DEFRA is consulting on a proposal to issue licences to farmers and landowners in England who wish to cull and/or vaccinate badgers at their own expense.
Here are some answers to some Frequently Asked Questions about the planned strategy.
Why is the government taking action?
The incidence rate of bovine TB in cattle in England and Wales has been rising for 25 years and has worsened since the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak. It is estimated that the average cost of a confirmed TB incident in cattle is now around £30,000.
About £20,000 of this falls to government, mainly compensation for animals compulsorily slaughtered and costs of testing. This leaves about £10,000 in costs to farmers from losses of animals, farm costs of testing, and disruption to business through movement restrictions. The costs of control are rising year by year.
What is the government proposing?
The government’s proposal is to issue licences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to enable farmers and landowners to cull badgers, at their own expense and subject to strict licence criteria. Under existing arrangements farmers and landowners are already able to apply for licences to vaccinate badgers. Under the new proposal, they will be able to use vaccination either on its own or in combination with culling.
How will it work?
In order to obtain a licence to cull badgers, applicants will be expected to satisfy a series of criteria to ensure that the cull is justified and is likely to contribute to controlling bovine TB in cattle in their area. It is expected there will be a single licence application for each culling area (of at least 150km2). The application will need to meet strict licence criteria and demonstrate how the applicants, collectively, propose to control the disease in badgers.
What will the licence criteria be?
The criteria proposed by DEFRA which would govern the granting of licences are:
- The area has high and persistent levels of TB in cattle
- The area is at least 150km2 in size
- There is land access for culling for over 70% of the area
- Where possible, the area will have boundaries or buffers to mitigate any possible negative effects in neighbouring areas
- caused by perturbation of badgers’ social groups and increased disease transmission
- Culling will be carried out effectively and humanely by competent operators. A commitment to sustaining culling over the area at least annually for a period of at least 4 years
- Culling will achieve badger densities low enough to reduce TB transmission, but not lead to local extinction
- A closed season to protect dependent cubs will operate during late winter/early spring
- Arrangements are in place for carcases to be removed in accordance with legal requirements for animal by-products
- Culling will be coordinated locally across the area covered by the licence
- The role of vaccination in reducing the perturbation effects from culling has been fully considered and culling is coordinated locally with any vaccination taking place on neighbouring land
- Before a cull begins there is comprehensive awareness and compliance with existing TB control measures
Who will pick up the bill?
Farmers and landowners will be expected to cover the costs of culling and/or vaccination themselves. The consultation says that options where the government picks up the bill are “not affordable given the current pressures on public spending and could not be justified in cost-benefit terms”.
What methods will be used to cull badgers?
A combination of cage traps and shooting is one of the main methods put forward as cage traps have been used for many years by MAFF/DEFRA. Once caught, badgers would be killed by shooting. Alternatively, the consultation suggests farmers and their contractors could shoot any free-ranging badgers with a rifle or shotgun (as they would with foxes). Individuals carrying out the culling using rifles would need to apply to the police to have their Firearms Certificates amended to include badgers. DEFRA has ruled out gassing, snaring, lethal injections and oral poisons for the time being on grounds of humaneness, effectiveness, costs or risks to other wildlife.
When would vaccination be used?
The consultation acknowledges that culling is likely to be farmers preferred option. This is because the success of the badger vaccine in the field is largely untested and the cost of vaccinating is unlikely to be less than that of culling. However, DEFRA has said that vaccination could have a role to play in helping to reduce the total number of badgers infected with bovine TB that are available to transmit the disease to cattle. It could also be effectively used in combination with culling to reduce perturbation.
Any other changes being proposed?
DEFRA is planning to introduce immediately some minor changes to TB testing. These changes include reducing the testing requirements for re-stocking herds; stopping testing young calves (except where they are considered at high risk of infection) since the skin test is unreliable in young animals; rationalising post-breakdown testing in low-risk herds where TB is not confirmed; and rationalising and reducing the amount of contiguous testing (i.e. of herds neighbouring a confirmed TB breakdown) through a more risk-based approach.
It is also planning to increase controls in some higher-risk herds where TB is not confirmed at post-mortem examination or on bacterial culture of tissue samples. This is likely to focus on herds which have a history of confirmed bovine TB and/or which are contiguous to other herds under TB restrictions. The current approach to such herds can perpetuate the misunderstanding that a lack of post-mortem confirmation of disease means the herd does not have TB and thereby risks greater spread of infection within the herd or onward spread by allowing resumption of normal trading too soon. DEFRA is therefore planning to extend the period that the herd is kept under TB restrictions, so that it has to clear two consecutive short-interval tests (rather than the current one) to help ensure it is truly clear of the disease.