The Argus (TA): How will the vaccination scheme work?
Kate Edmonds (KE): Put simply, we will use volunteers and fundraising to provide a very low-cost badger vaccination service to provide farmers and landowners in the East Sussex area with a viable option to vaccinate rather than cull badgers on their land. Part of East Sussex is one of 40 areas designated as “High Risk” by Defra where badger culling will be rolled out, if the pilot culls currently going on in the West Country are deemed successful.
We’re still recruiting volunteers to join our five newly-qualified lay vaccinators to work in teams to survey the badger setts on farmers’ land and plan the number and the optimal placing of those traps and then carry out that plan over around a three week period culminating in two days vaccination. That’s how the project “in the field” will work, starting from next May.
Behind the scenes, we’re raising funds from individuals and other charities and may even apply for some Defra funding which is available for badger vaccination projects. That money is needed to purchase all the necessary equipment to mount a programme of vaccination. Items like cage-traps, portable fridges for transporting vaccine, steam cleaner for cleaning and disinfecting the traps after each use and many other smaller items.
A key factor though is the farmer or landowner. They have the choice as to whether to vaccinate the badgers on their land or – if a licence to cull badgers were to be issued for East Sussex – to cull. There’s no obligation for them to cull. So part of our work now is reaching out to farmers and landowners to ensure they know that there is this option – and by using our services, they’re accessing a very low-cost option.
We have begun making connections with many of the important stakeholders involved in trying to eradicate bovine TB in the East Sussex area – not just wildlife and animal organisations but also the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), vets, farmers and some of the large landowners like Eastbourne Borough Council. We want to connect with more of them over the coming weeks and join in an integrated collaboration to reduce and hopefully remove bTB from this area.
TA: How did your organisation come about?
KE: As a lifelong animal lover, I was concerned about the possibility of a badger cull coming to East Sussex when I saw online that the Defra bTB map showed this area as a high risk zone and therefore that culling might be part of their strategy here.
I joined South Downs Badger Protection Group (SDBPG), made some enquiries and found that there was no scheme to vaccinate badgers existed here. So I decided to train to be a lay vaccinator (LV) myself, to do something positive. SDBPG put up the funds for training for two LVs including myself - and then, talking to Trevor Weeks of East Sussex Wildlife Rescue and Ambulance Service about finding another willing volunteer to join me, Trevor immediately said he’d like to train to vaccinate too. International Animal Rescue put up cash for Trevor and one other volunteer to train, and a further two committed individuals paid for themselves to be trained.
That meant we had funding for six LVs, five of whom have now been trained and will soon be licensed. They’ll be ready to start vaccinating in the spring of next year when the latest generation of cubs are out of the setts.
TA: Will you be able to target enough areas to make the scheme worthwhile, particularly as there is a large population of badgers in Sussex?
KE: Yes, I believe we will. We’re already speaking to the AHVLA who have data on where the highest levels of bTB are concentrated in the area. I believe they will help us target our vaccination activities to maximum effect. It’s important to know that although part of East Sussex is a High Risk bTB zone, more than 40% of the farms here have not had a TB breakdown for over 10 years, so targeting our work where it’s most needed is key.
TA: How much will the scheme cost and how does it compare to the cost of a cull?
KE: We’re very new and still working out costs but other volunteer-run organisations are able to charge as little as £20-£25 per badger. This compares with commercial organisations charging upward of £600 per badger – they have higher costs and have to make a profit. The basic costs of licensed culling are certainly higher than £25 per badger – disposal of the carcass alone may cost more than that. And policing costs alone in the West Country where the pilot culls have been taking place have been estimated in hundreds of pounds per badger.
TA: What has been the response of farmers to the idea so far?
KE: As I said, we’re still very new and only now beginning to reach out to farmers and landowners to tell them about our service. Our initial approaches have been met with mixed responses as you might imagine but there are definitely farmers who for a range of reasons would rather vaccinate rather than cull. And certainly some of the big landowners – Brighton and Hove City Council for one, Sussex Wildlife Trust for another – have already said they won’t allow badger culling on their land.
We believe – and there’s a lot of scientific support for this view – a combination of improved biosecurity on farms (keeping badgers away from cattle and cattle feed), greater control over cattle movements and other on-farm measures to reduce cattle-to-cattle transmission of bTB combined with a planned programme of badger vaccination in key areas will be effective in driving down the level of bTB in the region, without the need to cull.
TA: Why are you just focusing on East Sussex and are there plans to extend it?
KE: East Sussex is an isolated area with a high level of bTB. Because it is so isolated, there’s a great opportunity to eradicate it here and keep it out in future – the other “red zones” are all contiguous and I believe that presents more challenges to eradicate it there.
TA: Do badgers with TB pose a risk to human health?
KE: No! for a start, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial which took place over eight years, cost £50m and killed 11,000 badgers found that only a little over 1% of badgers were sufficiently infectious to pass on the disease. Around 16% were infected but not sufficiently infectious.
But more importantly, you’d have to be up-close-and-personal to a badger (one of the 1% who are infectious!) and have him breathe all over you to stand any chance of becoming infected – and no one wants to get that close to a wild animal like a badger! LVs wear the appropriate face masks of course.
TA: It emerged last week the trial culls in the west country have been extended because marksmen did not kill the minimum number of badgers required. How effective do you think culling is?
KE: Free shooting, which the west xountry pilot culls were supposed to be testing has, in my opinion, not been proved effective, safe and humane. It’s been reported that they’ve switched to trapping and shooting them now to reach the required number.
But the scientists who ran the Randomised Badger Culling Trial concluded that culling badgers is not an effective means of reducing bTB in cattle. This is because, while you may reduce infection in cattle within the cull area itself in the short term, the phenomenon of perturbation – where animals which may be infected flee into surrounding territories – causes higher levels of infection overall. Lord Krebs who designed the RCBT said “Badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to the reduction of bTB in cattle.” Badger vaccination, by contrast, doesn’t cause perturbation and in fact the effectiveness of vaccination is likely to be enhanced by the strong, close social structures that exist in badger populations. For example, it’s been shown that, if one third of the badgers in a sett are vaccinated, unvaccinated cubs have 79% reduced risk of catching bTB.
TA: Why is vaccination a better option than culling? Who will benefit the most?
See above. And because culling – through perturbation ultimately increases the level of bTB in an area. The scientists are recommending vaccination along with improvements in managing cattle-to-cattle transmission on the farm and in markets, better testing, and better control of cattle movement and so on. Ultimately, the beneficiaries will be the farmers who we really feel for in this struggle against bovine TB. We want them to have the choice of a strategy that will work, at a cost that is reasonable.
TA: What would happen if things were just left as they are with no cull or vaccination?
KE: Well, the interesting thing is that, since the EU insisted that UK tightened up on those cattle-to-cattle transmission measures, the levels of herd breakdowns in the UK had already reduced in the first half of this year – without any culling. This is potentially significant and encouraging – with badger vaccination further enhancing the toolkit of farmers in this area, we really do stand a good chance of eradicating bTB from East Sussex.