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Is vaccination a workable alternative to a badger cull?

3 May 2013

10:37 AM

3 May 2013

10:37 AM

Brian May dressed in a badger suit, singing a specially-composed ‘badger song’? That’s what we were promised on Wednesday morning, but alas, the stunt never pulled through. We did, however, see a flashmob of fifty ‘dancing badgers’ outside Defra HQ, protesting about this summer’s planned badger cull.

So what, exactly, were they protesting about? Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is currently the greatest threat to British cattle farmers, as the number of affected cattle has risen drastically in the UK over the last 25 years. According to Defra:

‘The number of new cases has doubled every nine years. Last year TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England at a cost of nearly £100 million. In the last ten years bovine TB has cost the taxpayer £500 million.’ 

So what can be done to prevent the spread of the disease? Anti-cull protesters claim that Owen Paterson’s planned badger cull – which will go ahead this summer as a pilot procedure in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset – will have only a small impact on the spread of the disease in cattle. But, they counter, it will have a ‘maximum, negative, destructive impact on one of our best loved creatures’. They argue that vaccinating badgers, and at the same time, creating a cattle vaccine that works, is the way forward.

Neither of these are bad ideas – and both the National Farmers’ Union and anti-cull protestors agree with them. But the bTB vaccine doesn’t work on animals which are already infected – it only prevents healthy badgers from catching the disease. In addition, the only vaccine that exists at the moment is an injectable one, and it has to be repeated annually for five years. Every badger in the country would have to be trapped and then vaccinated on an annual basis – at an estimated cost of £662 per badger, per year. Given that there are almost 200,000 badgers in England alone, this would cost in the region of £660 million.

Vaccinating cattle? Yep sounds like a good plan. But the only existing cattle vaccine is illegal under EU law. For a new vaccine system to be developed and then approved is estimated to take at least ten years. And even then, some studies have shown that the vaccine would still be under 70% effective.

The ‘Stop the Cull’ campaign has certainly got good PR on their side; after all, who doesn’t love a cute furry badger? They’ve managed to attract a number of big names to their cause; as well as their favourite celeb Brian May, and the more obvious animal welfare groups such as the League Against Cruel Sports and Animal Aid, the cosmetics company Lush have also joined their ranks.

In addition, the RSPCA – who made May their vice-president last September – are also making a big deal of opposing the cull, stating that ‘the government have ignored public, parliamentary, EU commission and scientific opinion’.

The RSPCA are, however, currently being investigated by the Charity commission over complaints that their ‘campaigning activities’ on a range of issues including the badger cull and live exports of animals are overly political – something which Melissa Kite wrote about in December.

But for all their efforts, it seems unlikely that  it will have any effect on Owen Paterson’s decision. He is reported to have left a meeting on the subject in October muttering ‘I can’t stand any more of this’, which he later remarked was a joke about ‘the ill-informed comments of the other side’. When it comes to badgers, it appears that this time, Paterson’s not for turning.

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