Protecting feed and water from badger ingress should be top of producers’ biosecurity list to lower the risk of spreading bovine TB. And it’s also simple to do.
TEXT SARAH TOMLINSON
Bovine TB can infect herds via many routes, with the most obvious ones being buying in infected cattle and possible exposure to infected badgers or contaminated pasture at grazing. “But a route often underestimated is where infected badgers contaminate feed stocks and water,” says vet and TB Advisory Service (TBAS) adviser Rose Willis.
She adds that water is particularly hazardous when it comes to spreading bTB. “Bovine TB bacteria can survive for up to 60 days in water, so just one infected badger sharing a water trough has the potential to infect a whole group of animals.
“Similarly, an infected badger defaecating in a maize silage clamp, and that maize then going into a feeder wagon, can potentially infect a whole herd.”
The good news is that these risks are easier to control, if not eliminate, on dairy units. “Because you can’t eliminate all the bTB risks to your herd from badgers, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to reduce the ones you can,” stresses Ms Willis.
“Badgers will – and do – visit your farm yards. A study using wildlife cameras showed there was badger activity on 22% of farms where producers said they had seen no evidence. If you are not sure who is visiting which part of your farm and when, putting up wildlife cameras can be a simple way to assess this.”
She adds that cameras need to be in place for a period of time and through different seasons before producers can truly understand the risk badgers pose to their herds. “Using wildlife cameras is one of TBAS’ top-five recommendations and can help prioritise where other badger-proofing measures should be put in place.” Looking for badger footprints and runs coming into yards can also be useful. Frosty or snowy mornings can highlight where badger activity is, and wet muddy gateways are also useful to see if badgers are entering farm yards.
“Smooth the mud at night and check for prints in the morning. Badger paw prints are different to a dog or fox. They have a kidney-shaped pad and the imprint will show five toes."
Detective work: badger prints are distinctive
A dog, in comparison, has a triangular pad and just four visible toes.” Badger runs are also obvious and clear ‘smooth’ tracks, often following quite straight routes. “Even if you don’t think you have any setts on your land you may still have runs coming across paddocks and into your farm. Badgers can have territories that can span between 10 and 12km.”
Ms Willis says badgers are attracted into yards by highs-starch feed, particularly maize silage, accessing where it is stored or where it is being fed to directly to livestock. They will also take materials for bedding setts, such as hay and straw, and at the same time may be defaecating, urinating and grooming in these feed storage areas.
“TBAS can help producers identify key areas to focus on and exactly how to badger proof certain areas by, for example, sheeting gates and blocking gaps into sheds,” she explains. “Remember badgers can get through gaps of 7.5cm, so ensure feed store doors are closed to the floor at night and watch for wheel ruts developing under doors or gates, which may allow space for badgers to access. Loose sacks of feed can be stored in badger-proof containers or off the ground where badgers are unable to climb up and reach.”
Feed may be stored in badger-proof containers, but any spillages can still attract badgers into yards. And, on the way, they may just share a water trough, urinate in a calf pen or defecate on straw bales. “If you remove easy feed and water access badgers will stop visiting, so simple things like ensuring any feed spills are cleaned up will reduce the bTB risk to your herd from infected badgers.”
Some areas can be more difficult to badger proof with sheeted gates or permanent fencing. External feed barriers on the outside edges of housing can be difficult to fence off, as can clamped silage because access is required throughout the day for staff and machinery. Ms Willis visited herd manager Jon Barber’s 350-cow Staffordshire-based herd in late 2019, and the pair walked the unit to look for badger activity. They discovered a clearly visible track, leading from a wooded area to the back of the unit’s earth-bank maize-silage clamp. “One of the recommendations from the visit was to alter the way the clamps are used. Maize silage is now stored in a concrete clamp and is, therefore, protected from badgers,” says Ms Willis.
“Maize silage is particularly attractive to badgers,” she adds. “A simple and cost-effective way to badger proof an area is to use electric fencing. Strands set at 10, 15, 20 and 30cm high will prevent badger access.
“Badgers can climb most things, but they can’t jump. Setting the highest strand at just a foot above the ground means people can step over it, and machinery, such as a silage grabs, can still be used,” she adds.
Factsheets on using wildlife cameras to confirm badger activity, and on food sources eaten by badgers can be found at tbknowledgeexchange.co.uk.
Tell-tale track: badger runs are easy to spot