Cheshire remains on the frontline for tackling the northerly spread of bovine tuberculosis.
- Credit: Sam Stewart
After its third year of operation, Tom Marshall from Cheshire Wildlife Trust reports on the charity’s badger vaccination scheme
Three years ago, a small team from Cheshire Wildlife Trust embarked on the first ever badger vaccination programme against bovine TB undertaken in the north of England. The initial trial was a modest undertaking across 85ha of mixed-use farm – home to the charity’s Longhorn and Dexter cattle – in south Cheshire, in partnership with Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The ground-breaking project had been made possible by more than £20,000 of public donations, in the wake of government proposals for a cull of badgers elsewhere in the country.
Fast-forward to last year, and the Trust is now involved in one of the largest badger vaccination deployment programmes against bTB outside the ‘hotspot’ areas of Gloucestershire and Somerset. In 2014, this saw the treatment of almost 100 badgers across nine different farms in the region, encompassing around 1,300ha of Cheshire countryside. A team of specially-trained staff and volunteers undertook 216 individual trap deployments between May and November, the season of peak activity for badgers. On the largest farm in the scheme at 350ha, some 27 badgers were successfully trapped and treated over the 48 hour annual trapping period.
The backdrop to this progress remains a complicated and rapidly changing picture that regularly poses more questions than it answers for our politicians, farming community and those who want to see the government avoid the use of tactics such as culling and, as has been recently suggested, gassing.
Here in Cheshire, we’re also beginning to understand more about where TB is and the role the region has to play in what has come to be known as the ‘edge area’ in the frontline battle against the disease.
A previous badger-based TB survey had last been undertaken more than a decade ago, with just a handful of badgers testing positive for the disease out of a sample size numbering around 400.
A more recent updated roadkill badger survey led by the University of Liverpool’s Leahurst Veterinary School, in partnership with the NFU and the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, has now revealed around one in four of the region’s badgers to be carrying bTB from more than 80 specimens collected during the last year. Although not fully randomised and across a much smaller sample, there is certainly no doubt that bTB is more prevalent in Cheshire’s badger population now than it was a decade ago.
This small study also has a broader long-term aim to try and assess the various strains of TB being carried by badgers in the region in a bid to answer some of the key questions; is TB in Cheshire part of a natural northerly progression of the disease, or is the disease is also spreading from within the North West as a result of cattle movements and transfer between livestock and the badgers themselves.
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Whatever route by which TB has found its way onto our farms, it remains clear that Cheshire has a potential role to play in tackling the disease – with its unique position below what could be considered a natural barrier of the Manchester conurbation, but with the large cattle grazing areas of the Derbyshire Peaks to the east.
The potential influence of getting on top of TB in Cheshire, and other similar ‘edge areas’ was finally recognised by the Government in autumn 2014, when Defra announced that up to 50% funding support could be made available for farmers wanting to opt-in to badger vaccination in several key edge areas, including many parts of Cheshire.
Of concern to some farmers now, is whether Cheshire remains in this critical edge zone, or whether these influential parts of the country are already changing. Recent cases of TB beyond Manchester and up into Lancashire and Cumbria are alarming many in the North West’s livestock industry, with the University of Liverpool now proposing an expansion of their recent roadkill study into these areas, in the hope of assessing the potential source of these outbreaks.
Elsewhere in the UK, debate over the best way to tackle bTB in Britain’s livestock herds has continued unabated. Initial culling trails by the government in Gloucestershire and Somerset in 2013 ended in embarrassment for ministers, when targets defined at the beginning of the season were significantly missed and a later independent report identified a number of shortfalls in efficiency and humaneness of the strategy. Costs that ran into the millions – including policing and security – followed, with Defra eventually stating that no independent panel would be monitoring the programme in 2014, to the condemnation of many in the scientific and conservation community.
Throughout the last three years, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s concerns about the culling process have remained at the heart of their campaign – namely that there is a possibility in the long-term that culling could increase the spread of the disease through ‘perturbation’. This is when infected animals which haven’t been killed and removed are caused to migrate within the environment as a result of population gaps created by the culling process. This potential impact was brought into sharp focus in 2013, when the government’s initial trails missed the basic targets set by scientists to minimise the possible effects of perturbation.
Whatever the pros and cons of the culling process and indeed vaccination, many in the farming community and now the government too, are recognising that tackling TB cannot be addressed by one silver bullet alone. One of the greatest challenges remains easily identifying TB in badgers in the field, which would have significant and beneficial impacts for working out where the disease is present, and allow a directed and more targeted approach to either vaccination, culling, or as some commentators have proposed, a combination of the two strategies in different parts of the UK.
Currently, TB testing in badgers usually requires the expertise of a professional vet, followed by lengthy laboratory assessment making the option of testing, marking and recapture for culling or vaccination costly and largely impractical.
Continuing their role at the forefront of research of TB in the badger population, Cheshire Wildlife Trust last year began micro-chipping badgers for the first time at selected sites in the region. Although this is unlikely to impact on application of the vaccine (the Trust recommends to farmers an annual ‘booster’, costing just £14 per animal) the Trust hopes it will provide a useful insight into general badger ecology and their movements on and around farmland involved in the scheme. Microchipping (similar to the technology used in domestic pets) is already a technique utilised by conservationists for much smaller mammals such as hazel dormice.
Without an independent assessment from the 2014 season, many anti-cull campaigners remain sceptical about the government’s cull programme and its scientific robustness, while in Cheshire the complex discussions over where the disease is present will no doubt continue.
At Cheshire Wildlife Trust, badger vaccination will remain at the core of the charity’s work against the disease, along with lobbying for wider benefits like more robust and credible cattle testing regime, associated movement controls both on and off farm – and of course a cattle vaccine. As one south Cheshire farmer and vet described the Trust’s programme “right now we don’t know what the impact will be, but we know it can’t make the situation any worse”.
Whatever the future holds for badgers and the farming community in Cheshire this year and beyond, the spotlight is likely to remain on Cheshire as the battlefront for TB in the UK.