Badgers and bovine Tuberculosis (bTB)

Badgers and bovine Tuberculosis (bTB)

WildNet - Tom Marshall

Dorset Wildlife Trust's opposition to the badger cull

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is one of the biggest challenges facing cattle farmers today, costing the UK tens of millions of pounds every year. We have a great deal of sympathy for farmers who lose stock as a result of bTB and we are acutely aware of the problems this disease causes in Dorset. We are very keen to see the eradication of bTB and want to see an effective solution based on scientific advice and evidence.

Badgers do carry bTB and can transfer it to cattle, but badger culling is not the solution. The scientific evidence demonstrates that culling is likely to be ineffective in fighting the disease and risks making the problem even worse. Badgers are not the primary cause of the spread of bTB in cattle: the primary route of infection is via cow-to-cow contact and a vaccine for cattle should be a priority. UK Cattle are already vaccinated for up to 16 diseases so why should bTB be different?

European badger (Meles meles) cub sniffing the air, Summer, Dorset, United Kingdom © Bertie Gregory/2020VISION

European badger (Meles meles) cub sniffing the air, Summer, Dorset, United Kingdom © Bertie Gregory/2020VISION

About bovine tuberculosis (bTB)

Bovine tuberculosis is a highly infectious disease of cattle which devastates thousands of farming businesses annually. It is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis, which can also infect and cause TB in badgers, deer, goats, pigs and many other mammals. It is a chronic disease which can take years to develop. Since the mid-1980s, the incidence of bTB in cattle has increased substantially creating an economic burden on the taxpayer and the farming industry, as infected cattle must be culled.

Cattle grazing is vital for many wildlife habitats. We work closely with local farmers and manage our own herd too. 

Government research shows that bTB is not a major cause of death in badgers. Generally, infected badgers do not show any sign of infection and can survive for many years before suffering from severe emaciation. Usually they die from other causes before this happens.

Cattle at Kingcombe © Tony Bates

Cattle at Kingcombe © Tony Bates

How is bTB spread?

The spread of bTB is primarily through the exchange of respiratory secretions between infected and uninfected animals. This transmission usually happens when animals are in close contact with each other.

Cattle to cattle transmission is a serious cause of disease spread which is substantiated by scientific evidence. Badgers also suffer from TB and are able to transmit the disease to cattle. Farmers are required by law to have their cattle regularly tested for bTB. A positive test for bTB will result in herd movement restrictions and the slaughter of affected cattle. Around 33,000 cattle were slaughtered for bTB control in England in 2017.

Badgers live in social groups with stable boundaries between groups. If a group is removed by culling, this disturbs the stability and there are likely to be changes in movement patterns of neighbouring groups. This increases the risk of infected animals moving into areas previously occupied by uninfected animals. This is referred to as ‘perturbation’.

The impact of badger culling

Badger culls & the scientific evidence

Badgers are being culled as part of a government initiative to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle. “Pilot” badger culls commenced in 2013 in Gloucester and Somerset amid much opposition. More than 300,000 people supported a petition opposing the cull. An Independent Expert Panel (IEP) was appointed by Defra to assess the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of the 2013 culls. The panel deemed the culls 'ineffective' and 'inhumane' in 2013, with no significant improvement - and further failures - in 2014.

Despite two parliamentary debates, a prominent opposition campaign and the support of numerous experts and high profile figures, the number of areas increased in 2015 to include Dorset. In 2016, 2017 and 2018 the Government announced further cull licenses, including several in Dorset bringing the total number of badger cull areas to 32, in 10 counties. At least 32,601 badgers were culled in 2018 in England. This divisive and emotive issue has divided the county with strong views on all sides.

For more information, For FAQs and the scientific evidence on badger culling please click for more information.

Badger Copyright Wild Stock

Badger Copyright Wild Stock

What needs to happen

We believe an evidence-based and scientifically reliable approach must be developed to counteract the risk posed to cattle by bTB.

  1. Accelerate progress on cattle vaccination
    Cattle vaccination offers the best long-term way to reduce bTB. The research and trialling of a vaccine has been completed, but it needs accreditation which is blocked by an EU ban on its use. This is because the vaccine can interfere with the diagnostic skin test for TB in cattle. A test called DIVA could help resolve this.
  2. Reduce cow-to-cow infections - the major cause of TB infection
    The risk of spreading disease when cattle are transported can be minimised by tightening movement controls even further. Better testing can help pick up more animals at an early stage of infection, which are sometimes missed by current tests.
  3. Ensure higher standards of biosecurity on farms
    bTB transmission may occur via contaminated pasture or around farm buildings. A study by the Food and Environment Research Agency concluded that exclusion measures can be 100% effective in preventing badgers entering farm buildings when deployed properly. Defra fund a free bTB service for farmers which can advise on biosecurity.
  4. Help to roll out badger vaccinations
    Vaccination of badgers and cattle has the potential to reduce bTB without the negative impacts of perturbation arising from a badger cull. Badger vaccination is far cheaper than culling - in 2015 the cost of culling was £2,442 per badger and the cost of vaccinating badgers was £170 per dose for small-scale operations like us, and £82 per dose for larger-scale vaccination projects.
Grazing cattle at Bugden's Meadow

Grazing cattle at Bugden's Meadow

Badger vaccination & our vaccination work

Badger vaccination involves adult badgers and cubs being humanely trapped and vaccinated by trained and licensed people, revisiting the same area for several years to ensure the majority of the local badgers have been vaccinated. In a clinical trial, the vaccine reduced the risk of vaccinated badgers testing positive for progressed infection by 76% and reduced the risk of testing positive to any of the available live tests of infection by 54%. The trial also found that when more than a third of the badger social group was vaccinated it even protected unvaccinated cubs – their risk of infection reduced by 79%. Badger vaccination alone is not the solution to bTB, but it does have an immediate positive effect with no known associated negative impact on badgers or cattle.

We commenced badger vaccination on nature reserves in 2013. Sadly there was a worldwide shortage of vaccine in 2016 but the programme restarted in 2018. We hope our work will contribute to the local control of bTB in cattle by creating immunity in a population of Dorset badgers and explore the practicalities of vaccination usage in the field, thus supporting local farmers whilst protecting badgers.

Find out more about our badger vaccination work

Vaccinating a Dorset badger

How you can help

We need to raise £50,950 to vaccinate badgers against tuberculosis on several of our nature reserves.

This important work takes a great deal of time and resource and is currently unfunded. Please make a contribution to this appeal to help protect Dorset’s badgers and make a contribution to finding alternatives to badger culling.

With your support, we can improve the knowledge base on the practical use of badger vaccine, whilst helping to control bTB in badgers, and so reducing the likelihood that they either pass bTB to or catch it from cattle. We need to raise £50,950 to cover the costs of the vaccination programme for several nature reserves, each running for five years.

What your donation could buy:

£5 – needles £22.50 - one sack of peanuts for bait
£30 - one dose of vaccine £50 - travel costs for a volunteer to help vaccinate
£77 - pressure washer hire for cleaning traps after each round of vaccination
£100 - each trap £130 - trail camera for badger surveying
£1200 - training a vaccinator

Please give as much as you can afford. Each area vaccinated needs to be covered for five years, any additional money raised will be used to extend the programme to other reserves in future years or for follow-up management of vaccinated sites.

Please donate

Be an advocate for badgers today

The Wildlife Trusts have been working on the issue of bovine TB and its links to badgers for many years. We act based on robust scientific analysis and we believe that the distress of bovine TB will not be eradicated by a badger cull. It is not the answer for badgers or farmers and we call on the government to focus on a more durable and resilient strategy to reduce bovine TB.

You can help too, by becoming an advocate for badgers...

Briefing for MPs

The Wildlife Trusts have produced a briefing for MPs that you can download and send to your MP.

Download the briefing

Badger - Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

Contact your MP

Contact your local MP, urging them to put pressure on the Government to drop the cull.

Find your MP

Badger track © J Stobbart

Donate to help our badger vaccination work

We need to raise £50,950 to vaccinate badgers against tuberculosis on several of our nature reserves. 

Make a donation

WildNet - Jon Hawkins © Surrey Hills Photography