Badger vaccination in the control of bovine TB
From Fridge to Field
This is a reworking of my October 3rd talk to the ZSL workshop on the contribution of badger and cattle vaccination in the control of bovine TB.
In this presentation I want to show how to get the Cinderella tool badger vaccination out of the ‘toolbox’ and into use through a strategic plan for England.
The work that I started with my star colleagues in the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (work they have continued and expanded) is a clear demonstration of voluntary sector leadership in the face of government and industry apathy.
Gloucestershire is the place where the first badger was found infected with bovine Tb in the early 1970s, it is the home of the world class AHVLA badger ecology research team at Woodchester Park and it is the county with the first and only surviving government funded badger vaccination programme (BVDP) on private farmland. Moreover I had studied the growing problem of bovine TB in cattle over my 30 plus years in Gloucestershire, I had been a member of conservative government minister Angela Browning MP’s advisory panel, I had given evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee and ended up as The Wildlife Trust’s national spokesperson on badgers and bovine TB. The disease is an issue for land owning conservation charities just as it is for farmers.
The reason that Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust wanted to understand the practicalities of badger vaccination and how to use it for itself was based on a need to contribute to understanding how bovine TB in cattle could be controlled. Whilst vaccinated badgers would gain some protection from the disease (if they were not infected at the time of the vaccination) the problem is a disease of cattle.
By vaccinating badgers the Trust would be contributing to a greater understanding of how to manage bovine TB in wild badgers without causing any damage to the ecology of this fine mammal, just as the Secretary of State Owen Paterson MP requested in the foreword to his draft 2013 strategy. Just as important as the practical experience of badger vaccination using the Trust’s own busy nature reserve managers was to find out exactly how much the programme would cost. Detailed reports of the Trust’s work was published for its 2011 and 2012 programmes.
The choice of which nature reserves on which to start was based on three basic tests. Was grassland on the site or nearby, were badgers in the area and had there been recent incidence of bovine TB in cattle?
Flower rich grasslands are one of the jewels of the British countryside. Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust had experienced bovine TB as a problem when the cattle of one of its graziers at the fabulous Daneway Banks nature reserve went down with the disease.
Maintaining healthy livestock is essential if our nature rich grasslands are to be kept in good health.
Two groups of nature reserves emerged as clear favourites; a cluster in the Stroud Valleys and the Trust’s farmland at Greystones Farm in Bourton-on-the-water.
The Stroud Valleys nature reserves were the greater challenge as they had poor access on hilly land often with no vehicle access. Pete Bradshaw one of the Trust’s lay vaccinators, illustrated above, often had to carry equipment onto the sites. This made these nature reserves more expensive for badger vaccination as they took more staff time.
The second major test of practical badger vaccination, which no-one had tried on this scale before with their own money and staff, was on the Trust’s Greystones Farm nature reserve in Bourton-on-the-water. Archaeologists had shown that people had been using this land for 6000 years making it one of the most ancient farming sites in England.
Experience over the past three years has shown that the small scale at which the Trust chose to work is viable and not as expensive as is oft quoted.
Other organisations have also shown that with a few trained staff and volunteers ambitious programmes of badger vaccination can be developed. I am grateful to the Badger Trust for providing these figures whilst they were still busy vaccinating badgers across a number of counties.
Wildlife Trusts across England are now vaccinating badgers or preparing programmes for 2014.
As can be seen by comparing the table above with this map from the draft strategy there is now a growing body of badger vaccination expertise across those areas of England where bovine TB is most severe.
The badger vaccination tool is out of the box and is being used practically at the small scale. However, Cheshire and Shropshire Wildlife Trusts have gone a step further with their ambitious partnership with local vets and private farmers.
Transferring the knowledge and expertise from the 167 lay vaccinators that have passed the AHVLA badger vaccination course to a wider band of trainees, volunteers and media commentators is of great importance.
John Field a skilled lay vaccinator shows BBC Archers agricultural adviser Steve Peacock (yes that is how I got the story on to the Archers) how BadgerBCG vaccine is prepared for use in the early August mists of Greystones Farm. Lay vaccinators can be supported by volunteers to lower staff costs. A combination of professionals, trainees and volunteers can make a real contribution to reduced costs and wider uptake of the technique across England.
As can be seen from this slide, surveying and planning a badger vaccination programme can take a lot of time. Volunteers can make a real difference. Sharing skills will be key to extending badger vaccination programmes across England.
Brock Vaccination is one of the emerging professional badger vaccination companies that offer a package to land owners. They can provide a full service of support local organisations and their staff.
So how much does it cost to vaccinate badgers against bovine TB? Most of the expense is in the specialist equipment, training, licensing and staff time. As more and more individuals and organisations gain experience the costs will come down.
Small scale costs will be at the upper end of the range somewhere around £40 to £45 per hectare. However with organisation and coordinated delivery the costs could be reduced to £2000 per square kilometer , cheaper than badger culling with no risks of perturbation and no clamoring opposition from scientists, citizens, conservationists and animal welfare workers.
So why is there no cunning plan for England as Baldric might ask? Good question and one that Wildlife and Countryside Link would support wholeheartedly.
In their submission to the draft strategy for controlling bovine TB in England Wildlife and Countryside Link pressed for badger vaccination to be used strategically.
The Signatories to the statement have a combined membership of over 1000000.
Significantly they also highlight the need for civil society partnerships for the public good.
So what is missing? In my view there are four stages that need real energy to make use of the support for badger vaccination and the growing voluntary sector capacity to deliver it.
We need some leadership and commitment to make use of an important tool in the management of bovine TB in England. But it still remains little used because government ministers and NFU leaders choose to disabuse its value and deny its current availability.
Wales has chosen a different path in its Intensive Action Areas and has developed a very ambitious Welsh Assembly funded badger vaccine programme. It is about to extend this to the voluntary community through its new Cymorth TB partnership programme.
We need just such a plan for England just as Wildlife and Countryside Link and the EFRA Select committee have demanded.
We need to make more use of badger vaccination at the business scale in England and Wales by making it easier for the technique to be used economically.
… and we need to collate and disseminate the knowledge that is being built about badger vaccination science and field craft. Most importantly if bovine TB is really the most serious animal health disease affecting the farming industry we need to stop squabbling and use badger vaccination now.
Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and the Badger Trust have been using badger vaccination with increasing expertise since 2011. How on earth can we still be waiting for a leaders in the farming industry to recognize the obvious. Get BadgerBCG out of the fridge and into the field.
There is no time to waste.
Doing nothing is not an option. Doing something called the badger cull is a scientifically invaled.
Badger BCG is the missing link in a coherent bovine TB management strategy for England. A vaccine for cattle is 5 to 10 years away. In the meantime lets get badger vaccine out of the fridge and into to field.