Vaccinating badgers in the UK can end the killing and help animals

6 May 2021

In 2015 we wrote an article calling for the end of badger culling in the UK. Badgers are killed because they are carriers of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) and farmers believe they are responsible for cow infections. Killing someone because they are infected with a disease should never be an acceptable practice, but even on the farmers’ own terms, it was already clear at that point that vaccinations are effective and cullings are not.1

Although most cows are infected by other cows, badgers transmit the disease to them in a small percentage of cases.2 As a result, badgers are killed in areas where cows are infected because the economic interests of farmers are given priority over the wellbeing of badgers. Farmers also overestimate the relationship between badger infections and cow infections, and they disregard the scientific evidence that culling doesn’t make a difference.3

bTB can cause great pain and death to badgers. The disease can kill badgers within months when it is spread through bites, or years when it is spread through respiration. It has the potential to damage every organ in the body, with damage to the lungs and lymph nodes being the most common.4 Although the disease is normally spread through respiration, it can also spread through nose-to-nose contact, urine, feces, saliva, or milk.5

Badgers are often culled using rifles, which has a high risk of wounding instead of killing. Because badgers are nocturnal, shootings often take place at night when accuracy can be poor, and as a result some badgers don’t die instantly. They may retreat to their burrows and suffer for more than five minutes before dying.6

Killings continue despite what the science says

Members of the UK farming industry widely believe that killing badgers will reduce the prevalence of bTB by reducing the number of potential carrier animals; however, several studies have found that while the killings may reduce the prevalence in areas where it takes place, it can increase the prevalence of bTB in surrounding areas.7 This could happen if infected badgers leave an area to escape slaughter and spread the disease to other areas. Their social and territorial structures may be disrupted, leading to increased contact with other badgers and possibly with cows.8

A study on one area of the UK found that 21% of 94 badgers killed on roads were infected with bTB.9 Badgers are not typically tested before they are killed, so if this percentage is representative of the prevalence of the disease, the majority of badgers who are culled might be healthy. The study also found that most of the badgers sampled were not infectious.10 However, increased interaction due to social disruption and the stress caused by the culling are suspected of increasing infection rates in badgers.11 People might even kill vaccinated badgers, thwarting the goal of developing herd resistance to the disease.

The spread of the disease from cow to cow is thought to be the biggest driver of infection among cows and transmission from badgers to cows may only account for 5.7% of cases in cows.12 The unhygienic conditions and poor disease prevention measures in farms, where cows are captive, encourage the spread of bTB and other diseases.13 Given this information, several groups have called for the end of the badger culls, including the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB who commented that badger killings can “make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.”14

There is also pressure to end the practice of badger killings from groups working to protect animals. In 2012 the UK government responded to a petition from citizens and organizations seeking to help badgers.15 The follow-on debate resulted in a nonbinding 147-28 vote to ban the badger cull.16

In response to a petition in 2020 from the public and pressure from organizations,17 the UK government presented six proposals for public comment in January 2021. As part of a phase out of the culling program, the government proposes to stop issuing new licenses for intensive culling in affected areas in the west and southwest of England after December 1, 2022. In addition, licenses issued in 2021 and 2022, could, after 2 years of culling, be revoked after a progress evaluation. Finally, it was proposed that supplementary licenses be restricted to a maximum of two years, down from the current five. Issuing of supplementary licenses for previous cull areas would be prohibited after 2020. The government retains the authority to cull badgers indefinitely if the epidemiological evidence supports it.18 The comment period closed on March 24, 2021, and a summary of public comments is forthcoming.19

We might ask what could motivate politicians to allow the culling to continue. The answer may simply be political expediency. According to one survey 61% of farmers, contrary to the science, continue to believe that culling badgers is more effective in stopping the spread of bTB than vaccinating badgers.20 The government might only be continuing the practice to appeal to this constituency. Despite the pressure from farmers, politicians might get more votes by ending the practice, as there has been increased recognition that the policy of killing badgers is “politically toxic.”21 However, despite the surprising amount of skepticism surrounding vaccinating badgers among farmers, they do not actively oppose the practice.22 Therefore it’s politically possible to proceed with vaccination efforts.

Vaccinating badgers and cows

In addition to vaccinating badgers, a new vaccine in development for cows shows great promise. Previously there was opposition to vaccinating cows, because there was no way of differentiating between cows who were infected and cows who had been vaccinated. However, the new vaccine allows for this distinction,23 and the rationale against vaccinating cows no longer applies.

As more badgers in an area are vaccinated, herd immunity can develop, which would protect all badgers there, including those who are not vaccinated. It was found that when one third of the badgers in an area were vaccinated, transmission to unvaccinated badgers was reduced by 79%.24

Specific areas in the UK have been successful in ending the mass culling of badgers. In addition to vaccination, Wales has drastically reduced the practice of killing badgers25 and Cornwall ran the second year of its vaccination program in 2020.26 Outside of the UK, there have been several other instances of successful large-scale vaccination efforts, most notably in Ontario and Massachusetts and Texas in the US.27

Vaccination can prevent an enormous amount of harm to badgers, especially because it is now possible to vaccinate badgers without having to interact with them. Vaccinating badgers against bTB has previously involved trapping and injecting them with the vaccine, which can be an incredibly stressful procedure.28 However, in recent years a promising oral bait version of the vaccine has been developed and tested.29 Once this version of the vaccine becomes available, it will simplify the process.

Vaccinating badgers against bTB is well-studied and interventions such as this can lay the groundwork for future interventions to help animals living in the wild. Diseases are a common cause of suffering for animals, and vaccination is one of the most effective tools against this source of harm. By normalizing the practice and improving scientific understanding, future interventions will become even more effective.


Notes

1 Carter, P.; Chambers, M. A.; Rushton, S. P.; Shirley, M. D. F.; Schuchert, P.; Pietravalle, S.; Murray, A; Rogers, F.; Gettinby, G.; Smith, G. C.; Delahay, R. J.; Hewinson, G. & McDonald. R. A. (2012) “BCG vaccination reduces risk of tuberculosis infection in vaccinated badgers and unvaccinated badger cubs”, PLOS ONE, 12 December [accessed on 28 March 2021].

2 Donnelly, C. A. & Nouvellet, P. (2013) “The contribution of badgers to confirmed tuberculosis in cattle in high-incidence areas in England”, PLOS Currents, 10 [accessed on 28 March 2021].

3 Enticott, G.; Maye, D.; Ilbery, B.; Fisher, R. & Kirwan, J. (2012) “Farmers’ confidence in vaccinating badgers against bovine tuberculosis”, Veterinary Record, 170, p. 204.

4 Ghosh, P. (2019) “Vet says badger culls caused ‘immense pain’”, BBC News, 9 September [accessed on 25 March 2021].

5 Bouchez-Zacria, M.; Courcoul, A. & Durand, B. (2018) “The distribution of bovine tuberculosis in cattle farms is linked to cattle trade and badger-mediated contact networks in south-western France, 2007-2015”, Frontiers in Veterinary Science , 5, a. 173 [accessed on 28 March 2021].

6 BBC News (2019) “Vet says badger culls caused ‘immense pain’”, op cit.

7 Donnelly, C. A.; Woodroffe, R.; Cox, D. R.; Bourne, F. j.; Cheeseman, C. L.; Clifton-Hadley, R. S.; Wei, G.; Gettinby, G.; Gilks, P.; Jenkins, H.; Johnston, T. W.; Le Fevre, A. M.; McInerney, J. P. & Morrison, I. W. (2006) “Positive and negative effects of widespread badger culling on tuberculosis in cattle”, Nature, 436, pp. 843-846.

8 Riordan, P.; Delahay, R. J.; Cheeseman, C.; Johnson, P. J. & Whyte Macdonald, D. (2011) “Culling-induced changes in badger (Meles meles) behaviour, social organisation and the epidemiology of bovine tuberculosisPLOS ONE, 6 [accessed on 28 March 2021].

9 Sandoval Barron, E.; Swift, B.; Chantrey, J.; Christley, R.; Gardner, R.; Jewell, C.; McGrath, I.; Mitchell, A.; O’Cathail, C.; Prosser, A.; Ridout, S.; Sanchez-Cabezudo, G.; Smith, N.; Timofte, D.; Williams, N. & Bennett, M. (2018) “A study of tuberculosis in road traffic-killed badgers on the edge of the British bovine TB epidemic area”, Scientific Report, 8 [accessed on 28 March 2021].

10 Ibid.

11 Riordan, P.; Delahay, R. J.; Cheeseman, C.; Johnson, P. J. & Macdonald, D. W. (2011) “Culling-induced changes in badger (Meles meles) behaviour, social organisation and the epidemiology of bovine tuberculosis”, op cit.

13 Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (2019) It’s not all black and white: Managing bovine TB: An evidence-based approach, Southwater: Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [accessed on 27 March 2021].

14 Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (2007) “Bovine TB: The scientific evidence”, Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB [accessed on 27 March 2021].

15 Petitions reaching 100,000 signatures require a government response and must be debated, although in some situations, they aren’t debated. Votes passed in these debates are never binding. Petitions provide an opportunity for the public to express their opinions, pressure the government, and help maintain public awareness of the issues. UK Parliament (2012) “Badger Cull Volume 551”, Hansard [accessed on 29 April 2021].

16 Carrington, D. (2012) “Badger cull: MPs vote 147 to 28 for abandoning cull entirely”, The Guardian, 25 Oct [accessed on 27 March 2021].

17 Wild Justice (2020) “Ban the shooting of badgers immediately”, Petitions: UK Government and Parliament [accessed on on 30 April 2021].

19 Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2021b) “Bovine tuberculosis: Consultation on proposals to help eradicate the disease in England”, Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs [accessed on 21 April 2021].

20 Enticott, G.; Maye, D.; Ilbery, B.; Fisher, R. & Kirwan, J. (2012), “Farmers’ confidence in vaccinating badgers against bovine tuberculosis”, op cit.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Chandran, A.; Williams, K.; Mendum, T.; Stewart, G.; Clark, S.; Zadi, S.; Lanni, F.; McLeod, N.; Williams, A.; Villarreal-Ramos, B.; Vordermeier, M.; Maroudam, V.; Prasad, A.; Bharti, N.; Banerjee, R.; Kasibhatla, S. M. & Mcfadden, J. (2019) “Development of a diagnostic compatible BCG vaccine against Bovine tuberculosis”, Scientific Report, 9 [accessed on 28 March 2021].

24 Carter, P.; Chambers, M. A.; Rushton, S. P.; Shirley, M. D. F.; Schuchert, P.; Pietravalle, S.; Murray, A; Rogers, F.; Gettinby, G.; Smith, G. C.; Delahay, R. J.; Hewinson, G. & McDonald. R. A. (2012) “BCG vaccination reduces risk of tuberculosis infection in vaccinated badgers and unvaccinated badger cubs”, op cit.

25 Animal & Plant Health Agency (2020) “Animal & Plant Health Agency report on the delivery of badger trap and test operations on chronic TB breakdown farms in Wales in 2019”, Animal & Plant Health Agency [accessed on 28 April 2021].

26 Payne, B. (2020) “Cornwall’s TB badger vaccination project continues”, Country Gazette, 18th November [accessed on March 2021].

27 MacInnes, C. D.; Smith, S. M.; Tinline, R. R.; Ayers, N. R.; Bachmann, P.; Ball, D. G. A.; Calder, L. A.; Crosgrey, S. J.; Fielding, C.; Hauschildt, P.; Honig, J. M.; Johnston, D. H.; Lawson, K. F.; Nunan, C. P.; Pedde, M. A.; Pond, B.; Stewart, R. B. & Voigt, D.R. (2001) “Elimination of rabies from red foxes in eastern Ontario”, Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 37, pp. 119-132; Rupprecht, C. E. & Rowell, S. (1998) “Prevention of the spread of rabies to wildlife by oral vaccination of raccoons in Massachusetts”, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 213, pp. 1407-1412; Smith, D. R.; Johnston, D. H.; Hicks, B. N. & Moore, G. M. (1998) “Results of an oral rabies vaccination program for coyotes”, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 212, pp. 498-502.

28 Natural Environment Research Council; University of Exeter; Animal & Plant Health Agency; Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs; Natural England; Natural Trust & The Wildlife Trusts (2020) The badger vaccination process, Kenilworth: Natural Environment Research Council [accessed on 29 April 2021].

29 Balseiro, A.; Prieto, J. M.; Álvarez, V.; Lesellier, S.; Davé, D.; Salguero, F. J.; Sevilla, I. A.; Infantes-Lorenzo, J. A.; Garrido, J. M.; Adriaensen, H.; Juste, R. A. & Barral, M. (2020) “Protective effect of oral BCG and inactivated Mycobacterium bovis vaccines in European badgers (Meles meles) experimentally infected with M. bovis”, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7 [accessed on 28 March 2021].