Page last updated at 21:29 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 22:29 UK

Farmers 'key' to badger TB trial

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

The incidence and cost of bovine TB is rising each year

The attitude of farmers to a study into vaccinating badgers for cattle TB will be crucial in determining its success, the government acknowledges.

Next year sees the start of a five-year project looking at how to deliver vaccines to badgers and farmers will be asked for access to their lands.

But some farmers suspect vaccination could make things worse.

Animal welfare groups have welcomed the project, which they see as good for badgers and for cattle.

The government has selected six trial sites in the south and west of England for the Badger Vaccine Deployment Project.

The 100 sq km plots are all in places where bovine tuberculosis has been a particular problem, and where infection rates are high.

Last year, about 40,000 cattle were slaughtered in the UK because they were carrying, or were suspected of carrying, the TB bacterium.

The government puts the cost to the national purse at more than £80m per year.

Last year Environment Secretary Hilary Benn decided against culling badgers in England, although a pilot cull in Wales is scheduled.

Wild tracks

Several years' experimentation with the injectable badger vaccine have shown it is safe and effective, government scientists maintain, although full results have not been released.

There would be quite a number out there... who'll just say 'look, this is a complete waste of time
Jan Rowe, NFU

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate is currently assessing the results with a view to deciding whether a commercial licence can be issued.

The new study - due to begin in May - is intended primarily to investigate how badgers can best be vaccinated in the wild.

It is the UK's first large-scale experience of a wildlife vaccine. As such, there is a lot to learn about procedures, the government believes.

Badgers will have to be trapped, injected and released, and the process will entail training operatives from commercial companies which will then be able to offer vaccination to farmers outside the confines of this study.

Many farmers, though, are deeply frustrated with what they see as a feeble government response to the problem.

But to be a success, the study needs these same farmers to give permission in enough numbers for operatives to work close to infected setts, and to access the same land annually to vaccinate new cubs.

Badger cull protesters in June 2008
Plans to cull badgers in Wales have met with protests

"Quite a significant amount of farmers will think probably it won't hurt to let Defra have a go," said Jan Rowe, TB spokesman for the National Farmers' Union (NFU).

"There would be quite a number out there who have a high level of scepticism about Defra and their TB policy who'll just say 'look, this is a complete waste of time, and I don't want Defra anywhere near me in case it actually makes things worse'."

Some opponents of vaccination have claimed that the act of trapping and injecting badgers will disturb their pattern of movements, increasing the risk of contact with cattle; or that it will cause them to shed more bacteria in their faeces.

Both of these arguments are rejected by scientists involved in the vaccine study.

No 'magic bullet'

Although the study will primarily look at the feasibility of large-scale vaccination, the government also hopes it will produce evidence that vaccination can bring down infection rates in cattle.

30 areas of the country, each 100 square km
10 culled proactively, 10 reactively, 10 not culled
Badgers culled through being caught in cage and then shot
Incidence of bovine TB measured on farms inside and outside study areas
Reactive culling suspended in 2003 after significant rise in infection
Trial cost £7m per year

They admit it will not be easy, because many other factors could also affect infection rates, including changes to cattle testing regulations, weather and climate patterns, and farming practices.

They also know vaccination will not be a complete answer to bovine TB, not least because a large proportion of transmission - perhaps the majority - occurs between and within cattle herds, without the involvement of badgers.

But they believe it could be a way of reducing the risk and the rate of transmission.

The eventual aim is to use an oral vaccine in bait - reducing the need to trap and inject badgers - but an oral vaccine will not be available until 2014 at the earliest.

According to Mr Rowe, many farmers feel this timescale is simply too long, and would prefer the immediacy of a cull - even though the biggest investigation of culling, the so-called "Krebs trial", suggested culling was only effective if implemented on a huge scale.

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