The National Trust has announced it will begin a vaccination programme of badgers in an attempt to control bovine tuberculosis on its land.

A spokesman for the trust, which owns several farms in hot-spot areas, said the four-year programme aimed to demonstrate an alternative to badger culling as way of tackling bovine TB in cattle.

The vaccinations will begin in May with 18 tenant farmers involved. The programme will last until 2015 and will cover an area of 20 square kilometres on the trust’s Killerton estate in Devon.

The administration of the vaccine to the badgers will be carried out by trained and licensed experts from the Food and Environment Research Agency at a cost of £80,000 a year.

Badgers will be caught in live traps, without being harmed, injected with the vaccine and then marked so that they are not given the vaccine twice during a trapping operation.

The spokesman said that if the government sanctioned badger culling the trust would not oppose it as a method to control the disease. But he said trust officials doubt the effectiveness of culling as a method to control the disease.

Culling disrupts the social structure of badgers and the surviving individuals on the periphery of the cull area come into contact with cattle and badgers, spreading bovine TB, the spokesman said.

There are relatively few places in the UK where the challenging criteria for an effective cull can be met, he added. 

Mark Harold, director for the National Trust’s south west region said that he recognised cattle-to-cattle transmission of bovine TB, as well as badgers infecting cattle, needed to be tackled. 

“In many areas of the UK there are clearly practical problems in implementing an effective cull of badgers to reduce bovine TB in cattle.

“In these instances, vaccination of badgers would appear to be the most effective ways of controlling the wildlife reservoir of the disease,” said Mr Harold.

“With the advent of oral vaccines, this approach could be significantly cheaper too,” he suggested.

“This programme will show how badger vaccination can be deployed over a large area, and will pave the way for more widespread use of vaccination as an effective alternative to culling.

“We are in a unique position as a major landowner to help find a solution to the blight of bovine TB that costs millions and affects farmers’ livelihoods.”