Stephen Carr: Badger vaccination will be futile

I have the misfortune to live in the mother of all bovine TB hotspots in the south-east of England. Until recently I also had a large suckler herd – quota for 465.7 mothers to be precise – so the implications of a TB breakdown are horrific.

Such has been the burden of almost continuous TB testing over the past five years that I have become the most efficient operator of a cattle crush in the UK, to the point that it feels like an extension of my arms. I can also read a cow ear-tag from 30 yards standing on my head and spot a bump, that might suggest a “positive” reactor, on a cow’s neck from half a mile away.

But another skill is apparently to be added to the list of my highly-developed TB farming skills. As the full extent of the bovine TB crisis that is sweeping across the UK becomes apparent DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn has announced that farmers may be trained as trappers “to handle and inject” badgers as part of a project to test a TB vaccine.

I assume that Mr Benn has squared all this with the badger protectionist lobby. The last time I saw anyone (MAFF) attempt to put a badger in a cage on my farm the critters were promptly released by scores of animal liberation protesters that set up a camp in a wood right next door to my farmhouse. They then sliced ministry traps in half with wire cutters, vandalised any unattended MAFF Landrovers with iron bars, verbally abused ministry staff and allegedly threatened them with assault. Perhaps that is why Mr Benn is so keen to put farmers in the front line of this new initiative; his DEFRA staff still remember those confrontations on my farm as clearly as I do.

So, presuming for a moment that “trained” farmers wielding badger traps and hyperdermic needles around their farms is “nothing to worry about” for the animal welfare lobby, just how credible is the proposal that entire local badger populations can be caught and vaccinated by farmers?

Only a few weeks ago the DEFRA secretary himself said an injectable vaccine was impractical for widespread use. Not much more encouraging has been Glyn Hewinson of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which has been carrying out safety and efficacy trials on the vaccine for the past five years. Prof Hewinson says it is important to manage expectations, as “you are not going to see benefits overnight”.

But now we have a crisis on our hands, with new figures showing nearly 40,000 cattle culled for TB in 2008, a staggering 42% rise. Mr Benn, who, despite the science, has turned his face against a badger cull for reasons of adverse public reaction, now describes the injectable vaccine project as “a vital step in the development of an oral vaccine which will be suited for large-scale treatment”. This smacks of desperate policy making on the hoof and of a need to be be seen to be doing something to quieten farmers down.

It is still to be announced where “the six areas of up to 100sq.km” that will make up the five-year Injectable Badger Vaccine Deployment Project will be. In the meantime I have already sourced my raccoon hat, suede shirt, trousers and moccasins. Not an evening goes by where I am not to be found crawling through the undergrowth and putting an expert ear to the ground.

No futile gesture is too much trouble provided it helps get a politician out of a difficulty of his own making.