not left alone, will need twice or more effort with a bill of £100 Million by 2030. DEFRA’s value for money accounting ‘wonks’ have little hard reference. Like badger culling, there are no measurable benefits to bank. External advice suggest that cattle vaccination will be ruinously expensive too. Which civil servant wants to front these initiatives moving forwards?
The scale of badger vaccination currently described is just a pinprick compared to the military style moblisation of gunmen to shoot badgers since 2013. Further, badger vaccination licence applications are now being discouraged by Natural England in the bTB Low Risk area e.g. in Essex and Herts & Middlesex. This is a significant change to allowing badger vaccination to protect badgers on public and private nature reserves, and other places under threat from diseased cattle in the fields next door.
Defra seems largely to want to vaccinate badgers as a part of a ‘cordone’ and once badgers have been decimated after four years. Not for it to be used proactively to protect badgers which is its only current ethical and scientific application.
Badger vaccination is now being manipulated into being the speculative exit strategy following mass destruction of badger clans. But this year, just a handful of new farms, in a 25 sq km area have been started up, in an area (believed to be in Cheshire) where a new project is pushing the government beliefs. Signing up to badger vaccination is a whole new ball game for those wanting to help badgers. The concern is that in doing so, a system is created where the price of vaccinating badgers is the killing of badgers before-hand or elsewhere, both now and forever, and while the disease in cattle continues.
Vaccination groups and Wildlife Trusts are already speaking out (see here) and seeking much better operational terms that those offered by Natural England, who seem to view the regular shooting of vaccinated badgers as inevitable and acceptable. BBOWT, the Wildlife Trust of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire are urging government to develop and deliver a proper badger vaccination strategy, and not secretively and at the current snail pace.
The Geronimo effect
Finally, it is hard not to relate the mishandling of bTB policy in England by DEFRA, over the last decade, including badger culling and vaccination, to the events of recent weeks. The way in which an alpaca breeder Helen MacDonald and her alpaca Geronimo have been dealt with by Defra. The enforced euthanasia and post-mortem of Geronimo, suggesting, in this instance (subject to culturing of tissues) false-positive Enferplex testing, is a very public display of both the inflexibility of government veterinary services and the external pressure of industry bodies, forming and evolving a failing policy.
It is a reminder of why and how on a much greater scale, bovine TB testing and movement control has gone wrong over the last twenty years or more in Britain and Ireland. If Prime Minister Johnson is going to fix the Bovine TB issues in England, then he needs to put a new policy in place with the funding to make it happen. He needs to stop Defra doing ill-advised things that don’t’ work and to kick out those whose actions have made bTB worse in England. Those who have placated commercial interest and allowed vested and biased veterinary inputs to dominate animal welfare and environmental considerations.
Badger vaccination is not a valid exit strategy for badger culling. Badger vaccination should not become a fig-leaf of respectability for a culling policy that just seeks to carry on culling badgers forever.
Vaccinators need to be extremely careful of what they are endorsing or signing up to and how actions in a local area risk complementing and sustaining the routine killing of badgers to 2038 and beyond elsewhere.
Vaccinators should avoid:
Advice that badger vaccination, with epi-culling is a viable way to overcome bovine TB in cattle.
Advice not to support or fund legal action against badger culling in order to qualify for government badger vaccination contracts.
Offers of funding and staff posts for ‘buying in’ to the government’s ‘epi- culling’/vaccination plans.
Vaccination contracts with non-disclosure clauses, requiring vaccinators to;
Be silent on cruelty and opposition to badger culling.
Share sett data with cull companies.
Accept that vaccinated badgers may be shot occasionally or even routinely.
Suggest or imply to farmers that badger vaccination may help reduce bTB in cows when this is not known.
Many of you will have noticed the publicity surrounding the unexpected release of the above report entitled DEFRA (2020) Next steps for the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England. The government’s response to the strategy review, 2018.
Most of the newspapers ran dramatic stories, talking of a seismic shift and U-turn in government thinking on badger culling and bovine TB. There was also talk of a ‘shift in political emphasis’, a ‘rowing back’ and ‘viable exit strategy’. It was as if they had failed to read and digest properly the details in the 109 pages.
Unsurprisingly, some organisations and individuals stated that the report was to be welcomed and offered hope whilst others were rather more cautious or cynical. Let’s unpick what actually happened and what it might mean for badgers and the efforts to stop badger culling.
A shift away from badger culling and towards badger vaccination?
No, not really. Vaccination of badgers was always a part of the strategy, even if a neglected one. The 2018 Godfray review called for a move away from lethal control but only by way of conducting a comparison between supplementary culling and vaccination. This is something that would be controversial and expensive to carry out, take many years and lead to more speculation and bickering over modelled results. Most would advocate vaccination over culling, but the level of vaccination, up to a few thousand badgers a year, does not make it an acceptable trade-off for continuation of mass culling for another decade. Especially when it will never be possible to attribute changes in bTB herd breakdown rates to badger vaccination, rather than any one of a number of other interventions. This is exactly the same as is happening now with badger culling.
But Badger Culling is coming to an end isn’t it?
No, it isn’t; many having been misled by what they were reading or have been told. Nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow the public have been conned into thinking it is because of the generality of the Godfray Group review. The facts are that we are now at ‘peak cull’; over 40 cull areas are in-hand and much of the High Risk Area is being culled. Last year this year and next year will each see around 40,000 or more badgers shot in more futile culls. After that, culling tails off, but only because they are running out of badgers to kill; 70% of badgers across English ‘cattle country’ will have been killed. Nevertheless, don’t expect killings to drop below 15,000 at any time before 2030 by which time up to 300,000 badgers will have died. It could be fewer, (but not much fewer),as culling starts up in the Edge area and potentially becomes more widespread in the Low Risk Area as the failed policy causes more spread eastwards. The fact is, it is business as usual with the government killing machine. This is DEFRA keeping to plan which as reported in Farmers Weekly on 11th March 2020 is to maintain the badger population to one badger/sq.km. or below to reduce the possibility of badger to cattle bTB transmission.
But government accept that badger culling isn’t working, don’t they?
No, quite the opposite. All Defra offer is deception, cherry picked data and selective use of models. Supplementary Badger Culling (SBC) has been fought in court for three years and whatever you believe about the science, bovine TB went through the roof in Gloucestershire in 2018, the first year of SBC with a 130% increase and in 2019 it remained at the same levels as before culling started. Yet the Defra response repeats time after time only the equivocal study stating reduction in Gloucestershire of 66% by 2017, based on questionable modelling by a small number of government paid scientists. Why do they do this? Claiming success and progress is the Defra justification for continuing culling. This is despite the then Chief Scientific Advisor Ian Boyd confirming in legal papers in June 2019 that there is no way to determine the direct effects of badger culling from individual areas or areas combined after many years. The only stop button is if bTB falls away.
Why do Defra mislead us?
Defra are desperate to retain credibility on this issue, and are trapped within their own failed policy and bad epidemiology advice. They surely realise by now that badger culling with other actions is not delivering bTB control and that the problem remains with cattle testing and lax cattle movement controls. Responsibility for bTB policy within the government has changed hands over the last couple of years. Nobody wants to own it. The Defra response shows all the signs of a government refusing to deal with their past oversights and misjudgements. It is bereft of the will to take charge of the immediate measures needed including pre-movement testing with modern blood tests, the only measure that can drive infection rates down in the short term.
So the report just repackages old policy with no good outcome?
The sort of cattle measures being promoted are positive, but very long promised and overdue and they don’t go anywhere near far enough. A DIVA test trial to enable cattle vaccination would be welcome, but is it the right technology? Another five year wait to find out. 6 monthly SICCT testing is being expanded in the High Risk Area ‘over the next few years’ in addition to the Edge Area. This was a ‘no-brainer’ in 2012 but now can’t take place all at once because too many bTB positive cattle would be detected. There is mention of increase in gamma test, introduction of IDEXX testing – this is good but there is no timetable. There is suggestion of compulsory post movement testing in the Low Risk Area and Edge Area only. This should have been mandatory everywhere; it is how Scotland eliminated bTB by 2009 to become TB-Free. There is a suggestion to incentivise biosecurity by a compensation penalty for those who don’t adhere to biosecurity recommendations. This has been done in Wales for a while and must help. There is talk of improved slurry management – this is good, but large scale applied research is needed not just small scale investigations.
Most noticeable of all the above is a lack of detail as to the extent of any action and clear timetable for implementation.
Where does badger protection really stand after this report?
The wait continues regarding permission for the case against SBC in the Supreme Court. A hope for positive news remains. An end to this unscientific experiment has been signalled but it should never have started.
The recently released Defra report reflects more than anything, a stubborn entrenchment of its thinking, their lack of new ideas or acceptance of external criticisms and how badly they are ‘stuck’ in failing policy. There is desperation in them clinging to the 2019 APHA ‘Downs’ modelling paper when they know the conclusions are unreliable. What does this say about Defra’s competence?
Many Badger Groups have worked incredibly hard on badger vaccination which does provide clan immunity, but does not necessarily prevent these badgers being shot if they stray beyond an ownership boundary. Unfortunately there is no evidence that badger vaccination assists in bTB control and mass vaccination gives life to the ‘finger of blame’ that points to badgers being heavily involved in the transmission of bTB to cows, which is uncertain at best.
Badgers are still being unscientifically blamed for a significant proportion of cattle bTB infection, leading to a nonsensical question on the potential benefit of culling versus vaccination. Never in a million years will badger vaccination protect cattle from bTB, it can only protect badgers. Cattle need their own vaccine. The recent suggestion by Defra that badgers should be snared to facilitate vaccination indicates quite clearly their lack of understanding of the physical injuries inflicted by snares. Snare restraints must be opposed at all cost.
I hope this summary is useful. Please let us know your thoughts. These are strange times and coronavirus now dominates our lives. The next few months will be a huge test for many of us and may even take some of us away. Whatever happens, the fight will go on and will not fade. That is a promise.
We are the Badger Crowd and we will continue to fight lies and deceptions relating to the mindless slaughter of badgers in England.