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Government urged to remove ‘badger blinkers’ to cut bovine TB and save taxpayer funds

Wildlife charities are warning that badger-blaming is blinding the Government to more effective ways to stop TB and protect both cattle and our native wildlife as a new review is published today

13 November 2018

Following the publication today of the Godfray review into the Government’s policy on tackling bovine Tuberculosis (bTB), seven nature charities[1], are warning that badger-blaming is blinding the Government to more effective ways to stop TB and protect both cattle and our native wildlife.

Badger culling is of great public concern and the charities agree with the review’s conclusion that the focus on badger culling has distracted from other measures which would have more of an impact on reducing bTB. Professor Godfray’s review states that ‘it is wrong… to over-emphasise the role of wildlife.’ The Government’s blinkered assumption that the cull is essential, means that vital research and investment into options such as: enhanced cattle testing for TB; improved cow-to-cow infection control measures; and badger vaccination, are not receiving the attention they deserve.

Vaccination alone could achieve a triple whammy win - more effectively reducing bTB in badgers, saving the taxpayer[2] and farmers money, and stopping the senseless killing of one of our most iconic wildlife species. A large-scale badger vaccination trial would cost less than the government invests in a single average cull zone. If implemented nationwide, could cost a cost of as little as £600 per sq km for vaccination by volunteers compared to the £112,265 per sq km cost of selective culling.[3] A current Derbyshire Wildlife Trust trial has costs of £82 per badger vaccinated compared to an average £339 cost per badger culled.

The groups support the review’s recommendation on moving to non-lethal measures like badger vaccination, but believe trialling vaccination only in areas which have already been culled would underestimate the potential benefits of vaccination. The charities therefore recommend that vaccine-only trial areas be included so the results will provide a like-for-like comparison of culling and vaccination.

Dr Elaine King, Director of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: ‘Continuing to kill badgers without properly trialling badger vaccination is like playing poker blind, and relying on the flawed cattle skin test to identify TB infection is like playing Russian roulette with half the bullets left in the gun. Unless the Government fully investigates and invests in badger vaccination trials, better cattle testing, and better control of cow-to-cow infection, it will be gambling with our cattle industry’s future.’

Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA, said: ‘Farmers and animal charities want the same outcome - to end the scourge of bovine TB and the devastating impacts it has on farmers and animals. We are urging government to review objectively the factual information and develop a bovine TB policy that is truly fit for purpose. Our concern is that the focus on blaming badgers has stalled vital research and investment to find more effective solutions that would save the lives of cattle and move away from the current futile killing of badgers.’

Dominic Dyer, Chief Executive of the Badger Trust, said: ‘The Badger cull is a disastrous policy that is failing farmers, tax payers and badgers. To date the Government have spent over £50 million of public money undertaking the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory, which could push the badger to the verge of extinction in areas of England where it has inhabited since the Ice Age. Despite this huge slaughter the Government have no reliable evidence that badger culling is lowering bovine TB in cattle. It’s time to stop playing the badger blame game and bring this cruel costly and ineffective policy to an end.’

Rosie Woodroffe, Senior Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London said: ‘Bovine TB is a major problem for farmers, which demands an effective solution. But that solution needs to be embedded in the social, ecological, and economic landscape of Britain’s countryside. All the evidence suggests that badger vaccination could potentially contribute to TB control as effectively as culling, but at a lower cost in terms of money, animal welfare, environmental impact, and public opinion. It’s fantastic that the Godfray group recognised the importance of properly evaluating badger vaccination. But a proper trial should include vaccinating areas that have never been culled, as well as areas with a recent history of culling.’

Philip Mansbridge, Director of IFAW UK, said: ‘No one is in any denial that bovine TB is a real issue and it requires real solutions – for our farmers, cattle and wildlife, but it’s a fact that if every single badger in the UK was killed, we would still have rampant bovine TB. The continued killing of tens of thousands of badgers is not only pointless and barbaric, it is also serving only to divert farmers and the Government from focusing on bovine TB control measures that would actually make a difference. Badgers are, in real terms, just a tiny part of a very complex and multi-layered disease control issue, so this inaccurate and consistent ‘badger blaming’ simply needs to stop.’

Defra figures show a total of 19,537 badgers were killed in 2017 as part of the Government’s badger culling programme.[4] The Badger Trust estimates that with 11 additional cull licences granted in 2018 over 40,000 badgers could be killed this year, meaning that by the end of this year as many as 75,000 badgers are likely to have been killed since the current cull programme began in 2013.[5 ] Research clearly indicates that the vast majority of new bTB cases are the result of transmission between cattle[6], and the Government itself has recognized that most new TB cases in high-risk areas were probably due to undetected infected cattle remaining in herds.[7]

Experts rightly believe reducing infections in herds should be the Government’s main focus. At the same time badger vaccination offers a far more humane, and potentially much more successful and cost-effective answer to reducing infection among badgers. Small-scale studies suggest vaccination could reduce badger TB infection by more than 75% and without a single badger being killed.[8] By contrast, the indiscriminate killing of badgers has been shown to increase the prevalence of bTB among surviving animals in some circumstances, increasing the risk of spreading infection.

Current policy in England relies heavily on an outdated cattle skin test; government scientists have estimated that it typically detects just 50% of infected cattle.[9] This potentially leaves one in two infected cows undetected, spreading bTB invisibly to other cattle and to local wildlife. The poor sensitivity of the skin test represents a massive flaw in the Government’s eradication strategy which the Godfray review has failed to emphasize, citing as it does outdated studies that suggested the test detects more than 8 in 10 (81%) of infected cattle.

We agree with the Godfray review’s recommendation that Government should invest in improving the testing regime by combining existing tests and introducing new tests to increase early detection of infected cattle. The gamma interferon (IFNy) blood test increases detection when used in combination with the standard skin test and is already available. We believe this test should be deployed far more widely than it currently is.

The wildlife charities are calling on the Government to suspend its culling policy while it explores its effectiveness along with that of alternatives. Five years after its badger culling policy was initiated, the Government has failed to provide any credible evidence for its efficacy.

The NGOs are recommending a three-pronged approach for the Government to most effectively control bovine TB by:
1. Initiating a large-scale trial of badger vaccination as an alternative to culling – this would be cheaper, more humane, safer, and more publicly acceptable than slaughtering badgers;
2. Investing in developing more effective cattle tests that could be used individually or in combination to better identify and remove infected cattle and reduce infection rates. In the meantime the existing IFNy blood test should be used routinely alongside the current skin test on all tested cattle to increase detection rates;
3. Delivering stronger action on preventing cow-to-cow infection by:

  • Requiring rigorous TB testing for cattle moving between herds
  • Introducing a strict compulsory risk-based trading regime to ensure cattle can only be moved from farms that have as good or better TB history than their destination, based on the CHeCS sysystem
  • Isolating cows more at risk of infection such as dairy cows around birth
  • Ensuring healthy pasture resting times, slurry decontamination, and adequate cattle building ventilation
  • Introducing financial incentives for farmers to improve biosecurity on their farms and robust monitoring to ensure infection control measures are followed.

Notes to Editors:

1. Wildlife and Countryside Link is the largest coalition of nature charities in England. Organisations supporting these calls include: The Badger Trust, The Born Free Foundation, Humane Society International, IFAW, RSPCA, ZSL - Zoological Society of London, and Wildlife and Countryside Link.
2. While mass culling is described as “industry-led”, it currently costs taxpayers 3-6 times as much as it costs farmers (table 4.2)
3. Eradicating TB from cattle and badgers – a review of evidence Zoological Society of London – September 2018, section 4.1.
4. 19,274 badgers were killed in the main cull areas in 2017. In July 2018 Defra published figures on two supplementary cull areas where 263 badgers were culled in 2017.
5. A total of 34,834 badgers were culled between the start of the current cull policy in 2013 to 2017 (see table below). In 2017 when there were 21 cull areas 19,537 badgers were killed, and with an extra 11 cull areas in 2018 the number of badgers killed is almost certain to reach 40,000. This will take the total number of badgers killed to around 75,000 by the end of 2018.
6. Donnelly, CA & Nouvellet, P. PLoS Currents Outbreaks (2013)
7. Source
8. In a short-term 2012 Gloucestershire study, vaccinated wild badgers were 76% less likely to subsequently test positive for TB than unvaccinated badgers. In a relatively small sample-sizes of road-killed badgers within a large vaccination area in Wales, TB declined by 78% - falling from 19% of badgers being infected to 4% over four years of vaccination.
9.Nunez-Garcia et al. (2017). Meta-analyses of the sensitivity and specificity of ante-mortem and post-mortem diagnostic tests for bovine tuberculosis in the UK and Ireland.

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