THE Government has today (March 5) set out plans for the next stage of its strategy to eradicate bovine tuberculosis (bTB), including field trials of a cattle vaccine, plans to vaccinate more badgers against the disease and improved testing to intercept bTB earlier.

It said that as a result of a globally significant breakthrough by the Animal and Plant Health Agency it would now accelerate the work towards deployment of the cattle vaccine within the next five years.

The commitment is part of the government’s response to an independent review of its 25-year bTB strategy, led by Professor Sir Charles Godfray.

bTB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that England faces today. More than 30,000 cattle are slaughtered each year due to infection from bTB and a cattle vaccine could become a powerful tool in the battle against the disease following the necessary testing and approvals to ensure its safety and efficacy.

Defra said independent scientific analysis had shown that badger culling has resulted in significant reductions in the spread of the disease to cattle with disease incidence coming down significantly in the two areas analysed, with reductions by sixty-six and thirty-seven percent. However, intensive culls, which currently cover 57 per cent of England’s High-Risk Area for the disease, were only one phase of the long-term bTB strategy to eradicate the disease by 2038.

As wider preventative measures are introduced, the response to the Godfray review sets out an intention to begin to phase out intensive badger culling.

Improvement of the cattle testing regime is also a key component of the strategy to combat bTB. Today’s response makes clear the government’s determination to have more sensitive testing which will intercept the disease earlier and remove it from cattle herds quicker.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: "Bovine TB is a slow-moving and insidious disease leading to the slaughter of over 30,000 cattle every year and considerable trauma for farmers as they suffer the loss of highly prized animals and valued herds.

"The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease as demonstrated by recent academic research and past studies. 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."

The Government intends to start deploying badger vaccination in areas where the four-year cull cycle has ended, alongside ongoing surveillance of the disease in badgers in that area. After the infection in the badger population is dealt with by culling followed by badger vaccination, it will allow other measures such as cattle vaccination to be more effective. This is the combined approach needed to achieve the government’s goal of eradicating the disease by 2038.

However, the Government will retain the ability to introduce new cull zones where local epidemiological evidence points to an ongoing role of badgers in maintaining the disease.

UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said: "This ground-breaking research carried out by APHA has enabled us to embark on the first step of the field trials required to license the cattle vaccine and test it.

"Whilst 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.

"Bovine TB presents a global challenge and the UK can harness its world-leading science to develop solutions such as vaccination that could also be valuable to other countries."

The latest statistics on bTB in England show the overall number of new herd incidents of the disease down by nine per cent in the last year (to Nov 2019), a ten per cent reduction in the number of herds not officially free of the disease and a four per cent reduction in the total number of animals slaughtered due to the disease.

Surveillance testing for the disease, already mandatory in England’s High Risk Area (HRA), will also be increased in frequency in two (HRA) counties – Shropshire and Staffordshire – from annual to six-monthly from later this year. It is expected this will be extended to all parts of the High Risk Area from 2021.

The Government response also sets out plans to step up engagement with partners across the livestock industry to develop the bTB strategy further. It contains a detailed action plan for the next five years.

Reacting to the announcement, NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts said: “Bovine TB continues to devastate family farming businesses across large parts of the country. Last year nearly 33,000 cattle were slaughtered in England because of this terrible disease.

"In order to control and eradicate bTB it’s important to see that the report acknowledges the need to retain intensive culling in a targeted way where the epidemiological evidence requires it. The NFU has always been absolutely clear that any move away from an intensive culling policy – whether that’s in five years, ten 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.

“As Defra Secretary of State George Eustice acknowledges, there is clear evidence that badger culling as part of the government’s 25-year eradication strategy is working. The latest peer-reviewed research definitively shows the significant impact culling badgers has on reducing TB levels in cattle alongside farmers enhancing their biosecurity on farm and robust cattle movement controls.

"The NFU supports tackling the disease in every possible way but it is frustrating that too often culling and badger vaccination are given a false equivalence. Vaccination may have a role to play in areas where TB hasn’t taken hold, but it is important to note vaccination has never been demonstrated to reduce the disease with the same efficacy as culling, nor has it ever cured an infected badger.

“We welcome other measures to assist in eradicating this disease such as further funding and research into cattle vaccination and look forward to the results of field trials. However, we are still currently waiting for answers if an effective, practical and accessible cattle vaccine is achievable which can protect our cattle within a cost-effective framework.

“Sir Charles Godfray noted in his review of the Government’s bTB strategy that there are no easy answers. That’s why we must use every available option – cattle testing, cattle movement controls, biosecurity, vaccination when available and where appropriate, and control of the disease in wildlife in areas where it is endemic. Only by employing this comprehensive approach will we stand a chance of achieving what everyone wants – healthy cattle, healthy wildlife and a TB-free England.”

CLA president Mark Bridgeman said: “We have long supported the UK Government’s 25 year strategy to eradicate TB. This next phase, focusing on the development of a cattle vaccine in the next five years for this damaging disease in addition to improvements in diagnostic testing, is a positive step in achieving this.”

“However, the CLA welcomes the continued availability of badger culling as an option where local epidemiology suggests it can make a big impact, which the report shows can clearly be the case.”

“We also welcome the intention to support livestock keepers in introducing improved biosecurity on their holdings and reduce high risk cattle trading between farms. We look forward to working on this further with UK Government.”