We stand up for badgers and do not support the culling of healthy badgers as part of government plans to tackle bovine tuberculosis.
What is bovine tuberculosis?
Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is a highly infectious disease of cattle which devastates thousands of farming businesses annually. Since the mid-1980s, the incidence of bTB in cattle has increased substantially creating an economic burden on the taxpayer and the farming industry, as infected cattle must be culled.
Government research shows that TB is not a major cause of death in badgers. Generally, infected badgers do not show any sign of infection and can survive for many years before suffering from severe emaciation.
Are badgers being culled to tackle bovine tuberculosis?
Over the last five years, the Northern Ireland government has adopted a 'Test-Vaccinate-Remove’ (TVR) strategy to tackle bovine tuberculosis in cattle. This involves euthanizing badgers that test-positive with advanced tuberculosis and vaccinating test-negative or healthy badgers in a number of bTB hotspots in Northern Ireland.
However, in December 2017, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs consulted on proposals for a new wildlife intervention strategy to eradicate bTB which includes ‘blanket’ culling of ALL badgers in a central zone (of a size of approx 100km² each) in a number of bTB hot spots, and ‘Test-Vaccinate-Remove’ (TVR) intervention (as described above) in a buffer zone to mitigate perturbation.
What is Ulster Wildlife's view
We recognise that bTB is a complex and costly disease, and causes economic hardship to the farming community and that there is a need to find the right mechanisms to control it. However, we believe that a ‘blanket’ badger cull in bTB hotspots is not the answer.
Healthy badgers should NOT be culled as part of any wildlife intervention strategy
We believe that no healthy badgers should be culled as part of any wildlife intervention strategy. Badgers are a protected species under the Wildlife NI Order 1985 and the Bern Convention and should be afforded the same treatment as that adopted for cattle – i.e. all cattle are tested first and only test positive cattle are culled.
A combination of ‘Test Vaccinate Remove’ intervention and badger vaccination are the most ethical approach in terms of a wildlife intervention strategy
We believe the ‘Test Vaccinate Remove’ (TVR) intervention methodology (i.e. euthanizing badgers that test-positive with advanced TB and vaccinating test-negative/healthy badgers) throughout both the core and buffer zones offers a more balanced approach to controlling levels of bTB in badgers and cattle than the ‘blanket cull’ proposed in the ‘core areas.’
The culling of a badger with confirmed, advanced bTB is something we could accept as humane, responsible and a means of improving the health within the badger population.
The TVR methodology also has the benefits of not removing healthy badgers that may be naturally resistant to bTB from the gene pool of the wider population. The best way to address the health of the badger population is not a generic cull; instead, it should rely on the vaccination of healthy individuals and the removal of the sick individuals. The risk of non-vaccinated cubs testing positive was reduced by almost 80 per cent when more than a third of badgers in their group had been vaccinated¹. This methodology is currently being rolled out by the Welsh Government and we think that this approach would be the best option in Northern Ireland.
We believe badger vaccination is the long-term solution to the issue of bTB in wildlife and urge the Department to prioritise and support any research into an oral bait vaccine for badgers.
Legislation needs to be introduced urgently to allow laypersons to be trained in badger vaccination
We ask the Department to bring forward legislation that would allow laypersons to be trained in vaccination of badgers so that badger vaccination could be carried out outside of the target areas chosen for action. Strict training and protocols would be needed however this is current practice in both England and Wales. Landowners could then self-fund vaccination of badgers on their land under license.
Greater focus needed on cattle testing, improvements to biosecurity, and herd health
Our view is that badgers are only a very minor part of the bTB infection chain. A clear link between a reservoir of bTB infected badgers and the transmission of the disease to cattle has NOT yet been conclusively scientifically proven.
Biosecurity improvements, controls on cattle movements and improvements to herd health are important elements of the solution and we are encouraged to see these included in the proposals. It is in everyone’s interest to effectively control bTB. The Farm Business Improvement Scheme potentially has an important role to play in encouraging farmers to upgrade their biosecurity measures on the farm.
Further research needed to understand and better inform future policy
We urge the Department to prioritise and support research into an oral bait vaccine for badgers and to continue to work in partnership with DEFRA with regards to the development of a usable vaccination for cattle in medium to long term.
What is Ulster Wildlife doing?
Ulster Wildlife has been working on the issue of bTB and its links to badgers for several years. During this time our activities have included:
- standing up for badgers in the local media.
- working with government and farming interests via the NI Badger Stakeholder Group.
- collating, summarising and presenting science on the spread of bTB.
- providing expertise and scientific evidence to NI Assembly's Agricultural Committee.
- scrutinising and responding to DAERA's 'bTB eradication strategy for NI' consultation and encouraging our members and supporters to respond.
Badgers are a valued species in Northern Ireland, protected by law. 25% of the European population is found in the UK, so we have an international responsibility to conserve them.