An alternative to culling badgers now exists: vaccination.
To avoid confusion, please note that there are three different vaccines that are often discussed in this context:
an injectable vaccine for badgers
an oral vaccine for badgers
an injectable vaccine for cattle
The injectable vaccine was licensed for general use in March 2010, and is being used this Summer in England in the Badger Vaccine Deployment Project. While expensive to deploy compared to the other two vaccines, it is still cheaper than the proposed cull and in our view would be a vastly preferable solution.
The oral vaccine for badgers would be much cheaper and more convenient to use, but is currently being tested and is expected to be licensed for general use in 2014. This is the "exit strategy" proposed for the cull - we would stop culling badgers and start using the oral vaccine.
The vaccine for cattle has been held up by the fact that the current tests for bovine TB cannot distinguish between infected cattle and cattle who have been vaccinated. A test capable of Differentiating Infected from Vaccinated Animals test, or DIVA test, has now been developed and the test and vaccine should be licensed in 2015.
The injectable vaccine for badgers, while not as cheap or convenient as the oral vaccine, still compares very favourably to the proposed cull. These arguments are summarised on this one-page leaflet.
According to WAG's own models, culling and vaccinating badger will be equally effective in reducing bovine TB in cattle.
In the words of the WAG model (page 2 paragraph 4):
Since culling also perturbs the badger population and produces an increase in herd breakdowns immediately outside the control area, culling and vaccination appear to be equally effective in reducing cattle herd breakdowns across the whole simulated grid.
However culling increases the level of TB in the surviving badgers whereas vaccinating decreases the level of TB in the badger population.
This leads to:
In both cases (culling or injectable vaccine) the exit strategy would be to switch to deploying the oral vaccine once it is licensed. However the effectiveness of the oral vaccine will depend on the level of TB in the badger population as vaccination can only protect healthy badgers, not cure infected ones. The lower the level of TB in badgers, the more effective the vaccine will be.
So the injectable vaccine, by providing a badger population with a lower level of TB, is a much better fit to the proposed exit strategy.
In the initial 'decision paper' WAG estimated the annual cost of culling badgers at £2,830 per km2 and that of vaccinating badgers at £2,710 per km2. Since then the estimated cost of the cull has ballooned to £4220 per km2 - although the budget of £9 million for 5 years over an area of 288km2 suggests the total cost of culling is nearer £6250 per km2possibly due to cost such as policing not being included in the estimate.
A DEFRA report gives a more detailed breakdown of the estimated cost of vaccination (in annex 4), which comes out to £2900 per km2 in the first year and £1600 thereafter.
Overall it is clear that vaccination is a much cheaper option.
The badger cull has proven very divisive to the local community, alienating both the farming community and the police from the general populace. It has also caused a great deal of distress, notably to elderly people who are terrified at the thought of masked contractors being able to force their way onto private land in the dead of night to kill badgers.
Furthermore, in order to carry out the cull WAG has had to invoke draconian powers of forced entry, and the police have already been accused of abusing powers of arrest and the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Again, it is clear that vaccination will be less damaging on humanitarian and civil liberties grounds.
The conclusions drawn from the Randomised Badger Culling Trials are that in order to succeed in reducing bovine TB in cattle, a badger cull must:
be carried out over a large area, greater than 200 km2
be carried out over a region with 'hard' boundaries that will minimise badger movements
as nearly as possible, must be done simultaneously over the entire area
must have near universal access to land in that area - initially WAG claimed a minimum of 60% access to land, more recently Dr Glossop has claimed that they already have 95% access, yet they are still using draconian measures to get further access.
must be carried out for at least 5 years - contractors tenders suggest that a 9 year cull is being considered
In contrast vaccination can be carried out on any area with any boundaries for any length of time and still be beneficial. It can also be carried out at leisure over most of the year - there is no need to vaccinate the whole area simultaneously.
Vaccination is therefore clearly more flexible a solution, and in particular is applicable to any area in Wales.
From the above,if the badger cull fails to be carried out the necessary swift and efficient manner, there is a real risk that it will lead to an increase in cattle TB breakdowns.
Vaccination runs no such risk.
According to WAG's own models (page 18), the benefits of vaccination would endure for more than 35 years after vaccination ceased. However, a culled badger population will return to pre-cull numbers within one decade - possibly still with an elevated level of TB caused by the cull.
A badger cull will be expensive, if not impossible, to police, especially if animal extremists become involved.
While cull supporters might be disappointed not to have a cull, they do not have the same philosophical objection to culling that many cull opponents have. A vaccination programme would probably have negligible policing costs.
Two arguments are often used to say that vaccination of badgers won't work. The overall response is that, as noted above, according to WAG's own models, culling and vaccinating badger will be equally effective at reducing TB in cattle. The individual arguments are addressed here:
It is true that vaccinating infected badgers has no effect. However, according to the 2007 Badger Found Dead Survey only 15% of badgers in the proposed cull area have TB, so the bulk of the population will be protected by a vaccine. As badgers only live for an average of four to five years in the wild, natural wastage will remove the infected badgers, so a vaccination programme will soon lead to a rapid and dramatic drop in the number of infected badgers. This result has been confirmed by WAG's own computer models.
In contrast it is worth noting that if only 15% of badgers have TB, 85% of badgers killed in an indiscriminate cull will be healthy, and their deaths will only lead to the negative 'perturbation' effect that spreads TB.
The vaccine itself has been proven to work on badgers and not to have harmful side effects - otherwise it wouldnot have been licensed. Indeed it was shown to be more effective than the vaccine assumed in the mathematical models.
Vaccination as a means of controlling disease is also very well proven. And WAG's own models have shown the effect that vaccinating badgers is expected to have on bovine TB in cattle. All that is missing is direct experimental measurement of that effect.
However that could be said of the culling strategy as well. WAG have emphasisised that their cull is not just a carbon copy of the Randomised Badger Culling Trials, but is a new and different approach never yet tried. THis, of course, implies that it, too, is not yet experimentally proven to work!