Badgers and bovine TB – an update

Badger by Jon Hawkins

Badger by Jon Hawkins

Badger Vaccination and Release by Tom Marshall

Badger Vaccination and Release by Tom Marshall

Over recent years we have been fairly quiet on the subject of badgers and bovine TB. Welsh Government have been delivering a policy of TB eradication that addresses the reservoir of the disease in badgers through vaccination, rather than culling. As a result, WTSWW has been busy undertaking its own badger vaccination project in Carmarthenshire, and doing what it can to support Welsh Government in its policy. The current Welsh Government badger vaccination programme in north Pembrokeshire completed its fourth year before unfortunately it was recently forced to stop by a global vaccine shortage (which also affected WTSWW’s programme). As well as engaging in Welsh Government’s badger vaccination programmes, Conservation Manager Lizzie Wilberforce sits on the south west Wales TB eradication board for Wales Environment Link, and has been following developments with cattle as well as wildlife measures.

This autumn Lesley Griffiths AM, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, announced a ‘refreshed approach’ to TB management in Wales, outlining some new measures towards the aim of eradicating bovine TB.  A new consultation has been released on the subject, which is open until 10 January 2017.

The consultation outlines a number of proposed changes to cattle measures, including creating high, low and medium TB areas to which actions will be specifically tailored. It also proposed risk-based cattle trading, tighter testing regimes and reducing the compensation cap for payments to farmers for cattle lost. The Wildlife Trusts are broadly supportive of the measures proposed for cattle, and we really welcome Welsh Government’s approach to undertaking more detailed analyses of the drivers of disease at a local (and even farm) scale. It is important to remember that the number of new incidents of TB in Wales has been falling in recent years. The number of cattle slaughtered for TB has gone up, but this reflects more, and better, testing.  Over ninety percent of cattle herds in Wales are TB-free, but it is important to recognise the hardship created in those that are not, by both the disease itself and the control measures imposed on them.

The consultation does not specifically mention badgers, but does include the wider issue of breaking the transmission link between wildlife and cattle. Additionally though, in her October statement, Lesley Griffiths said she would consider allowing cage-trapping of badgers, with infected animals being humanely killed. This is an approach that is currently being trialled in Northern Ireland, and which is known as TVR (trap and vaccinate or remove).  We understand that in Wales, this is currently being considered only for chronic herd breakdowns where badgers have specifically been identified as a key risk area (in some chronic herd breakdowns they are not).  An English-style blanket cull has been ruled out, but this ‘localised’ reactive culling is now being actively considered by Welsh Government officials.

The Wildlife Trusts in Wales are currently working on their own response to the consultation. At present our view is that evidence published to date still concludes that small-scale culling makes TB in cattle worse, because it causes perturbation (the increased ranging of badgers in response to culling, which spreads disease). We are pleased that large scale culls continue to be rejected in Wales, and we are working closely with Welsh Government in discussions over the evolving evidence base on localised, selective culling.  This month, WTSWW’s Conservation Manager Lizzie Wilberforce and James Byrne from Wildlife Trusts Wales gave evidence on the issue to the Welsh Assembly’s CCERA (Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs) Committee.

If you have an interest in this topic, please consider responding to the consultation. We will continue to engage in this constantly evolving area of work, and to campaign strongly for evidence-led decision making in the face of strong and ongoing lobbying for badger culling from the farming unions and parts of the agricultural community.