Defra risks undermining eight years of hard work from farmers in the fight against bovine TB if it replaces badger culling with vaccination without the science to prove it works.
That was the damning verdict delivered by NFU leaders during a press briefing on its reaction to Defra’s latest consultation on the next stage of its strategy to eradicate TB in England by 2038.
“I think this is a political consultation, rather than a scientific one,” said NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts.
“We’re using the best available science to deal with coronavirus and we need to use the best available science to eradicate it. Why wouldn’t we use the best available science when it comes to bovine TB?”
Under the plans, no new intensive culling licences will be issued after 2022 and the focus instead will be on vaccinating badgers and cattle. TB cattle vaccination field trials are due to begin in England and Wales this year in a bid to develop a TB cattle vaccine by 2025.
Sources of bovine TB herd incidents in England
The Animal and Plant Health Agency published its latest TB Epidemiology Report (PDF) on the source of infection for all bovine TB incidents last September.
In 2019, in the high-risk area of south-west England, it concluded that badgers constituted 58.6% of the source attribution, while cattle movements accounted for 10.9%.
In 2019, in the edge area, it concluded that badgers constituted nearly half of breakdowns at 48.2% of the source attribution, while cattle movements accounted for 20.6%.
TB incidents down
Mr Roberts said the government’s own consultation and the science showed badger culling was effective and delivering disease control benefits. The document highlights a 51% reduction in new TB herd incidents after four years of culling in the first 32 cull areas.
“This is actually a real success. We can’t let politics get in the way of delivering a very successful disease eradication programme,” said Mr Roberts.
Badger culling is currently the best tool available to tackle bovine TB, said Mr Roberts, noting that the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s own badger vaccination trials resulted in “no effect on cattle TB”.
The NFU has always recognised a role for vaccination, but deploying it widely at this stage was “too early”.
Tom Rabbetts, head of TB delivery at the NFU, compared the situation to the coronavirus crisis.
“We wouldn’t phase out social distancing and face masks before we get the vaccinations.
“Essentially, it would be phasing out this one effective tool, which we know has an effect, way before we are at the point where we are ready with the other ones.”
But wildlife and animal welfare campaigners believe badger culling is ineffective and they want the government to stop it immediately.
The Badger Trust said a further 38,000 or more badgers were likely to be culled this year and badgers were “paying the ultimate price for a policy based on highly controversial science”.
Defra secretary George Eustice said: “Our badger control policy has helped to turn the tide on this disease, but no wants to continue the cull of badgers for a moment longer than necessary.
“We are working to accelerate other elements of our strategy to improve diagnostics and develop a deployable cattle vaccine so that we can phase out the culling of badgers.”