Badger vaccination programme suspended

A key plank of the Government's strategy to tackle bovine tuberculosis in cattle has been lost as a shortage of BCG supplies halts all badger vaccination work in England and Wales in 2016.

Badgers are being vaccinated against bovine tuberculosis in at least 14 counties across England and Wales. © Neil Aldridge
Badgers are being vaccinated against bovine tuberculosis in at least 14 counties across England and Wales. © Neil Aldridge

The entire badger vaccination programme in England and Wales has had to be suspended because of a worldwide shortage of the BCG vaccine.

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The Welsh Government announced at the end of 2015 that it was curtailing its programme in North Pembrokeshire, but the cessation of all vaccination efforts in England has just come to light.

It means that 12 wildlife trusts in England and one in Wales will be unable to continue their vaccination programmes this year.

A number of projects are part-funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as part of its Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme (BEVS), which targets animals in areas close to bovine tuberculosis (bTB) hotspots.

It includes campaigns in the Peak District, Nottinghamshire and West Berkshire which are run by Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire (BBO) Wildlife Trusts respectively.

There are also Defra-financed programmes in Cheshire and Oxfordshire, as well wildlife trust-only initiatives in areas with high bTB rates such as Gloucestershire, Somerset and Shropshire.

The Government has permitted farmers and landowners to cull badgers in both Gloucestershire and Somerset for the past three years, and in Dorset – another bTB hotspot – for the first time in 2015.

The reason for vaccinating badgers in the ‘edge’ areas is two-fold: first, to create a ‘cordon sanitaire’ between those parts of the country that have high rates of bTB and those that don’t; and secondly, to limit the incidence of the disease in badgers where it is beginning to infect cattle.

A spokesperson for The Wildlife Trusts said that more than 1,330 badgers have been vaccinated across more than 3,040 hectares since 2011, but the BEVS programmes had only been running for one year.

“Defra initially set aside a pot of funding for BEVS of £1.25m, but allocated funding to date has been a few hundred thousand pounds and the remainder has likely been reallocated,” the spokesperson added. 

All vaccination will have to stop until BCG production is increased and there is sufficient supply.

“Defra has reassured us that it sees badger vaccination as an important tool in the box [for tackling bTB in cattle], and that this is only a temporary hiatus in the programme,” said Paul Wilkinson, head of living landscapes for The Wildlife Trusts. “It has said it is cautiously optimistic that the BCG supply will be up and running again in 2017.”

Professor Robbie McDonald of Exeter University, who previously ran the government-funded badger vaccination trial for Defra, said there were some small downsides to the suspension.

“It would be preferable to have continuous vaccination, because it is desirable to immunise cubs as they come above ground,” McDonald said. “But unlike if there were a break in a badger culling programme, there is no perturbation problem with vaccination. So it is not actually damaging if there is a break in vaccination.”

The supply shortage has come about because the vaccine used for badgers is exactly the same as that used for humans. The UK’s only supplier – Statens Serum Institut (SSI) of the Danish Ministry of Health – has reduced its output over the past year, and the need to inoculate humans takes priority.

Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, said he was confident that vaccination would continue in 2017.

“The Welsh Assembly is saying that if they stop for a year, it won’t increase the prevalence of bTB,” he added. “Their study has found that the herd affect builds up over a period of time, and that it’s the first three to four years that make the real difference.”

A statement put out by the Welsh Assembly last week confirmed that missing the final year of the vaccination programme in North Pembrokeshire would not have a significant impact.

“The report [from the Animal and Plant Health Agency], concludes that despite not being able to complete the fifth and final year, four years of badger vaccination would achieve a reduction in prevalence of TB in badgers in the Intensive Action Area,” it said.

NFU director general Martin Haworth described the suspension of vaccination as disappointing. “We have always said badger vaccination has a role to play in helping to stop the disease spread into areas which are currently at low risk of bovine TB,” he said. “We hope the supply issue will be resolved as quickly as possible so this work can continue.”

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Find out more about The Wildlife Trusts badger vaccination work