The Badger Vaccination Trap and the Geronimo Effect

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 peaked 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 in 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.