It begins with a mild fever and malaise, and can develop into a chronic cough. The infection prospers in crowds and spreads fast. No, it’s not coronavirus, it’s bovine tuberculosis, an infectious disease in cattle. Efforts to control it have cost the UK 100,000 of its wild badgers (and counting). Is badger culling the answer to bTB? Or should we be vaccinating instead?
“What’s the matter, can’t you people sleep?”
The joke is uttered in warm, West Country tones by Adrian Coward—the voice of someone who seems entirely content to be out of bed at 5:15am. “Actually, I’ve been up since 3:30,” he announces cheerfully. I get the impression he’s done this before.
We’re meeting in a car park between Bristol and Bath, along with nine other early risers, in the hopes of seeing badgers. I don’t mention that I’ve already seen one on my way here (the unfortunate victim of a car strike). These people are badger devotees. I’d hate to upset them. Besides, with any luck I’ll soon be able to improve on that first sighting. Last night, Adrian and his colleagues from Somerset Badger Group and Avon Wildlife Trust, along with a team of volunteers, set 30 traps for the stripy mustelids. Normally, trapping would raise a red flag among the badger-loving community—and for good reason. These days, a great number of badgers who enter a trap never leave. Instead, they become easy targets—less badger, more sitting duck—in a nationwide cull that has so far claimed the lives of 100,000 of these protected mammals.
To understand why badgers are culled, you have to go back to 1971, when a single dead badger was discovered in Gloucestershire, infected with Mycobacterium bovis—the bacterium that causes bovine tuberculosis (bTB). The disease infects over 30,000 cows a year, and each one has to be euthanised. Before routine pasteurisation, the milk from bTB-infected cows would cause disease in people, too. Today, human infections are very rare, but bTB continues to devastate herds and hard-working farming communities alike. The belief that badgers can transmit it to cattle is what sealed their death warrant.
In almost half a century since that single infected badger was found, there have only been 10 years without badgers being killed somewhere in the UK. It started with the gassing of thousands of setts (underground burrows). By the time the coalition government announced the latest cull in 2013, the method of control had progressed—at least partly—to live trapping and shooting.
Today, badger culling is permitted across more than 50 areas in the UK, but none of the badgers we hope to see today will be shown the business end of a shotgun. “I’m here to stop that from happening,” Adrian tells me, through a white, valved face mask (we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and bTB isn’t the only disease on our minds this morning). Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine currently available for COVID-19. But there is one for bTB. In fact, it’s the same vaccine that gave you that scar on your upper arm: Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, commonly known as BCG. And it works on badgers too. Vaccinate a badger against TB, and you can greatly reduce any theoretical risk it poses to a cattle herd—without having to shoot it. That’s why we’re here. Syringes, not guns, are our weapons of choice.
In 2019, Avon Wildlife Trust partnered with Somerset Badger Group to demonstrate that there is a cost effective, long term solution to bTB that doesn’t involve culling badgers. The project is run by Louise Treneman, Living Landscape Assistant for Avon Wildlife Trust, and her colleague Tim Curley. The team of volunteers surrounding them in this twilight hour are their recruits. We split into groups, and Louise invites me to travel with her and Neil Aldridge, a photographer who has come to document the work taking place.
Day One, 5:45am
We head out from the car park in a Land Rover, just as dawn gives way to sunrise. The sky, an infusion of pastel blue and cinder pink, holds all the promise of a successful venture. I ask Louise if she’s feeling optimistic.
“Yeah,” she nods. “For the last two weeks we’ve been pre-bating and the take-up has been good. The volunteers have been helping us to do that.”
I met two of those volunteers in the car park: Kerry Vosper and Julie Borek, who explained the process of pre-baiting to me. You start by putting out dishes of peanuts, at locations with signs of badger activity—such as a run, a sett, or a latrine (shallow pits in which badgers deposit their dung). Then, at the end of the first week, you check how many ‘takes’ you’ve had. Any bait points that haven’t been visited are taken away, and the ones where bait has been taken are reinforced. The team started with 45 bait points and got 28 takes. Based on that, they decided to put down 30 traps. That was six days ago, and since then, they’ve continued pre-baiting, laying the peanuts closer to the traps each time. Last night, the bait was finally placed at the back of the cages, and the peanut dish covered over with a stone, attached to a trip-line. If any badgers have moved those stones during the night, then the trap door should have dropped, shutting them inside.
Below: Pre-baiting traps to tempt peanut-loving badgers inside.
“You can see one of the traps there,” Louise says, pointing out a wire mesh cage some 4 feet long. It’s empty, no badger in sight. One of the team goes over and trips it, to minimise any possibility of other animals getting trapped during the day.
The second trap we come to is also empty, but this time the bait’s been taken. Whether by sheer luck or some wily craft on the badger’s part, it’s managed to guzzle the peanuts without springing the trapdoor. I start to wonder just how effective these traps are, but then we hit the next one, and third time’s a charm.
“Badger!” Louise confirms, just as the animal turns to look at us. And there it is: that instantly recognisable face. A downturned white triangle, streaked by two parallel ribbons of black, and a pair of eyes harder than acorns. The badger is agitated, in the middle of staging an elaborate prison break. It arches its back, bites the bars, and digs with its formidable claws, pulling grass and clods of soil into the cage with it. I wonder if it’s trying to conceal itself from us.
Vanessa Mason, one of four vaccinators on site today, mixes the vaccine in the back of her Land Rover. Each dose has to be made up fresh. She takes a small brown phial containing the dry BCG vaccine powder, and adds a diluent (diluting agent) from a separate white phial. Then she draws the solution up into a syringe. As she approaches the badger, it alerts, following her with wary eyes. Unphased, she proceeds carefully, uttering a string of observations, which Lucy Dufall records: adult, lively, good condition. Vanessa also checks it for wounds. A scuff on the nose from rubbing against the trap or a rump wound from a fight with another badger would not cause concern but more serious injury may require a call to the vet (Vanessa confirms the Somerset Badger Group have never had to call a vet whilst vaccinating). Lucy herself is a fourth-year vet student, who grew up on a farm. I’m curious: don’t all farmers have a grudge against badgers? Lucy laughs. “A lot of them do. But personally, I think badgers are used as scapegoats.”
Below: Vanessa Mason vaccinates a badger while vet student Lucy Dufall records.
In 2013, the same year the badger cull began, professor Christl Donnelly of Imperial College London, published a paper that suggested only 5.7% of TB breakdowns in cattle herds were attributable to badgers (though she also said that this figure rose to 52% as a result of those cattle infected by badgers passing it on to other herds). If those figures are correct, then bTB is predominantly a cattle-to-cattle transmission issue. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to focus on cows, rather than the badgers?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. The biggest issue is that the current ‘SICCT skin test’ for cattle cannot differentiate infected from vaccinated animals. For that, you need a so-called DIVA test. In July 2020, the government announced that just such a test had been developed. Field trials have now been given the go-ahead, in the hopes that cattle vaccination can be deployed by 2025. It’s all part of a shift in strategy, the government says, to phase out intensive culling of badgers.
“Lip service,” Adrian decries. “They’re just trying to keep the public on their side.” I soon learn that, around the same time the government announced it would phase out badger culling in favour of vaccination, it also sanctioned new cull zones. Eleven of them, to be precise, bringing the total number of areas with culling licences up to 54. It’s a massive upscaling of shooting, packaged up as vaccination. The fact that the new cull zones include areas in Derbyshire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire, where badgers are already being vaccinated, is salt in the wound.
Vanessa’s kneeling alongside the badger now, syringe in hand. She attempts to administer the vaccine, but the spirited creature won’t stay still. Luckily, Vanessa has just the tool for the job: a plastic device called a wicket—because it looks like a series of cricket stumps. She inserts it through the top of the cage, cordoning the animal into a smaller space to keep it still. The needle goes in (though the badger barely seems to notice) and then Vanessa takes a fur clipping with a pair of scissors, revealing the pale under hairs on the badger’s rump. She sprays the spot with blue dye. Before I can ask the question, Louise explains: “The spray tells us which badgers have been vaccinated, in case we trap them again. We’ll be out again in the morning and Vanessa doesn’t want to vaccinate a badger tomorrow that she’s already vaccinated today.”
Before the badger can go free, Vanessa waits a minute or two, just to make sure it isn’t having an allergic reaction to the vaccine. Then she opens the cage door and lets the animal go with confidence. It transforms into a grey blur and disappears into the undergrowth faster than you can say ‘Tommy Brock.’
Below: Vaccination must be quick and efficient to avoid unnecessary stress to the animal.
While all this is going on, two more badgers are radioed in. Phil’s got one in the plantation, and Martin’s got one in the field. We head to the field first, passing a herd of cows on the way. I ask Louise what the bTB situation is at this particular site. “No TB here,” she replies. And yet, the badgers and cattle are sharing the same space, aren’t they? Does that mean that the badgers don’t have TB? Or that they don’t come into contact with cattle? Or—and this is the controversial question—is it possible that infected badgers don’t actually pass TB to cattle? It’s a proverbial hot potato; to date, no research has shown how badger to cattle transmission actually takes place.
Crunching the Numbers
The culling policy is based on a single study that ran between 1998-2005 in England: The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). It concluded that culling badgers over four years resulted in bTB declines in cull zones of around 23%. But it also found that levels of disease rose by 25% in areas on the edge of cull zones. Why the contradiction? Louise explains the theory that any gains from culling badgers are offset by something called the ‘perturbation effect’:
“With the cull, badgers are moving around a lot more than they normally do,” she says. “As soon as their family units start to break down, they disperse. They’re not stupid. And any setts that have been evacuated or emptied by culling activities leave behind vacant habitat for neighbouring populations to expand their territories.” If you accept that badgers really do transmit bTB to cattle, then all this extra movement means the disease could move more widely too. And that’s bad news for nearby farmers.
Due to this push-pull effect, The RBCT suggests that if you cull for four years, the overall benefit over nine years is a reduction of bTB in cattle of just 12-16%—a finding that led the authors to conclude badger culling could offer “no meaningful contribution to cattle bTB control in Britain.”
Below: Some scientists and conservationists believe that badger culling is misguided.
Over the years since it was published, several independent experts have suggested that the findings of the RBCT are not safe science. Writing for The Ecologist in 2016, conservation ecologist Tom Langton went so far as to say that “The only scientifically valid conclusion is that culling badgers has no effect on TB in cattle.”
Vaccination, meanwhile, provides a practical and humane alternative which—in contrast to culling—should prevent a disease reservoir from developing in badgers, and stop them becoming re-infected. It’s also cheaper: as little as £150 per km2 per year, according to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s 2019 annual review. Culling, by comparison, costs £2,250 per km2 per year. Partly, that’s to do with the level of policing required in cull zones:
“Vaccination is much more publicly acceptable, as opposed to culling” explains Adrian. “That means there’s going to be less people protesting, less people interfering with the process, legally or illegally. All that antisocial activity associated with culling comes at a cost. And that’s a cost to you and I, not to the farmers.”
As Vanessa vaccinates the second badger of the morning—a big one, more relaxed this time—I look around the field. Not a protester in sight. Just us, the dew-speckled grass, and the gentle sway of birdsong.
We head to the plantation next, Louise bouncing the Land Rover down a narrow, wooded track. Branches thud across the roof and brambles scape the sides, whipping in through the open windows. When we reach the next trap, I can’t believe my eyes. The animal inside is fast asleep in the cage, curled up with its face flat on the floor. As we approach, the dry snaps of twigs underfoot do nothing to rouse it. But the animal is assessed as being healthy, and vaccination proceeds without a hitch, all without so much as a twinge from the quiescent creature. When the time comes for its release, the badger has to be prodded—physically prodded—with a stick. Eventually, it wakes, glances up at us, and then bolts.
Below: Martin Kendall vaccinates a badger while it sleeps, before setting it free.
Nearby is another trap containing a young adult. The difference between this badger and the last one is (excuse the pun) black and white. Using nothing but claws and muscles, this animal has excavated a trench; a wide perimeter of earthworks that runs all around the trap. From what I can tell, the intention is to bury itself, cage and all. Badgers are subterranean creatures, after all. Martin Kendall is the vaccinator this time around. He kneels by the cage, and the badger’s freedom is secured with the jab of a needle. When the trapdoor lifts, it moves out tentatively, and then darts underneath a wire fence as if propelled by rocket fuel.
The hay meadows are our next stop. A light drizzle peppers the windscreen of the Land Rover but it’s half-hearted, and soon stops again. We pull up alongside a trap that contains a cub. It’s rooted to the spot but trembling. The vaccination is carried out quietly and efficiently before the animal is sent on its way. And there’s an adult, too. A boar badger that makes warning sounds at Vanessa when the needle comes out and jumps at the sound of the spray can. When she opens the door, it backs out, refusing to even look at her.
The only traps left to check are the ones at the main sett. Badgers that are trapped further away from home need more time to get back, but the ones here can just bolt down a hole, so they’re deliberately left until last. The first trap is empty. The second contains our final badger of the day. All in all, the team has vaccinated 11 badgers this morning. Not bad for a few hours’ work.
Below: Vanessa Mason uses wickets to keep a badger still while she vaccinates it.
The following morning, we trap five more but they’re mostly recaptures—badgers so addicted to peanuts that they’re prepared to get trapped again. Only one of this new cast of characters lacks the colourful graffiti on its rump. I watch as Adrian vaccinates it. “It’s okay,” he tells it, “Come on now, it’s okay.” And a couple of minutes later, the animal goes free, making a total of 12 vaccinated badgers this year. The team seems content with that result, but has its sights set on more ambitious numbers in the long-term.
“The first step is to make sure that the badgers here are vaccinated and healthy,” says Amy Coulthard, Director for Nature’s Recovery for Avon Wildlife Trust. “But we also need to get farmers in the local area vaccinating too. The numbers we can get here are one thing, but we need to be vaccinating in all the fields around as well. We need to increase the vaccination footprint to really make a difference to the bTB situation. Building good relationships with landowners is key. The Wildlife Trusts as an overall movement is opposed badger culling, but it’s hard to say to farmers who believe that badgers might be giving TB to their cattle that we’re not going to do anything about it. We have to demonstrate that we’re not part of the problem. We want to say: ‘Look, we’re vaccinating, and we can show you how to do it. Link you up with the vaccinators, even offer some funding to get you started.’ It’s about getting the right messages and information to farmers, without increasing conflict or shutting any doors.”
Below: Adrian Coward vaccinates a badger before taking a fur clipping and spraying it with blue dye.
This year, Avon Wildlife Trust engaged a number of landowners in dialogue, and two or three were showing real interest in vaccinating. But then COVID-19 happened. Local outreach is currently on hold until next year. But that’s only one part of Amy’s job. Influencing policy is another:
“We’ve got very engaged MPs in the area, from all three main political parties. And we’re also mobilising at a national level. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust are working very closely with Defra on what the next steps look like following all the recent announcements. Yes, the government have acknowledged that vaccination has a role to play, and we should celebrate that. But I worry that some of the general public think the battle’s been won, and that’s simply not true. Culling is increasing. We have to keep going, we have to keep campaigning.”
The team regroups to sanitise all the traps, as required by badger vaccination protocols. This ensures there is no risk that infection could be carried (via the traps) to other sites. Amy disinfects each one with a pressure sprayer, while volunteers scrub the peanut dishes with gloved hands. Then everything gets a power wash. It takes the better part of an hour to deep clean everything. It’s the kind of biosecurity that dairy farms can use more of.
Below: The team disinfect vehicles and cages to lower the risk of cross-contamination.
With the work complete for another year, everyone goes their separate ways, in hot pursuit of a well-earned breakfast. Well, not quite everyone. Before I leave, I grab Adrian and we chat in the car park for a while, as the morning sun warms up the sky. The more I hear, the more I realise just how complicated and polemic the issue of badger culling is. There is no single, easy answer. But Adrian makes his position abundantly clear:
“Culling badgers isn’t sustainable. There’s no clear-cut benefit, no proven benefit, in terms of reducing cattle TB.” I return to the scientific literature and find some recent research published in October 2019 which showed that, between 2013 and 2017, the Gloucestershire cull zone actually saw a 66% fall in incidence of bTB, while Somerset saw a 36% drop. But in 2018, bTB levels resurged again in Gloucestershire by a massive 130%. The number of cases that year were 5% higher than pre-cull levels. And Dorset, too, saw the burden of disease increase by 10% after two years of culling. That paints a pretty confusing and inconclusive picture. And the authors of that study couldn’t even be sure that any declines in bTB levels were attributable to badger culling, as opposed to other interventions (such as more effective bTB testing and hygiene improvements in cattle sheds).
The notion that the UK government continues to sanction badger culling, when the benefits remain ambiguous, is a thought that keeps Adrian up at night:
“From my perspective, the badger cull is awful. It’s killing animals that I grew up with, and have tried to protect all my life. And it’s also costing me a lot of my taxpayer’s money. The whole thing, to me, is a real mess.”
Below: Can vaccination save badgers from the cull?
What if we could vaccinate all the badgers in the country tomorrow, I ask Adrian, to save them from this grisly fate? Would we have enough vaccine for that? “I doubt it,” Adrian tells me. “It’s the same vaccine humans have, and we need it first.” The day after we have this conversation, I read in the New York Times that the lockdowns and supply-chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 have threatened progress against TB in humans. With 10 million cases and 1.5 million deaths per year, it’s still the biggest infectious-disease killer worldwide.
But we don’t need to vaccinate every human to bend the TB curve—nor every badger. It’s about building up herd immunity within the population. Right from the start, Avon Wildlife Trust planned to carry out their badger vaccination work over four consecutive years. By then, it hopes to have built up enough immunity in the population to prevent a disease reservoir developing. It will also stop the badgers becoming infected or re-infected by cows, notes Adrian.
Does he think nationwide vaccination can ever replace culling? “Well, the government’s got to have an exit strategy somewhere, and the only one they’ve got is vaccination. The solution’s not going to be a continuation of culling. I always say to farmers: ‘If you believe that badgers are 40% of your problem, then we will solve 40% of your problem for you. If you believe that badgers are 10% of your problem, then we’ll solve 10%. But the reality of life is that you won’t actually change anything just by vaccinating badgers. You need to look at the cow as well.”
A Better Strategy?
All the recent scientific evidence points to cattle-to-cattle transmission being the main problem. And if that’s true, then killing badgers feels like little more than a distraction. Compare it to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to prevent the spread of that disease, governments around the world have ordered lockdowns, social distancing and strict hand hygiene. But cattle are often stabled close together, sometimes in dirty sheds that create ideal conditions for disease transmission. That’s the equivalent of corralling pandemic-era humans into close, unsanitary quarters. We’re not doing that—and nor are we killing the wild animals that supposedly gave us coronavirus in the first place. Shooting all the bats and pangolins in the world wouldn’t stop the disease from spreading human to human. To tackle that, we have to focus on the main reservoir: ourselves. In the case of TB and cattle, that means improving hygiene on farms, and introducing better testing regimes.
“But they won’t do that,” says Adrian. “Better tests are already available, the Actiphage blood tests. But the risk is that those tests will show bTB is more widespread than feared. If that happens, thousands more cattle will be killed.” Already, bTB costs taxpayers more than £100m a year in compensation pay outs to farmers. Improved testing would likely cost the government millions more.
As I listen to Adrian talk, it’s clear that he feels the government has failed him.
“Why should I have to put up with it, when it’s being influenced by a small group of people? I feel like I have to undo the damage. I may sound like an anarchist, but I’m not. It’s about recognising what you can do. I’m never going to be Prime Minister; I’m never going to be a tycoon with billions of pounds. All I can do is the little bit that’s within my power to change. That’s the only way I can deal with all of this.”
I turn the issue over in my head. Fifty years since that first TB-infected badger was discovered, and we’re still arguing over what to do about it. This autumn, the sheer scale of the cull will see more badgers shot than any other year since culling began. Yet experts warn that the newly expanded cull could push badgers to the verge of local extinction. That alone feels like a gross injustice.
The vast majority of badgers will be ‘free shot’ as opposed to being trapped first. The method is considered inhumane, and is not supported by British Veterinary Association. “Some badgers are shot multiple times before they die,” Adrian says. “Others escape with injuries, only to die later. The measure of humaneness is that the animal must die within five minutes. I don’t agree that taking five minutes to die is humane.”
To me, there’s no question that BCG shots should replace gunshots – for both badgers and cattle. To continue culling badgers would not only be a failure to a beloved British mammal, but a failure to farmers, as well. I just hope that it doesn’t take another 50 years of debate to reverse their fortunes.
Avon Wildlife Trust’s Badger TB vaccination programme
Avon Wildlife Trust‘s work to vaccinate badgers, and help tackle TB in a way which allows them to thrive, will continue for another two years. The Trust plans to roll out their badger vaccination programme, working with farmers and landowners to ensure more badgers are protected from bovine TB.
For the full gallery of badger vaccination images, click here.