The National Trust is to vaccinate badgers against TB this summer in a bid to curb the disease in cattle – the first UK landowner to do so.
The trust hopes its £320,000, four-year project on Devon’s Killerton estate will make the case for vaccination as an alternative to culling.
Cattle (or bovine) tuberculosis costs the UK about £100m each year.
The government is set to approve badger culling in England soon, and the Welsh Assembly Government also plans a cull.
Research published last year showed the vaccine lowers infection in badgers.
Some cattle herds contract TB through contact with badgers, which carry the bacterium, although infection from other cattle is more significant.
Badger culling is a controversial option and although the trust is not opposed to it in principle, it is troubled by research showing it could do more harm than good – hence the vaccination scheme.
“This is a pilot project – it’s not research, not a trial – we know the vaccine works, and we’re going for it,” said David Bullock, the trust’s head of nature conservation.
“The driver is that we want to reduce the risk of bovine TB breakdowns in cattle herds belonging to our tenant farmers, 18 of whom are involved in this project – and we also want to see that the vaccine is considered nationwide.”
Last December, scientists with the government-owned Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) published the results of a four-year field trial using an injectable TB vaccine.
As the vaccine is preventative, [it is] unlikely to impact positively on infected badgers”
Melanie Hill NFU regional director
It showed that vaccination reduced the incidence of TB in badgers by 74%, but did not look for any impact on infection levels in cattle.
The Labour government had planned five subsequent pilot vaccination projects, but the coalition reduced that to one, and Killerton was among the sites axed.
So at a cost of £80,000 per year, the National Trust is picking up the project, making use of the fact that some of the preliminary research (such as mapping out badger setts) has already been done.
Across about 20 sq km (8 sq miles) of the site, badgers will be lured into cages with bait and trapped.
Trained and licensed Fera staff will then deliver a dose of vaccine and release the badger, first marking it so it does not subsequently receive a second shot.
Dozens of setts have been identified, and the trust believes many hundreds of badgers will be vaccinated.
The Conservative Party made badger culling a plank of their general election campaign last year.
Badger vaccination could reduce the need for cattle testing, or culling Supporters of badger vaccination say it could reduce the need for cattle testing, or culling
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has demanded it for a long time and after the election Agriculture Minister Jim Paice – a farmer himself – announced a public consultation into how it should be implemented in England.
While supporting the trust’s decision to carry out the pilot programme, the NFU said vaccines formed part of the long-term solution but did not address the “desperate plight” that many farmers currently found themselves in.
“Current vaccination methods of injecting badgers is costly, and practically challenging with the benefits remaining unclear, and unproven,” Melanie Hall, the NFU’s regional director for South-West England told BBC News.
“As the vaccine is preventative, [it is] unlikely to impact positively on infected badgers.”
Nationwide, nearly 35,000 cattle were slaughtered last year and there is no vaccine yet that can be used in cattle.
The government believes a cull would reduce disease incidence in cattle by 16% over nine years.
A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affair (Defra) welcomed the National Trust’s plans to run a vaccine pilot project.
He added: “There’s no one solution to tackling TB, and the badger vaccine we developed is one of the tools we have available.
“We will be announcing a comprehensive and balanced TB Eradication Programme for England as soon as possible.”
Ministers were expected to publish their plans to deal with bovine TB in the national herd in February; but amid turmoil over the disposal of nationally-owned forests, the announcement was postponed, and is now expected next month.
Meanwhile, the Welsh Assembly Government has announced new plans for a pilot cull in Pembrokeshire this year, after a legal ruling derailed similar plans last year.
Animal rights campaigners are to challenge the new plans in the courts.
Behind the issue lie conflicting interpretations of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of culling.
The Westminster and Cardiff governments and the NFU argue that culling can markedly reduce bovine TB incidence in cattle.
But the major UK investigation, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (also called the Krebs trial), showed culling only produced a benefit if conducted rigorously and systematically over large areas, ideally with hard boundaries that badgers could not cross.
Otherwise, the social structure of badger groups broke down when some were killed, and the animals ranged further afield – infecting more cattle and leading to increased TB incidence.
“We’re not against culling badgers if it’s going to be effective in curbing bovine TB, but you can’t apply the criteria everywhere that would make it effective,” Mr Bullock told BBC News.
“Unless you have boundaries, you may have this effect where badgers move around and spread TB – we know from the science that this does happen.”
Scientists who ran the Krebs trial have warned the government that its plan to allow shooting of badgers as they roam was likely to be less effective than the trap-and-shoot method deployed during the trial.
On that basis, they said, culling “risks increasing rather than reducing the incidence of cattle TB”.
In the Irish Republic, culling has been practised for many years and does appear to have curbed bovine TB; but scientists involved with that programme say the disease will not be eradicated without vaccination.
The National Trust argues that vaccination could prove to be a more effective option than culling, in conjunction with tightened regulations designed to prevent cattle-to-cattle transmission.
This would also, of course, avoid killing badgers, which are a protected species under UK and EU laws.
Eventually, the aim is to have an oral vaccine that badgers would simply eat, avoiding any need for trapping; but that is thought to be five years away.