New vaccine could end badger culls
Published 06/07/2016 | 02:30
Early results from a massive badger TB vaccine trial covering thousands of farms could bring the mass culling of a protected species to an end.
Department of Agriculture officials hope this will be an alternative to the annual cull of 6,200 badgers.
"Culling isn't sustainable because if we keep going the badger population would definitely become extinct in parts of Ireland. So we can't be doing this in 10 years time, but hopefully we won't have to if we can show that the vaccine is at least as good as a targeted cull," said the Department's head of wildlife, James O'Keeffe.
"We don't need to eradicate the badger to eradicate TB, but all the big scientific studies here have shown that we have to address the disease reservoir in wildlife such as badgers," said the senior vet in the Department's TB unit, Margaret Good.
"We just have to get the level of disease in badgers down to a threshold. In some populations it can be as high as 45pc."
The first results of the vaccine trial stem from Longford where the method has been on test across a third of the county for the last four years.
Additional research is being carried out in Galway, north Cork, Monaghan, Tipperary and Waterford in a huge trial that covers 5pc of Ireland's farmland.
The areas were selected because they were 'insulated' by natural or man-made boundaries such as rivers or roads that allowed the researchers monitor the same badger populations over subsequent years.
With an efficacy of 60pc, the vaccine was able to maintain TB rates at levels similar to areas that were subjected to a targeted cull.
The positive results are in stark contrast to multi-million euro vaccine trials in Wales, where a 36pc increase in TB-related cattle slaughterings has been recorded in the 12 months up to the end of February 2016. A fifth year of the trial was suspended due to a global shortage of the BCG badger vaccine.
Welsh authorities spent close to €1,000 per vaccinated badger, but Mr O'Keeffe maintains that costs here are less than €300 per badger, which is similar to the cost of culling.
"The problem in Wales is that they didn't cull the infected badgers first. The vaccine won't cure a TB problem, but it will prevent it escalating," said Mr O'Keeffe.
Despite debate continuing in Britain as to whether culling badgers helps to reduce the incidence of TB in the cattle population, Irish experts are convinced that the targeted culls have had a big impact on the level of disease in herds.
The culling of 30pc of badgers in east Offaly and four subsequent areas resulted in 37-72pc decreases in TB reactors.
TB levels have fallen here from 160,000 reactors in 1960 to close to 15,000 last year.
This equates to a incidence rate in herds of 0.24pc, and less than 0.35pc in cows.
Ms Good believes that TB is not as big an issue in the deer population, and that it is being driven by badgers.
"But deer populations, and therefore their ranges, are increasing so we need to tackle the problem in deer too," she added.
The national TB eradication programme costs close to €53m annually, including staff costs and farmer levies of €5m.
The Irish TB research will be presented to the World Buiatrics Congress of vets being held in Dublin this week.