Badger cull is working to reduce bovine TB, Defra figures show

Reductions in new outbreaks of bovine TB have been recorded in Gloucestershire and Somerset following the completion of their licensed four-year badger culls, farm minister George Eustice has announced.

New data published by Defra on Thursday (13 September) shows there has been a decline in TB incidence in the first two cull areas, with the rate of new confirmed breakdowns now at about half the level they were before culling began.

In the Gloucestershire cull area, TB incidence has fallen from 10.4% before culling started in 2013 to 5.6% in year four of the cull (2016). While in Somerset it has reduced from 24% to 12% over the same period.

See also: Analysis – is the badger cull working in England?

The findings are in line with expectations based on the scientific evidence from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which found an overall reduction of 16% of cattle TB in proactive culling areas.

The RBCT underpins the approach to tackling bovine TB – and demonstrates progress is being made in delivering the 25-year TB eradication strategy in England to rid farmers of the impacts of this devastating disease.

Farm minister George Eustice said: “Today’s figures showing reductions in TB cases in Somerset and Gloucestershire are evidence that our strategy for dealing with this slow-moving, insidious disease is delivering results.  

“Bovine TB remains one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK. There is no single measure that will provide an easy answer, which is why we are committed to pursuing a wide range of interventions to protect the future of our dairy and beef industries and eradicate the disease within 20 years. 

“No one wants to be culling badgers forever, so the progress reported today is encouraging.”

In a further move to strengthen the government’s 25-year TB eradication strategy, the minister has also announced the opening of a new round of applications for Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme grants (see below).

Ten new licences approved

Meanwhile, Defra has also announced that new licences to cull badgers have been approved by Natural England for 10 new areas within the High Risk Area, covering parts of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Staffordshire and Gloucestershire, plus one additional licence for badger control in Cumbria to eradicate a pocket of infection in both cattle and badgers in the TB Low Risk Area.

Along with six-monthly cattle testing, movement restrictions and good biosecurity on farms, this offers “the best opportunity to deal quickly with this localised threat”, Defra said.

Defra has also published TB data from the eight other cull areas that have held licences for two or three years. While it is too early to expect to see any drop in those areas, it said it hoped to see a similar pattern to Somerset and Gloucestershire in coming years. A full scientific paper will be published in due course. 

England has the highest incidence of bovine TB in Europe and the disease costs taxpayers more than £100m every year. In 2017 more than 40,000 cattle had to be slaughtered in the UK to control the disease, causing devastation and distress for farmers and rural communities.

TB strategy review due

An independent review of Defra’s 25-year bovine TB eradication strategy for England, chaired by Sir Charles Godfray, is due to report to ministers at the end of September.  

Defra chief vet Christine Middlemiss said: “Taking comprehensive action to prevent bovine TB infection of cattle from the reservoir of disease in local badger populations is an essential part of the government’s 25-year strategy to eradicate the disease in England

“Proactive badger control is currently the best available option. Supported by tighter cattle controls, including in those areas seeing a reduction in cattle-badger-cattle infection, improved biosecurity and vaccination, the licensing of further areas is necessary to realise disease control benefits across England.

“Five years into our 25-year bovine TB eradication strategy it is timely to reflect on the next steps and I look forward to Sir Charles Godfray and his team reporting to ministers later this month.”

Badger vaccination scheme open for applications

The Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme, which was suspended for two years following a global vaccine shortage before resuming in 2017, is open for expressions of interest from Thursday (13 September) with grant funding of up to 50% of costs.

The pot, worth £700,000 over four years, available to private groups wishing to carry out badger vaccination in the Edge Area. 

The scheme, which funded three projects over the course of the past 12 months, aims to create a protected badger population between the High Risk and Low Risk Areas of England and prevent further spread of the disease. New projects would start in spring 2019.