Badger Vaccination Symposium 2019

Yesterday I headed up to the University of Derby for the first ever Badger Vaccination Symposium. Hosted by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, National Trust, and the Badger Trust the event brought together (to quote) “policy makers, academics, scientists, veterinarians, farmers, and vaccination teams” for the first time.

The symposium, which was excellent incidentally, looked at the latest science concerning Bovine Tuberculosis (btb, a cattle disease), badgers (which undoubtedly carry btb, though whether they introduce btb to new areas or catch it from diseased cattle being moved around the country is still hotly disputed), and the effectiveness of vaccination (using syringes – oral vaccination is being developed but is not yet available) as a non-lethal means of controlling the disease.

And it’s the non-lethal bit that matters. As many campaigners and activists will already know, the government (urged on by the National Farmers Union/NFU) has embarked on a seemingly ever-increasing slaughter of badgers in a (so far pretty much pointless) ‘cull’ which, to quote Dominic Dyer, CEO of Badger Trust “is the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory. By the end of 2018, the government will have spent over £50m of public funds killing over 67,000 badgers [since 2013], which could push the species to the verge of local extinction in areas of England where it has lived since the ice age.

I do try and keep up with as many conservation developments as I can, but I have to admit – despite having interviewed Dominic Dyer a number of times for podcasts on the cull – I went up to the Symposium knowing relatively little about vaccinating badgers. Much of what was said was a real eye-opener…

My (personal) take-away from the symposium is just how hard volunteers are having to work to persuade farmers to let them on to their land to vaccinate, how little government support (in both financial and promotional terms) is available, how reluctant the NFU is to help promote vaccination, and how few badgers in total have been vaccinated despite the vaccine having undergone rigorous government testing and licenced for use as long ago as 2010 (the low total not helped by the government running out of vaccine in 2016 just as programmes were building up a head of steam)!

As a non-expert listening to experts, I came to the conclusion (and I’m neither saying that this was the intention of the speakers nor a view shared by other delegates), that basically many farmers simply want to get rid of badgers altogether rather than allow vaccinated badgers on their land.

As is often the case the issue is not entirely black and white, there are honourable exceptions of course, but speaking as a non-expert who listened very intently to the debate it really does appear to me that unless volunteers are prepared to overlook other practices that they would normally feel disgusted by (unnamed, but possibly trapping and snaring linked to pheasant shoots), unless volunteers offer ‘carrot’ after ‘carrot’ and withdraw any hint of ‘stick’, then almost no-one outside of a few highly motivated and entirely admirable individuals and a small smattering of farmers is prepared to do very much of anything to ensure the hideous slaughter of native wildlife is mitigated by a cheap, effective non-lethal means of controlling btb.

And it is cheap – far cheaper, anyway, if you compare the cost of vaccination with shooting (“Vaccinating one badger is costing approx. £82 compared to over £6,000 to shoot one badgeraccording to Derbyshire Wildlife Trust).

That’s the case because while the cost involved in trapping a badger is exactly the same as trapping it to vaccinate it or trapping it to shoot it, with vaccination there is just a small cost for the vaccine dose but there are no additional policing costs (arising from ensuring shooters don’t break the law (or shoot each other) and monitoring protestors), no costs of hiring so-called ‘marksmen’ (a description woefully wide of the mark in many cases) and night sights etc, and much of the vaccination work is done by trained (ie unpaid or low-paid) volunteers.

There are also no issues with perturbation (the increased movement of badgers due to the disruption of territoriality, and the increased ranging and mixing between social groups caused by removing badgers by killing them), which some experts say could lead to the spread of btb. Which results in more shooting etc etc

And it is effective, as one of the speakers detailed in one of the excellent talks given in the morning (which were mercifully short as the tight schedule ‘encouraged’ speakers to stick to the point).

The afternoon, incidentally, was given over to a series of workshops (photo above).

I attended one on ‘How to expand badger vaccination nationally’ – the answer to which seemed to be (or at least to my rather jaundiced ears seemed to be) saying thank you while giving farmers everything they want as we conservationists bend over and are mocked as badger-hugging weirdos who know SFA about the countryside.

As I say, that’s just how it seemed to me. I don’t work on the ground and I have huge respect for the volunteers who work incredibly hard to implement vaccination programmes – but in the same week that the ‘field sports community’ giggled about stringing up Chris Packham and predicted chaos in the countryside if they weren’t allowed free rein to blast pigeons and crows, I’m getting a bit fed up of constantly being reminded that unless conservation is prepared to compromise (and it’s always conservation that is expected to compromise) then the slaughter of so much of our native wildlife will go on unabated.

Having said that, please don’t in any way think that my slightly sour reflections here are indicative of the general feeling at the symposium. It was a triumph just to get everyone in one place to discuss the issue, and this was a remarkably positive meeting, with some of the most respected voices in their respective fields of expertise talking frankly and openly.

I came away full of respect for the organisers and for so many of the committed and incredibly hard-working people who are trying to change embedded and intransigent attitudes and save what is supposed to be a protected species from extermination in large parts of England.

Oh, and of course I was up there to record an interview as well. I’m very grateful to the aforementioned Dominic Dyer, Tim Birch and Debbie Bailey of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Gail Weatherhead of the National Trust, and Professor Paul Lynch of Derby University and Chair of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust for staying behind to talk with me.

I’ll be editing our conversation (which was punchy and very interesting) this week, and will upload it to Lush Player asap.