I was waiting to attend the All Party Agroecology Group on Wildlife and Pesticides when I received an invitation from Badgergate to give my thoughts on how badger vaccination could be better and more effectively used (as part of the mythical Defra 'Toolbox'). The email was timely; after the first meeting I walked along two more 'corridors of power' to another House of Commons Committee Room to attend the EFRA Select Committee Meeting on Bovine TB and Vaccines. The expert evidence given by FERA's Dr Gavin Wilson and Dr Steve Carter that day was the perfect primer on the complexities and confusions of badger vaccination.
And complex it certainly is. There are no easy answers to the apparently simple questions that anyone trying to make sense of this issue inevitably asks, be they farmer, Select Committee MP or passionate lover of wild creatures (or indeed all three). The EFRA Committee members did a thorough and polite job of interrogating Drs Wilson and Carter. The full meeting can be viewed online. The key points that came out are given below.
Key points made at EFRA
- An injectable bovine TB vaccine (BadgerBCG) has been licensed for use on badgers since 2010.
- It is being used on a large scale in England by FERA staff in the one Badger Vaccine Deployment Programme (BVDP) to have survived the ill-advised Government decision that axed the other five (my words, public servants are not allowed to express opinions about policy).
- 998 badgers were vaccinated in the surviving Gloucestershire BVDP in 2012 (541 in 2010, 628 in 2011).
- The BVDP was not designed as a field research experiment and therefore cannot produce evidence that BadgerBCG reduces levels of bovine TB in badgers or in cattle within the BVDP area.
- Badger vaccination is a new disease management tool and the everyday practical costs of delivery have not had much field-testing.
- The Welsh Government has published its figures for vaccinating 1,424 badgers in the West Pembrokeshire area, but as it is year one of a completely new disease management tool, the total cost of £943,000 should be interpreted with care. The Welsh farming union NFU Cymru have been highly critical of badger vaccination and choose to cite the cost as £662 per badger vaccinated. But as Dr Gavin Wilson, the FERA scientist, told the EFRA committee, 'It is early days yet'.
_____________________________Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust was the first private organization to deploy badger vaccination. I led this work with two objectives: to show that it could be integrated into estate management work and to find out how much it costs on a small scale. My 2011 report and my recent 2012 report both analyze the real costs. Gloucestershire Trust’s per hectare figure for this work at its Greystones Farm, a typical small dairy holding, was between £41 and £45 per badger. I discuss the 2012 work further in my blog. The National Trust, which is also vaccinating badgers, has not published detailed breakdowns for their Devon deployment to my knowledge.
The Devil is always in the detail and that is the missing ingredient for the large-scale deployment in England that many are pressing for. So what would I do if I were trying to move a major badger vaccination programme forward?
In the best tradition of a modern blog I offer you my Seven Things to Do to make a badger vaccination programme both more effective and less costly:
1. Make the most up-to-date and unbiased information about BadgerBCG available in one location
Information is currently spread across multiple sources and some of DEFRA’s best stuff is archived.
2. Provide a centralised information and advisory service available to those who are considering using BadgerBCG.
I was lucky to have access to the FERA and AHVLA experts and the top DEFRA staff. Without this support I could not have designed and deployed the GWT programme; indeed when I tried to investigate whether to vaccinate badgers on Nature Reserves within the pilot culls I was refused any useful information at all from the NFU, which was supposed to be organizing the vaccine fund for the area. This was also the experience of a commercial contractor.
3. A strategic plan for coordinated and strategic use of BadgerBCG
This would build confidence with all stakeholders, be most effective and efficient.
It would also be a lot cheaper than the current confused picture and ensure that the vaccine was used to best effect where the best brains agree it would do the most good.
The Wildlife Trusts are already putting such a plan together in Shropshire and Cheshire.
4. Ensure that there are enough trained expert and lay vaccinators
There is no point trying to deploy BadgerBCG on a large scale if there are not enough people to do the work.
5. Purchase and make available a central pool of the traps that are required
Each trap costs well over £100. They are too expensive to be used only now and then.
6. Co-ordinate the supply and fully audited storage of adequate vaccine for a full season's deployment.
The best intentions will not get far if there is inadequate supply of BadgerBCG because no-one thought to tell the manufacturer.
7. Stop the farming unions talking down the value of badger bTB vaccination.
There is no single solution to managing and controlling bovine TB. Obsessing about a badger cull at the expense of badger vaccination and biosecurity measures is not the quality of leadership that the farming industry needs.
_____________________________By taking up some of the above suggestions, the government could deploy badger vaccination more cheaply and effectively. Greater support from the farming industry, together with more constructive engagement with conservationists and other key partners, would also strengthen the use of badger vaccination as a key tool in the government’s bTB management ‘Toolbox’.