A Conservative MP has urged the government to embed its “Big Society” ethos into badger vaccination to tackle bovine TB.
David Morris, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said the government should work with animal welfare groups such as Team Badger and the RSPCA to train volunteers to trap and vaccinate badgers against the disease.
“This problem will not be solved by government alone. We must have dialogue between DEFRA, farmers and Team Badger and other affiliates in the badger community,” said Mr Morris, speaking at a Westminster Hall debate on badger vaccination on Wednesday (16 October).
“Vaccines are expensive, but most of the cost of vaccination is in manpower. I dream of a world where DEFRA trains volunteers to administer vaccines and farmers play their part by facilitating the volunteers.”
Mr Morris said funding streams are available within DEFRA to work on better vaccines for animals and Team Badger has indicated that it would be willing to raise money to train volunteers to vaccinate badgers and match what DEFRA puts in.
“I dream of a world where DEFRA trains volunteers to administer vaccines and farmers play their part by facilitating the volunteers”
“Team Badger has already set up a website to raise funds for this and have already opened applications for volunteers ahead of any proposed scheme,” he added.
“This all represents real progress but the stumbling block is it’s hard to get people around the table as long as a cull is going on.
“My plea to all sides today, and across all the political divides, is: let’s open genuine dialogue on bringing forward a viable and deliverable vaccine scheme.”
He said if research, development and delivery of the programme was undertaken by groups such as the RSPCA, Team Badger and the taxpayer, we would be in a “much better position”, which must be welcomed at a time when government “doesn’t have the budgets it once had”.
He added: “I think it is vital that DEFRA make full use of these groups and it could be the magic wand that enables us to deliver a vaccine programme more cost effectively.
Responding to the plea, newly appointed farm minister and Cornwall MP George Eustice said “no single policy” would dramatically change the situation.
“Vaccinating badgers and cattle has got a role. Wildlife control – dealing with the reservoir of TB in wildlife – has got a role,” he added.
“Routine testing, movement controls, better biosecurity, all of these things have a role, but none of them on their own are the entire solution.”
DEFRA is operating a badger vaccination fund, which, in the current year, has prioritised support for vaccination in so-called edge areas, surrounding TB hotspots. The fund offers start-up grants of up to 50% to fund the first year of vaccination.
But Mr Eustice described applications this year as “disappointing”, adding: “We are looking at precisely why that is so that we can get it right next year.
“We are very keen to work with all those voluntary groups that would like to participate in this and work out how we can get them engaged in that.”
The minister described the use of vaccination as a “potentially useful tool” to reduce the geographical spread of the disease, particularly in edge areas.
He added: “Vaccinating badgers could complement culling by providing a buffer to limit the effects of perturbation.
“Vaccination may also form part of an exit strategy from culling – for example, by vaccinating remaining badgers with the aim of establishing herd immunity in previously culled areas.”
Mr Eustice, MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, said the government was taking a keen interest in the ongoing badger vaccination work in Wales and in Northern Ireland where badgers are being trapped and vaccinated, or culled if they carry the disease.
The government is spending about £4m annually on research into badger and cattle vaccination, including an oral TB badger vaccine.
As details emerged that marksmen had failed to meet their targets in the Gloucestershire pilot cull area, Mr Eustice would not rule out gassing as a means of controlling the badger population.
“It [gassing] is in the consultation to do some research. It doesn’t mean we are going to use it. We are going to consider further research in this area,” he said.
“The type of research we are looking at is not actually research on animals. We are looking at laboratory situations; simulated setts to work out how you could get the gas to go through.
“It’s not the gas itself, it’s the ability to deploy it at all levels itself that is a concern.”