Early one morning, just as the sun was rising ….

Early one morning, just as the sun was rising – we found a badger waiting in the trap we had set. And we vaccinated him quickly and quietly, and off he went back into the wild and to his social group – now inoculated against bovine tb. This is, of course, an experience from the FERA cage trapping and vaccination course that two of us from PAC attended last week. It is, quite simply, a great course. It’s well structured and very thorough. Although there is a lot of information, legal, regulatory and technical requirements, to take on board they provide the right kind of materials, support and field work to bring it all together so you can put it into practice. We had a great time and both of us passed – so we can now go on to be ‘lay vaccinators’.  But perhaps even more importantly at present we now understand at first hand what is required to develop and deliver a badger vaccination programme. Here are a few highlights from our experience.

We began in the classroom with an overview of the history of tb in cattle  and the various strategies that have been tried to prevent or control – and now ‘eradicate’ it. The graphs showing the incidence of bovine TB over various periods were fascinating – and certainly don’t seem to support the oft heard claim that the introduction of legal protection of badgers led to a rise in incidence of tb. Between 1935 when a voluntary attested herds scheme was introduced and 1960 when ‘all herds in GB were ‘attested’ – the number of cattle slaughtered plummeted and btb incidence was negligible, clearly under control.  But it seems they didn’t continue with this eminently successful strategy. Another graph depicting Badger Control History and the relative incidence of cattle tb from 1965 to 2008 shows it remaining pretty much under control across England and Wales overall from 1965 to 1980 (with a higher level of incidence in South West England) – but starting to rise steadily everywhere from 1985 onwards. This rise coincides with the time that an ‘interim strategy’ of trapping and shooting badgers on infected farms was adopted. What would have been good to look at alongside this would have been the relative testing regimes in place, and also the relative pattern and frequency of cattle movements throughout the periods. (Anyone up for looking at that?)  Our first day ended with a practical session on how to place and set traps.

Day two had us learning about the vaccine itself -  everything from its procurement, storage, reconstitution and use. Lots of legal, health and safety, and regulatory information to get to grips with – plus practice in drawing up the vaccine into the syringe properly. Followed by a session injecting substitute badger buttocks – silicone pads covered with fake fur – to try to simulate the feel. We were from a range of backgrounds – including a vet, farmers, badger rescue workers and none of the above so our experience of injecting animals was similarly varied. Those with more experience gave helpful tips. And then we were out there baiting and setting the traps in pairs or singly – with our field worker.

From this moment on you become like a badger…… you have to be prepared to scramble on your belly under bushes, barbed wire and negotiate all sorts of terrain to get to where they get to. We were warned to expect some slips and trips. I was left hanging monkey like by one arm from ivy as we made our way along a stream bank – this particular journey involved clinging on to anything on the bank as you crossed the mud and water to the traps. Get used to stooping under low hanging branches and dealing with brambles. And all of this needs to be done at a real pace as you need to get round all the traps and you are walking/scrambling fast. (This can be further handicapped by the addition of wearing waterproof overtrousers that constantly drag down and need hitching up Charlie Chaplin style – for a real workout). You need to be reasonably fit and definitely up to the challenge. Very glad to say that welfare of the badger is a high priority throughout this course – a lot of attention is given to siting your traps where they will have some cover from adverse weather conditions and trying to minimise the stress to them as much as possible.

And then the 5am starts are upon you – as you set off in the early hours to vaccinate any captured badgers. Each time you encounter a badger in the trap is amazing and different. There was every kind of behaviour from furious and feisty to subdued, and even sleeping (I kid you not). The cubs were always belligerent – the most vulnerable and so needing to make the most noise to try and ensure their survival. But we managed to vaccinate all those captured with pretty minimal fuss and were generally all done in a few minutes. Most of them barely notice the vaccination itself, and only a few were so active that they needed to be contained at one end of the trap in order to be able to vaccinate and spray mark. The release is uplifting. You open the trap – stand back and watch them make their way out and off. Some reversed out – digging up a storm of earth as they did so! A few had to be gently encouraged out. All of them were straight down a run or sett entrance once out.

Being up that early is wonderful. It’s quiet and still and you’re on wildlife time – so you see other species as well. We saw a beautiful pair of roe deer in the wheatfields as we passed through – a young fox – and a green woodpecker being chased by a sparrowhawk (he got away). Back to the classroom to meet up with the other participants for the final assessment. Everyone had had a great time, and there was a good humoured competitiveness over the number of badgers trapped and vaccinated by each team. Bumper session for some with 26 traps out of 27 having badgers in them – and some with multiple occupancy.

We left really pleased with the quality of the FERA training course (a more fulfilling experience, and money better spent, than many activity holidays!)  – having learnt a great deal and proved to ourselves that we could do this – and having seen that a vaccination programme is eminently do-able. Yes, it involves a lot of preparation re surveying and trapping. But so does the cage trap and culling programme proposed by the previous Welsh administration – and vaccination has several advantages over culling such as greater flexibility in delivery times, public acceptability, won’t cause perturbation and won’t increase the incidence of tb in badgers. Crucially, there would be no unnecessary killing of badgers and no carcasses to dispose of. Having been close up to badgers in the traps – looked at them eye to eye –  it’s inconceivable to think someone could shoot these creatures in the head. And for what? Highly speculative and marginal benefit to cattle – terrible destruction to badgers – and it diverts us from finding real long term, sustainable solutions to tb in cattle. Let’s hope the two blokes working with the Welsh Government who were on the course with us went away with similar thoughts.


2 Responses to “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising ….

  1. Wow, such good news about vaccinating, this is what I have prayed for . You have all worked so hard to help these persecuted wild animals. Good luck with vaccinating in the future. Sounds like you had a quality experience you will never forget. That is what nature & all it’s treasures are about, it’s a shame some people are just to blind to see it. Well done to all who have fought so very tirelessly for the life of these beautiful creatures.

  2. Well done both of you. When you have the time I would suggest that you write up your experiences and pass on to politicians, the press (including the usually biased BBC) and the W A Expert Committee looking into bTB.
    Full of admiration for your dedication.