Ministers say they will not only order schemes to inoculate more badgers, but also improve testing of cows to catch the disease earlier and begin trials of a vaccine for cattle.
Wildlife conservation groups welcomed the move, which they said would prevent the “largest slaughter of a protected species in living memory” and would be better for taxpayers, farmers and animals.
Some £60m has already been spent killing more than 100,000 badgers since the culls began in 2013, according to the Badger Trust. More than 30,000 bTB-infected cattle are slaughtered each year.
Dairy farmers have vigorously defended the culling in areas where bTB is prevalent, but critics say the extermination campaign drives surviving badgers away and spreads the disease to new locations.
Ministers said they would reserve the right to start new culls if evidence suggested badgers were spreading the bTB.
“The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease as demonstrated by recent academic research and past studies,” said environment secretary George Eustice, adding the “insidious” disease caused considerable trauma for farmers.
“But no one wants to continue the cull of this protected species indefinitely so, once the weight of disease in wildlife has been addressed, we will accelerate other elements of our strategy including improved diagnostics and cattle vaccination to sustain the downward trajectory of the disease.”
Under the new plan, killings will be halted in areas where the official four-year intensive culling schemes have ended.
Rosie Woodroffe, a biologist at the Zoological Society of London, said the announcement was “outstanding” news but culling could not end immediately because training people to give vaccines would take time.
Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust, said the government had finally accepted that the mass destruction of badgers was not the solution to lowering TB in cattle.
“The government are right to state that far too much emphasis has been based on killing badgers by the farming industry and too little effort had been made to improve biosecurity, introduce risk-based trading and tighten cattle movement controls,” he added.
He said the changes would also offer the government a reason to end live exports because some countries do not accept vaccinated animals.
Last year researchers at the University of Surrey created a test that distinguishes between vaccinated cattle and those infected.
Now, blood tests called gamma interferon tests will be used alongside skin tests to try to identify and remove infected cattle from herds.
Zoe Davies, of the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition, whose members include the RSPCA, said: “There is a lot to like in these proposals. [They] should help tackle the disease more effectively and avoid thousands of badger deaths.
“Improved testing should reduce the main spread of the disease from cow to cow. But the government must ensure these moves are implemented quickly, rather than wait an indeterminate period for ‘the weight of disease in wildlife’ to fall.”
The announcement follows a review of its culling policy by Sir Charles Godfray, which in 2018 concluded that that badger culling can have a “modest” effect in reducing cattle TB, but only if “unacceptable” numbers of animals were killed.
Prof Godfray, from Oxford University, said it was wrong to put all the blame on badgers and to use them as an excuse “not to make hard decisions” in the dairy industry.
Intensive culls currently cover 57 per cent of England’s high-risk area for the disease, and environment department chiefs say cattle vaccination could become “a powerful tool” in the battle against the disease once its safety and efficacy has been approved. The government’s goal is to eradicate the disease by 2038.
“The main criticism of the Godfray review was that the government has focused too much on wildlife in its bovine TB approach, so today’s welcome words must be followed by a rapid shift in approach if this disease is to be eradicated,” said Ms Davies.
UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said: “While there is no single way to combat this damaging and complex disease, cattle vaccination will be a new tool for our multi-pronged approach to tackle it and importantly prevent it, providing vital support to our farming communities.”
The latest government figures show the number of new incidents of the disease in herds in England was down by nine per cent in the year to November 2019.
Carrie Symonds, partner of prime minister Boris Johnson, has been a prominent campaigner against badger culls, and cattle farmers claim she unfairly influenced a decision to deny a culling licence in Derbyshire. The case goes to review in court next month.
NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said: “The NFU has always been absolutely clear that any move away from an intensive culling policy
– whether that’s in five years, 10 years or longer – should not be rushed, and sufficient science and evidence must support any such move.
“In areas where TB in badgers is endemic, we must retain culling as a vital tool enabling industry to get on top of the disease quickly and reduce further transmission.”
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