Cheshire Wildlife Trust give their views on the badger cull

This autumn the Government undertakes a cull of badgers in south west England in an effort to tackle bovine tuberculosis. But is a cull the only option and what is the potential for bTB to affect the Cheshire countryside, asks Tom Marshall of Cheshir

It is perhaps ironic that 100 years since the start of the modern conservation movement began, spearheaded by the Wildlife Trusts and latterly symbolised by the iconic black and white badger logo, that this same creature has now come to represent one of the greatest challenges for the modern farming community and conservationists.

We are of course talking about bovine tuberculosis or bTB, a crippling disease Notthat is spread to livestock through other mammals and often those that roam the same countryside, including badgers. In 2010 alone, bTB cost the UK rural economy more than �90 million.

Cattle are at the heart of rural life in Cheshire and neighbouring Shropshire, from the multi-million pound dairy industry – also subject to its own recent concerns over reduced payments – to beef production. It’s no surprise then that the threat from bTB is being treated with serious concern, trepidation and frustration from those who have already found it arriving at their farm gate.

Recognising the devastating impact of bTB, the Government will this autumn undertake a trial cull of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset, a strategy which, if rolled-out across the country they believe could see a reduction of new bTB cases of 16 per cent over a nine-year period.

While the Wildlife Trusts – including those in Cheshire and Shropshire – believe measures to tackle bTB must be taken, and fast, their experts do not believe that culling of badgers in affected areas or bTB ‘hotspots’ is the solution.

First, the realistic effectiveness of the culling strategy will depend on several factors such as cattle herd size; current TB herd incidence in the culled and peripheral areas; density of badgers; prevalence of TB in badgers; culling efficacy; land access; co-ordination of the culling effort; and barriers to badger movement and/or increase transmission of infection.

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Indeed, badger culling has taken place as a method of tackling bTB since the 1970s, however a full scientific study was not undertaken until the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (also known as the Krebs Trial) which began in 1998. Although those in support of culling pointed to reduced levels of incidents, a number of independent observers also identified that the process led to the disease being spread further into surrounding areas, the so-called ‘perturbation effect’.

Richard Gardner, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscape manager who works daily with landowners across north Cheshire, explains: ‘Badgers are an extremely social species, gathering in family and social groups around their setts and routinely feeding together.

‘The fear with any culling programme that involves free shooting is that by the very nature of dealing with nocturnal wild animals in a humane manner, it may not always be possible to conclusively despatch all the individuals in a group which may number seven or more individuals.

‘The concern around the so-called perturbation effect is that potentially bTB infected badgers that are disturbed by the initial efforts to cull other individuals in the group may leave that particular territory and move on – in turn taking the disease into previously unaffected areas.’

Scientists believe the problem can be further exacerbated by bTB ‘depleted territories’ being taken over by new badger groups, in turn increasing the overall movement of badgers and the potential for badger-to-badger transmission of the disease.

It’s thought however, that when left undisturbed, movement between badger territories is relatively minimal and in stable populations bTB can remain localised.

So if the solution isn’t culling, what options are left for livestock farmers looking over their shoulder? This is where the Wildlife Trusts are seeking to lead the way in tackling the disease through direct vaccination of badgers against bTB.

For the last 15 years, the Government has invested around �30 million in developing vaccines against bTB for both cattle and badgers. A cattle vac cine remains in development but tied-up with EU regulatory issues, while an oral badger vaccine is not expected until 2015. However, two years ago the first injectable bTB vaccine for badgers became available and was first successfully trialled by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust in 2011.

It is this breakthrough that the Wildlife Trusts’ conservationists believe can offer a sustainable solution to the bTB crisis, along with a package of measures including increased biosecurity, better surveillance across cattle and badger movements and more robust testing.

The vaccine works by reducing the severity of the disease in infected badgers, therefore reducing the transmission from badger-to-badger and subsequently badger-to-cattle. Recent ‘safety’ field studies resulted in a significant 73 per cent reduction of in the incidence of positive results tests for bTB.

This has led Cheshire Wildlife Trust, in partnership with neighbouring Shropshire Wildlife Trust, to conduct a trial vaccination programme across the south of the county this autumn – with the support of several local farmers.

Ed Friend and his wife Penny have a milking herd of over 300 spring calving cows just south of Nantwich, and as farmers and vets see vaccination as an obvious way of controlling bTB. ‘Badger vaccination cannot promise to solve all our problems, but it certainly won’t make the situation worse,’ says Ed.

‘We’ve been suffering from TB in our dairy herd for several years. We’ve had over 120 cattle slaughtered in the last two years and have to put to sleep many calves at birth because we cannot sell anything on the open market. The current Defra TB policy offers no prospect of improvement and after looking into vaccination we found that the only group certified in the area was the Wildlife Trusts who are working across the county boundary, as we are.

Ed added: ‘I would like to see badger vaccination happen every year as part of our farm policy to work with changes we have already made to aspects such as feed storage and preventing badger access to the farm buildings.’

Helen Trotman, People and Wildlife Manager with Shropshire Wildlife Trust is all too aware of the growing problem over the border: ‘We know bTB is reaching a critical point across Shropshire and needs tackling now, and there are already pockets of the disease within neighbouring Cheshire too. Vaccination may give us a chance to contain the problem, and in Cheshire’s case perhaps stem any further spread in some areas.

‘We think this trial has real potential not only to help those in the farming community with whom we work so closely to secure a Living Landscape, but also to show the Government that there is a strong and viable alternative to the bTB problem that will lessen the impact on our much-loved native wildlife, and especially a creature that is close to the hearts of many, and not just those who support the Wildlife Trusts.’

Not only backed by some in the farming community and local conservationists, vaccination as an alternative to culling is also being supported by local veterinary practices including Lambert, Leonard and May who are actively promoting vaccination to clients with beef and dairy herds that may be under threat from bTB.

Whatever your take on the bTB issue, it’s hoped that the vaccination trial may shed new light on our options for grappling with a disease that not only has the potential to cripple rural livelihoods, but also the reputation and very existence of a species that has come to represent generations of protection for our wildlife.

How you can help

The Trust is extremely grateful to Chester Zoo for contributing around �6,000 of equipment, veterinary resources and expertise to the vaccination programme, which will support the purchase of all the equipment that’s needed to conduct the trial safely, efficiently and in the most humane way.

Cheshire Wildlife Trust is however, opening a public appeal this autumn for further financial support to enable the trial to go ahead without impacting upon the charity’s other day-to-day operations across its 46 nature reserves, Living Landscape scheme and species recovery projects.

If you would like to find out more about the vaccination trial and how to donate to the appeal, please visit the Trust’s website