Producers and vets are working together to vaccinate badgers against bovine TB in East Sussex. We find out more about the project and how it’s being rolled out.
TEXT SARAH TOMLINSON
Dealing with infectious dairy diseases is hard enough, but tackling bovine TB is made even more difficult when there is evidence that an endemically infected wildlife population is contributing to its spread.
While the reduction of badger numbers is still permitted in areas with a current licence, DEFRA has stated an intention to move away from badger culling and towards badger vaccination programmes. And one such project is underway in East Sussex.
Producer Peter Appleton milks 450 cows on his unit, based near Polegate, and he also chairs the Vaccinating East Sussex Badgers (VESBA) steering group. East Sussex is in the edge area for bovine TB (bTB) and badgers have been shown to be infected with the disease in the southern part of the county. “We held a meeting with the TB Advisory Service back in 2019, where discussions highlighted that there was significant support for a badger-vaccination project. The VESBA project grew from there,” he explains.
Knowing first-hand the devastation that a bTB breakdown can cause, he was keen to see if it was possible to deliver badger vaccination on such a large scale, with producers and land owners at the heart of the project.
Vet Nick Pile, from Cliffe Farm Vets, is VESBA’s project director. “As a vet practice constantly dealing with bovine TB and fall-out from the disease, we were keen to see what we could do to help,” he says. “In 2021 we successfully tendered for DEFRA funding, and now oversee the VESBA project, which runs until 2025.” He adds that the project is going well. “So far, in 2022, we have vaccinated more than 500 badgers across a 200-square-kilometre area. The vaccination season runs until the end of November, so I’m confident these numbers will increase further.”
Lindsay Heasman, from Hurst Animal Health, is VESBA’s project manager and is responsible for liaising with DEFRA and reporting on progress. She believes that vaccinating badgers can have a positive impact on reducing the incidence of the disease in badgers. Whether or not this will reduce the number of bTB breakdowns in cattle herds in the vaccination area remains to be seen.
“In trials, the vaccine has been shown to reduce the likelihood of badgers developing lesions or excreting M bovis, as well as conferring some immunity in the offspring of vaccinated female badgers,” she says. “The results from diagnostic tests estimate that vaccinating badgers reduces new infections by 76%. Vaccination should reduce the prevalence of bTB in badgers, and it follows that this will have positive knock-on effects for cattle.”
The prevalence of bTB in cattle is measured through statutory surveillance – predominantly the skin test – so any changes in testing regime can impact on the numbers. “As such, it will be difficult to ascertain the effect of badger vaccination on the prevalence of bTB in cattle in this project. But the main objective of the project is simply to find out whether badger vaccination can be delivered at scale,” she adds.
Producers and land owners were asked to join up through a series of engagement meetings. Key to the project’s success was it being producer led, so part of the sign-up involved producers being encouraged to carry out the sett surveys and trap setting themselves,” explains Dr Heasman.
“Badger vaccination must be carried out under a licence, so to trap badgers and vaccinate badgers, farm staff had to complete the relevant APHA courses.
"Once the sett surveys are completed, pre-baiting to encourage badgers to take the bait, which is peanuts, begins. When this pre-baiting is successful the traps are put out but not set to trap, to allow badgers to gain confidence entering the traps. And then, as soon as the vaccination team is happy that badgers are taking the bait, the traps are set to trap for two consecutive nights.”
Traps are checked at first light. “Trapped badgers are often found fast asleep. Following a welfare assessment, the badger is then vaccinated, marked and, after a second welfare assessment, released,” explains Dr Heasman. “To ensure the same badger isn’t vaccinated twice, the guard hairs on the back are trimmed and stock marker spray is also used. This process will be repeated on participating units for four years.”
The project’s success is due to producers and local vets coming together to show that badger vaccination can be carried out on a large scale. Badger vaccination can reduce bTB lesions and excretion and, in this area, it was the participating producers’ choice to carry out badger vaccination, alongside the cattle-testing measures and enhancing bTB biosecurity with the TB Advisory Service visits. They will hopefully see a reduction in the number of bTB breakdowns in their herds.