Intensive badger culling to tackle TB in livestock will be gradually phased out as moves are made to deploy a cattle vaccine for the disease, the Government has announced.
The next phase of the Government’s strategy to tackle bovine tuberculosis in cattle will involve field trials of a cattle vaccine, with work accelerated to deploy it within the next five years.
The Environment Department (Defra) said there are also plans to vaccinate more badgers – which can transmit TB to livestock – against the disease and a “gradual phasing out of intensive culling” of the wild animals.
No-one wants to continue the cull of this protected species indefinitelyEnvironment Secretary George Eustice
The move spells the beginning of the end of the controversial policy of intensive badger culling, which farmers have said is necessary to control the disease that devastates the beef and dairy industries.
Despite opposition from wildlife and animal welfare groups, which said culling is inhumane and ineffective, the badger cull has been rolled out to 40 areas of England.
The Government said culling has led to reductions in the incidence of TB in herds of 66% and 37% over the first four years in the two areas where it was introduced – Gloucestershire and Somerset.
But it envisages that the current intensive culling policy will begin to be phased out in the next few years, replaced by badger vaccination schemes which would be supported by the Government.
Culling would remain an option where disease assessment indicated it was needed.
The shift in strategy has been made possible by a breakthrough by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) which will allow for field trials of a cattle vaccine, with efforts to accelerate the vaccine’s deployment within five years.
Previously it was not possible to vaccinate cattle as tests for the disease could not differentiate between vaccinated animals and those which simply had bovine TB.
Now an effective “Diva” test which can differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals has been developed and will be tested alongside the BCG vaccine in field trials in support of rolling it out within five years.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Bovine TB is a slow-moving and insidious disease, leading to the slaughter of over 30,000 cattle every year and considerable trauma for farmers as they suffer the loss of highly-prized animals and valued herds.
“The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease as demonstrated by recent academic research and past studies.
“But no-one wants to continue the cull of this protected species indefinitely so, 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.”
UK Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss said: “This ground-breaking research carried out by Apha has enabled us to embark on the first step of the field trials required to license the cattle vaccine and test it.
“Whilst 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.”
Vaccination is the most promising form of badger managementProfessor Rosie Woodroffe, ZSL
There are also plans to improve the cattle testing regime to intercept the disease earlier and remove it from herds more quickly.
Professor Rosie Woodroffe, from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), said the moves, which come in the wake of an independent review of the Government’s bovine TB strategy, mark a “seismic shift”.
The focus on cattle-based measures such as the vaccine for livestock is “appropriate, because the best estimates show that most cattle herds that acquire TB are infected by other cattle herds”, she said.
But she added that efforts to eradicate the disease entirely also have to focus on badgers.
“Vaccination is the most promising form of badger management because, unlike culling, it has the potential to eradicate TB from badgers, as well as being cheaper, more humane, and more environmentally friendly,” she said.
Prof Woodroffe welcomed the first steps in the shift to badger vaccination, including piloting it in areas which have recently been culled, and support for vaccination in areas where farmers have chosen not to cull.
Zoe Davies, from the wildlife coalition Wildlife and Countryside Link, said there is a lot to like in the proposals.
“A much-needed switch to vaccination and phasing out culling should help tackle the disease more effectively and avoid thousands of badger deaths,” she said.
“Improved testing should reduce the main spread of the disease from cow to cow.”
But she added that the Government must “ensure these moves are implemented quickly” rather than waiting an indeterminate time for the disease to decline in wildlife.