The culling of badgers remains a major rural issue but change is on the horizon

Great British Life: Encouraging fixed territories for badgers is a deterrent to the spread of the disease SADLERC1/Getty Images/iStockphotoEncouraging fixed territories for badgers is a deterrent to the spread of the disease SADLERC1/Getty Images/iStockphoto (Image: Archant)

In March, the UK government announced a major change in its policy of culling badgers as a way of controlling the spread of Bovine TB. This very controversial cull will now start to be phased out in the next few years, with vaccination of the animals ramped up instead. The change in policy has been met with relief by The Cheshire Badger Vaccination Programme, a volunteer group founded in 2017 by Knutsford-based Elaine Alexander.

Elaine says: “I knew about the culling and didn’t agree with it, from a scientific point of view and an ethical one, but felt I couldn’t say anything as when a herd gets TB it’s terrible. Cows with TB are immediately sent for slaughter. Calculations show when TB gets into a herd it costs the farmer on average £15,000, plus all the trauma of having to destroy the cows affected.

“Cheshire is an ‘edge’ area, which means it has been identified as a sort of buffer zone between high and low risk areas for Bovine TB. The culling started in 2013 in high-risk areas, but was extended hugely in 2017. I was invited to a talk at Lower Moss Wood wildlife sanctuary being given by the Derbyshire Badger Vaccination Programme, who were there to mentor any group who wanted to set up a Cheshire version.

“They asked if anybody wanted to lead it, and my hand went up. I just thought, ‘how hard can it be?’ I soon learned.

Great British Life: CVPV vaccinate a badger, with bio-security controls as standard, even before Covid19,CVPV vaccinate a badger, with bio-security controls as standard, even before Covid19, (Image: Archant)

“My first step was to approach the National Trust, as they work with the Derbyshire group. They had already announced they wouldn’t allow badger culling on their land, so this was a way for them to support their tenant farmers concerned about Bovine TB.

“Farmers basically have three choices: do nothing, sign up to the cull and pay a private company to come on to their land to shoot badgers, or work with a group such as us to start a vaccination programme. As farmers have to pay to cull, we were very keen to do free vaccinations, to make it more tempting. Luckily, in 2018 DEFRA launched a fund that will pay up to 50 per cent of the costs of vaccination; we just need to fundraise the rest.”

The arrangement with the National Trust gave Elaine and her team access to Lyme Park, Quarry Bank Mill, Tatton, and Alderley Edge. As Tatton Park is managed by Cheshire East Council, which had already taken an anti-culling stance, this gave them an introduction which expanded their reach further again.

“We have been able to add Bollington, Pott Shrigley and Adlington and are now heading west to include Wilmslow and Mobberley, to link up to Tatton. Cheshire West and Cheshire Council have also been incredibly supportive, applying to DEFRA themselves for funding and setting aside money for the next four years to support farmers in their area.”

Great British Life: Vaccinated, marked and released.Vaccinated, marked and released. (Image: Archant)

So, just who is it that Elaine has recruited to join her in vaccinating badgers against Bovine TB?

“We now have more than 200 volunteers,” Elaine says. “We have doctors, vet nurses, office workers, students... We take great care when signing people up though – we don’t want to reveal the location of badger setts to cullers or badger baiters, for example.”

To undertake the vaccination, first they need to find the badgers. Luckily, those who know the land best – the farmers – are very willing to help out.

“On the whole the farmers are happy to allow us onto their land and will show us where to find the setts. We only need access for a single 12-day period each year and many are quite curious and like to get involved, which is great. It’s much easier to transport heavy, cumbersome metal traps and bags of peanuts on a quad bike or tractor than carrying them. We go out for the first 10 days scattering peanuts to attract the badgers, gradually introducing the traps. When a badger springs the trap, we can go and vaccinate it, marking its coat to show it’s been done. It clearly doesn’t bother them; we often find the same ones in the traps on consecutive nights –the lure of peanuts is too strong. We do try to maintain a scientific approach, but when you find a cub in one of the traps it’s so cute, they’re really fluffy...

“Once a farmer has witnessed how easy it is and how little it affects them, they are usually willing to introduce us to their neighbours. It’s a very tight-knit community and word-of-mouth is definitely the most powerful way of spreading the message.

“Culling badgers isn’t the solution to Bovine TB. Badgers live in highly stable family groups within a very fixed territory. Culling – the killing of up to 70% of badgers in a territory – causes perturbation, triggering a desire to move on and find a new territory. The risk then, of course, is that badgers carrying the disease move on into a previously ‘clean’ territory and spread it there. By vaccinating badgers and maintaining these family groups in fixed territories, farmers who have never had the disease in their herds can be confident their cattle won’t catch it from the land, as it has never been introduced there.”

If the land is clean, the only way TB can enter the herd will be via a breach in bio-security or buying in cattle that have the disease. Sadly, testing for TB is currently very inaccurate, with some cattle testing negative when in fact they have the disease.

“In our first year, 2019, we vaccinated 97 badgers – and we started very late in the season,” Elaine says. “In 2020 we are much more ambitious. On the land we have signed up already we have all the setts logged, the volunteers briefed, and Natural England’s permission to vaccinate from May 20th. We want to be able to offer all farmers that next year we will come and vaccinate. While the population is low it’s a good time to start and to create a fully vaccinated population going forward. Many farmers only ever agreed to culling to protect their livelihoods, but once aware of an alternative, have chosen to vaccinate instead. They love their land and all the animals that inhabit it.”

View from the NFU

Carl Hudspith of the NFU, says: “In essence the NFU’s policy has never changed, we have always said that we need all the tools in the box to help eradicate Bovine TB and badger vaccination is one of them. We have always advocated that no one form of preventative measure will work on its own. The NFU doesn’t oppose it all, it’s to be welcomed, but the important thing to remember here is that vaccination is a preventative, not a cure. This is something that farmers can do to try to keep the disease at bay, but it’s not the only solution.”