AS Boris Johnson surveys the carnage caused by COVID-19, including a UK death toll circa 130,000 or 150,000 depending on how calculated, his wife Carrie Johnson has been instrumental in the decision to backtrack on badger culling in favour of vaccination, thereby saving at least 100,000 more badgers from being shot.

More than 100,000 badgers have been killed since the cull was started in 2013 to stop alleged transmission of bTB (bovine tuberculosis) from badgers to cattle, although many scientists dispute the importance of badgers in spreading the bacterial disease. The decision to stop culling has almost certainly saved the ‘brock’ from disaster with the cull having already destroyed at least 20 per cent of the badger population in England. If continued at that rate the species would have been in real trouble. UK badgers account for a sizeable portion of the entire population of the common European badger (Meles meles).

In January, environment secretary George Eustice set out proposals for Natural England (NE) to stop issuing the current intensive cull licences for new areas after 2022 and to enable new licences to be cut short if the chief veterinary officer agrees. Branding culling as “unacceptable”, the environment secretary said he was also planning to restrict any new supplementary cull licences to two years, and to stop reissuing such licences in any areas in which supplementary culling has previously been licensed.

Forestry Journal:  George Eustice George Eustice

An eight-week public consultation on future measures to attain bovine TB-free status by 2038 began on 27 January.

As with human vaccination to counter the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, vaccination of cattle and badgers is seen by many as the way out of the bTB problem. While clearly receiving a general welcome from the British public at large, calling a halt to the badger cull will cause considerable controversy in some parts of the countryside. The National Farmers Union is not impressed. Its deputy president, Stuart Roberts, said: “I am certain the consequences of these proposals will have severe impacts on the lives of farming families all across the country.”

But animal rights activists are overjoyed. Dominic Dyer, policy adviser at Born Free and former chief of the Badger Trust, said: “The badger cull policy has increasingly become political poison for the Government.” He puts the badger toll at 140,000. The Badger Trust fears that a figure of 160,000 could be exceeded when the expanded cull figures for 2020 (started in September 2020) are added to the total. 

Forestry Journal: Boris and Carrie JohnsonBoris and Carrie Johnson

Carrie Johnson recently became head of communications at the Aspinall Foundation, which protects endangered species. The charity, which is renowned for its work on returning animals to the wild, confirmed her appointment on 31 January. So, expect more positive pressure from the top for animal rights and support for rewilding projects.

Not all landowners in England allow badger culling to take place on their land with the National Trust being the single biggest landowner in this category. However, a recent event at the National Trust’s Dyrham Park between Bristol and Bath has poured more fuel on the fire. The park’s long resident herd of fallow deer became infected with bTB in 2007 but despite great efforts to control the infection, including the use of fencing, a programme of badger vaccination and stopping cattle grazing in the park, infections continued to rise. For animal welfare reasons the entire herd of 70 deer was humanely killed earlier this year, thus giving more ammunition to the pro-culling lobby. 

Those actively engaged in the commercial culling of badgers have long complained about landowners who refuse to allow culling on their land. Culling disperses the local badger population, which takes up residence in nearby ‘safe havens’. In the same way rabbit shooting, while providing the odd rabbit for the pot, simply disperses the population and drives any problems onto neighbouring properties. 

The irony around this latest event is that deer are generally regarded as one of Britain’s biggest animal pests but in other situations are treasured and much loved. Fallow deer are native to Asia and were introduced into the UK by the Normans around the 11th century. They subsequently escaped from deer parks and were also intentionally released into hunting forests.

The government’s eight-week consultation period came to an end on 24 March. It included plans to transition from badger culling to badger vaccination with a proposal for Natural England to stop issuing any new intensive culling licences from 2022. In the meantime, there will be moves to improve the testing regime and accelerate deployment of a TB cattle vaccine by 2025.

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The livestock farming lobby is universally opposed to these moves with NBA (National Beef Association) chief Neil Shand telling Farmers Weekly: “I think the evidence confirms to date that the badger culling policy is helping to eradicate TB disease in cattle. However, wildlife campaigners might reasonably counter by saying that with up to a third of the badger population already killed it could similarly eradicate this native mammal.”

A broad swathe of scientific expertise has long argued that badger culling is not the silver bullet to bTB. However, with cost of the cull put at £60 million, which works out at £500 per badger shot, you could be forgiven for thinking that the sharpshooters are being issued with silver bullets.


However, help is definitely on the horizon for besieged badgers following a July 2021 announcement by the environment secretary that cattle vaccination is now being pursued as an alternative strategy to culling badgers. 

Presumably enthused and empowered by the success of the vaccination programme against COVID-19, George Eustice said: “Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that the UK faces today. The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease but no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely.

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“That is why we are building on this progress by accelerating other elements of our strategy, including cattle vaccination and improved testing so we can eradicate this insidious disease and start to phase out badger culling as soon as possible.”

The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has initiated trials on a Hertfordshire farm for a cattle vaccine and a new Diva skin test for bTB with the aim of rolling out the vaccine and phasing out badger culling by 2025.

Dawn Varley, acting CEO at Badger Trust, which has never accepted badgers as the primary cause of bTB spread amongst cattle, said: “We’ve been calling for serious investment in a cattle vaccine for over 10 years, as bTB is a cattle disease spread by cattle to cattle and primarily through cattle movements from farm to farm, and so it is only by addressing the disease in cattle that the battle will be won.

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The UK government is currently engaged in a huge programme to encourage farmers to plant trees and establish woodland on their land. Envisaged net result in 20 plus years’ time is a mixture of broadleaf deciduous woodland and open country, which is the ideal habitat for badgers. What a shame if in two decades’ time there are hardly any badgers remaining after hundreds of thousands were killed by culling.

Badgers live in a network of underground burrows and tunnels known as a sett. Each badger territory will include a main sett and several smaller outlying setts.

The staple food of badgers is earthworms, which, as a general rule, constitute about 80 per cent of the animal’s diet. However, these omnivorous mammals are very resourceful and adaptable when earthworms are in short supply and will eat almost anything including animal flesh, fruit, corms, bulbs and birds' eggs. 

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Slugs and soil insects like chafer grubs are high on the list, found by the badger’s keen sense of smell and dug out from the soil using their sharp claws. Much larger animals including mice, rats, frogs, toads, rabbits and hedgehogs are also preyed upon and eaten. 

A wide range of fruits and nuts are consumed, including apples, pears, plums and elderberries. Badger setts are frequently found in or around elder scrub and woodland because badgers use the soft and pithy elder tree bark to clean their paws.
Badgers are members of the Mustelidae, a family of carnivorous mammals which includes weasels, otters and pine martens.