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The ethical debate surrouding badger vaccination

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 March 2019

In the evening sunlight

In the evening sunlight

Paul Hobson

Paul Hobson concludes his account of his work last summer with the Derbyshire badger vaccination programme.

Debbie creating the mound of soil at the rear of the trapDebbie creating the mound of soil at the rear of the trap

Once the bait points (peanuts left in a depression in the ground and covered by a rock) that we’d set were being used by the badgers we introduced a cage. Unfortunately we had to trap the badgers because the vaccine was administered by needle as there is no food alternative method.

Trapping also allowed head of the project Debbie Bailey, of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, and her assistant Gail Weatherhead, who works for the National Trust, to know exactly how many and which badgers had been vaccinated.

The cage was first moved slowly into position next to the bait point and then we filled the base with soil to allow us to move the bait point into the trap over a period of days. The soil was there to prevent the badgers’ feet becoming sore on the mesh.

At each sett we placed a trail cam for a number of nights. These produced stills or short video clips of anything that moved around the sett. The information from these was vital as it allowed us to work out how many badgers were living in each sett and therefore how many traps we would need.

Debbie prepares the syringe with vaccine ready for the injectionDebbie prepares the syringe with vaccine ready for the injection

Once we had finished at the large sett, we checked the latrines along a number of walls and moved to the next farm where we disinfected our boots and car tyres in the yard before heading to the next two setts. Both of these were inactive but we decided that we would place traps at the larger of the two setts because it showed sporadic use.

During the two weeks Debbie had added a new sett to our rounds to balance up the number of active setts each team was responsible for. So next we headed down to this sett, which was small with only a couple of active holes. We only placed two traps there because the trail cam showed there was only one badger taking the bait. From there we drove to the next farm and to a large sett which had been active some weeks previously and in which we thought there were two badgers living. However, these rarely took any bait and never any from inside the traps so we were unsure if they were living in the sett or only visiting every now and then.

During the two weeks I regularly met the farmer at each farm and I enjoyed chats with them. These farmers support the programme and I wanted to know why. The simple answer is that since the vaccination programme is free for them they view it as a win-win situation. At the most fundamental level it can’t do any harm. These farmers clearly like wildlife and if an effective alternative to culling could be found they would support it.

Another advantage of the vaccination programme over culling came up in discussion – the effect of perturbation. When an area is culled the remaining badgers (they are never all caught) become destabilised and start to move around far more. The cull also creates badger-free zones that other badgers may move into. The sum total is that badgers move around far more and therefore, if infected, may actually spread BTB further afield. This does not happen with vaccination.

Debbie releases a relieved badgerDebbie releases a relieved badger

Once all the traps were in position and Debbie and Gail felt that the maximum number of badgers were now taking the bait from within the traps they decided on which two days the vaccination would take place.

For all the volunteers this is what all the hard work had been about. The vaccination took place just before dawn on two consecutive mornings. Only qualified vets and trained personnel such as Debbie and Gail can vaccinate. We started before dawn so that once a badger had been vaccinated we could release it before it got too light and it could find its way back to its sett quickly. The majority of the traps were near the setts for this very reason.

When we all met up on the first morning the air seemed to crackle with excitement. Many of the volunteers, particularly the younger ones, had never seen a live badger so this was their first chance to see the animal we were all trying to help.

The morning followed a routine that was planned to reduce the stress on each badger as much as possible. When we approached a trap one person walked silently up to see if a badger had been caught. If one had, the vaccinator (in my team, Debbie) donned surgical gloves and filled a syringe with the exact amount of vaccine. She then walked up to the trap with one other person. They took a large barred tool that could be used to isolate the badger at one end of the trap, so preventing it injuring itself. Debbie then injected the badger, clipped a small area of hair from its rear and sprayed it with a coloured marker (the same type that is used to mark sheep). This meant we could tell the following morning if a badger had been vaccinated already. The whole process took less than a minute, then the badger was released – a very emotional moment for some.

Adding soil to the trapAdding soil to the trap

In the two days our team vaccinated two badgers and in total we vaccinated 11. We estimated that this was approximately 80 per cent of the total badgers in the area we worked. The target is to vaccinate 75 per cent of any population, which has been scientifically estimated to be effective at halting the spread of BTB. This part of the programme is in its first year. The programme in any area runs for four years and hopefully, as the word spreads, those farms close by may join in, increasing the programme’s effectiveness. In the four years the project has been running DWT and the NT have vaccinated over 500 badgers. u

Badger vaccination is one method that is a serious alternative to culling. From a landowner’s perspective it is free but it is not for DWT and the NT who fund the project. If you feel you would like to donate to this important work please do so at: uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fund/helpbadgers. You can find out more about the Trust’s work at www.derbyshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/badger-vaccination and you can volunteer to help with next year’s vaccination by contacting the Trust on enquiries@derbyshirewt.co.uk

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