Fears that vaccinating badgers against bovine tuberculosis (TB) could actually increase transmission rates of this devastating cattle disease have been diminished by a study showing no discernible behavioural impacts from this treatment and offering hope of a practical alternative to the UK Government’s controversial cull policy.
The research, led by ZSL’s Professor Rosie Woodroffe and published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, examined the behaviour of 54 GPS-collared badgers across four separate study sites in Cornwall. Scientists found that of these animals, the 15 that had received the TB vaccine at least once during the course of the project showed ranging behaviour that was indistinguishable from those that were unvaccinated.
Confining badgers overnight in humane traps to enable vaccination was also found to have no impact on their behaviour. These findings show how the effects of vaccination differ from those of culling, which can encourage the spread of bovine TB by disrupting established social groups and encouraging wider movement of infected animals across the countryside.
Lead author Professor Woodroffe said: “The results of this study indicate that badgers’ ranging behaviour is not impacted by TB vaccination, and therefore vaccination cannot encourage the spread of disease by causing the wider ranging of infected individuals.
“Our findings challenge recent claims that vaccinating badgers changes their behaviour and so spreads TB to cattle. Those claims were not based on scientific evidence, but on speculation by a handful of individuals. Now that we have been able to test their ideas with scientific data, I hope that farmers and vets will be reassured that badger vaccination is not harmful.
“Farmers and land managers battling bovine TB on the front line deserve an effective solution to the terrible problems this disease causes – one that’s based on hard scientific evidence rather than speculation. Compared with the Government’s current culling policy, badger vaccination is less risky, more humane, and cheaper. Hopefully our findings will therefore open the door for greater exploration of badger vaccination as a tool to control TB in cattle.”