Vaccination is the solution for animals as well as humans when it comes to disease control 

As Britain grapples with the huge human health and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy for us to forget the ongoing war on wildlife taking place across the British countryside.

On the very day that it was announced the Prime Minister had contracted Covid-19, Defra took the opportunity to bury bad news by publishing the long-awaited 2019 badger kill figures.

As expected the badger cull in 2019 resulted in the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory, with a total of 35,034 badgers shot in 40 cull zones stretching from Cornwall to Cumbria. For the first time since the cruel, costly badger cull policy started in 2013, substantially more badgers were killed than cattle for TB in a one year period.

Over 70% of the badgers killed in 2019 were as a result of a controlled shooting policy, which is condemned as inhumane by the British Veterinary Association and was found by the Government's own Independent Expert Committee in 2013 to result in many badgers taking over five minutes to die of bullet wounds, blood loss and organ failure.

Only a tiny 0.6% of the badgers killed by cull contractors (149) were independently monitored by Natural England field operatives for humaneness or public safety.

The total of badgers now killed since the cull policy started in 2013 is 102,349, and the estimated public cost of this highly controversial policy is over £60 million to date taking into account, equipment, policing, training and monitoring, and legal defence costs.

Badgers are now being slaughtered at such a rate across England that they could face local extinction in areas of the country they have inhabited since the Ice Age. Despite this mass destruction of a protected species, the Government has yet to provide any reliable scientific evidence to prove that badger culling alone is delivering any substantial lowering of bovine TB rates in cattle in and around the cull zones.

In its long-awaited verdict on the Sir Charles Godfray TB Policy Review published in early March, the Government laid out a long term exit strategy from badger culling in favour of badger and cattle vaccination against TB combined with improved TB testing in cattle and tighter movement and bio-security controls.

Unlike culling, vaccination of disease-free badgers has been proven by Defra funded research to reduce the risk of TB spread in badgers by over 70% and this benefit is also passed down to newborn cubs. Vaccination also has the benefit of bringing farmers and wildlife conservationists together in the spirit of mutual respect and confidence after decades of mistrust and division as a result of widespread badger killing.

However, despite the pledge to phase out culling in favour of vaccination, under pressure from the farming and livestock veterinary industry the Government are keeping the door open to expanding badger culling in the high-risk TB areas over the next five years, which could see another 200,000 badgers killed before the culling tragedy finally comes to an end.

Although Britain is facing its biggest public health and economic crisis since the Second World War as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has confirmed that the badger cull will continue this summer. This is despite serious concerns raised by the Badger Trust in relation to a lack of humaneness and public safety monitoring by Natural England, the danger of thousands of cull contractors increasing the risk of spreading Covid-19 in rural communities, and a huge waste of police resources on the badger cull at a time of a National Emergency.

The Government could kill every badger in Britain, but bovine TB would still remain in cattle herds as it’s primarily a cattle-based disease. At a time when the Government is doing all it can to develop a vaccine to end the Covid-19 pandemic for humans, would it not be best to accept that vaccination, not killing, is also the answer when it comes to badgers and bovine TB?

Badger cub being vaccinated

Dominic Dyer

CEO Badger Trust