Vaccinating badgers - the right thing to do
It is something that must be done, so let’s do it right
IFAW’s position on Cameron’s irrational badger cull to address the issue of Bovine TB has always been clear: Badgers are not really the problem, but the problem is with cattle, how they move from herd to herd, how they are tested, and how they are kept and managed. This is a Bovine disease, created in cattle and spread by cattle. If wild animals contribute to the problem, that contribution is minimal, as science has already shown (the Randomised Badger Culling Trial research showed that the maximum you can achieve by removing badgers from a highly infected area is a reduction of 16% of TB incidence), and most experts agree.
However, as the Government has made it clear that they want to give priority to addressing the issue of the Btb wildlife reservoirs –and for them the only reservoirs are badgers– we are keen to ensure that if something needs to be done to badgers, only the right thing is done. We believe the Welsh Government got it right by choosing ‘vaccination’ and the UK Government got it wrong by choosing culling.
IFAW has been supporting badger vaccinations projects by donating funds to BACVI (Badger and Cattle Vaccination Initiative) and by giving logistical support to some local badger vaccination groups. A few days ago we decided to pay a visit to one of these groups, the Dorset Badger Vaccination Project (DBVP) so we could learn more about what they do.
I was very impressed with the work this group, made up entirely of volunteers, is doing in Dorset, one of the Bovine TB high risk areas. I spent a couple of days with them while they were working on a dairy farm which had a large badger sett, and the farmer had requested the badgers be vaccinated. I arrived at the end of the 15 day long job, after the badgers had eventually been persuaded to enter the cages with daily bait, something that I was told was quite difficult for this particular group so it took longer than expected.
Along with other volunteers, I joined Joe Hashman, DBVP director, and Melvyn Seddon, DBVP lead vaccinator, the evening before they would set up the trap doors in the cages, so the badgers could be caught and vaccinated the next day.
They all were quite proud to show me that, after trying different combinations of baits, the badgers on that farm seemed already used to entering the unarmed cages, as all the 27 cages they had scattered around the sett had been visited the night before I arrived. And how did they know that? Because they placed cameras around the cages and they could see the badgers using them, and because they placed the bait under stones which only a badger could move. When I arrived and we checked each of the cages, I was able to film that stones in all the cages had been indeed moved. So the system worked.
So, they baited the cages again with peanuts and sweet corn –apparently badger favourites –, activated their trap doors, and left with the hope that several badgers would be trapped overnight.
I did not expect that I would have to wake up at 3 a.m. to go back to the site, but all vaccinations take place at dawn to minimise the time the trapped badgers are in the cages. We found four adults and three cubs trapped, all looking very healthy and not too stressed, and appropriate vaccines were then assembled from the vehicle’s fridge. One by one each of the badgers was vaccinated, part of the fur cut and sprayed with colour to mark them (so they are not vaccinated again next day), and then released. I was amazed about how quick the process was. All under a minute.
Although I left in the morning, later that evening the trap cages were activated again for another round of vaccination at dawn the following day.
I was also impressed by all the paperwork and protocols the team had to strictly follow. Not only vaccinators had to be accredited, certified and licensed by the Government, but they had to keep careful records of everything because they would be inspected and audited while doing the jobs. Vaccinators wore masks and gloves, boots and vehicles were disinfected every time they left the site and everything was labelled and coded.
What amazed me the most is that this was a highly professional job undertaken by volunteers at no cost to the taxpayer (and some of the land they work on is local Government land). They have been receiving some support not only from IFAW but from other organisations and individuals, but most of the funds so far have come from the volunteers themselves. They need more help and of course, they all have to go to work on their daily jobs between baiting and vaccinating. This is really hard work and takes lots of commitment, which does not seem to deplete the standards, efficiency or professionalism. From all accounts a very successfully and efficient enterprise and I know there are many other local vaccination groups in other counties all doing this excellent job.
Unfortunately, though, while the two pilot culls are set to continue in Somerset and Gloucestershire, the Government is not supporting these sort of projects in Dorset as their plans for badgers in the high risk areas is to cull them rather than vaccinating them, but perhaps this is going to change in the future. Some good steps have already taken place when DEFRA recently announced their initiative to financially help some badger vaccination projects in the counties with the fewer outbreaks (the ’edge area’ counties). On hearing this news, Robbie Marsland, IFAW’s UK Director, said:
“IFAW welcomes the fact that the Government has finally incorporated badger vaccination as part of its plans to eradicate Bovine TB. We welcomed that the Government will enable charities and other organisations to apply for partial funding for the vaccination of badgers in some bovine TB (bTB) areas, and we hope that such initiatives will be extended to all areas in the future, including the high risk areas, where local vaccination projects welcomed by farmers are already active, and IFAW is supporting logistically and financially.
IFAW believes that the solution to the bTB epidemic lies in better control of cattle movement, increased biosecurity and the development of a cattle vaccine, but if the wildlife reservoir needs to be addressed, vaccination is the way forward, not culling. This is why we are pleased that the Government is starting to see badger vaccination as part of the solution.”
After coming back from Dorset I was told that the team managed to trap four badgers the following day, three of them recaptures from the day before. So, in total 5 adults and two cubs, which could well be the entire population of the sett. So now the team will move to the next job, and this will carry on happening for the next 4 years.
I met the dairy farmer who owns the land, who came with us to witness the proceeding, and he seemed very pleased with the work done.
When something is done right, everyone benefits.