TREVOR WEEKS MBE - Course puts new focus on how badgers spread TB

Trevor with the vaccination kit
Trevor with the vaccination kit

Last week was an amazing week for me. I spent the week in Gloucestershire with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency on their Badger Vaccination Training Course (AHVLA).

Dr Iain Trewby from the National Wildlife Management Centre started the course off with a morning of presentations, the first covering an Introduction to badgers and Tb.

I was worried the course was going to be anti-badger, but it was actually more concerned about how to reduce the levels of Tb and was very science based. They acknowledged that badgers are not the only wild mammal which can help spread Tb, as foxes, hedgehogs, deer, rats, feral cats and even spraying fields with infected slurry can all help spread Tb.

Badgers are only one part of the issue. They talked us through why badgers are a good Tb reservoir due to their long lives, high prevalence of Tb, they can live some time despite being infected with Tb and their ecology over lapping with cattle, foraging mostly on pasture, entering farm buildings and level of direct interactions with cattle.

However, the course also made it clear that badgers are only one area of concern and that vaccination must be used in conjunction with a number of other issues like farm bio-security and cattle testing and issues relating to movement of cattle. We spent some time discussing the previous trials in badger culling and one of the biggest issues which is worrying the AHVLA is that studies have shown clearly that perturbation after culling badgers increases Tb in cattle.

To me the biggest issue which I came away, on day one with, was that unlike culling, vaccination doesn’t lead to perturbation and an increase in Tb, it can only help reduce Tb. So it is a win win situation for the farmers, their cattle and the badgers too. The Krebs TB review stated that the best long term prospect for a solution to Tb was vaccination. The AHVLA are also looking into developing an oral vaccine which could be used in wildlife.

In order for us to be able to vaccinate badgers, we would normally require a vet to be see the badger, but that is obviously impractical, so the Veterinary Surgery Vaccination of Badgers Against Tuberculosis Order 2010 was created to allow “Lay vaccinators” to vaccinate badgers out in the field without a vet seeing the badger. It is illegal to disturb a badger sett so a licence will also be needed from Natural England to place traps to catch badgers too.

Natural England will only issue a licence to those who have passed this course and become qualified as “Lay Vaccinators”. The course had to be checked by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and DEFRA before it could be started.

The afternoon of day one we went out to Woodchester Park where we learn and practiced how to decided where to place traps and how to dig the traps into place in a safe manner to avoid causing injury to the badgers or any other wildlife. On day two of the course we spent the morning with vet Fiona Rogers who talked us through vaccination process, the use of the syringes and needles, the use and storage of the vaccines, assessing the badgers condition, record keeping, legislation, health and safety as well as Bio security.

In the afternoon we met up with some of the vaccinators where we were paired up and went out to various sites to bait and go through setting traps in preparation for vaccinating badgers the following morning but due to the heavy rain and wind expected overnight it was decided not to set the traps or the badgers could end up suffering from hypothermia.

On day three we had a later than expected start as the vaccination wasn’t taking place, and met up with the trainers in the afternoon to where a decision was taken to go ahead and set the traps for vaccination the following morning. I had three sites I was involved with. One was an old sewage works, and we prepared and set 5 traps, then moved on to an old air raid shelter where we also placed five traps and then onto some land next to a railway line where another five traps were placed. My trainer was a bit concerned that the round was going to be a bit quiet and wasn’t expecting to catch many at the old air raid shelter site.

We were given plenty of training and gained loads of experience that day. Day four was a very early start getting up and out before dawn and meeting the vaccinators to start the rounds as dawn broke. As the traps near the railway line were more exposed we visited them first and the first trap was empty and not tripped, we drove to the next trap and inside was a beautiful badger, a young adult, nice and clean and dry. So I had to put on my wellies, waterproof trousers and jacket, gloves, face mask and goggles.

I was talked through mixing up the vaccinate at the vehicle, and then guided through the procedures for approaching and vaccinating the badger which went like clockwork and the badger did not need restraining and just sat there and let me inject it through the bars of the cage. Once the badger was assessed for injury and also for any adverse reactions it was then released to run off back home. We proceeded to the rest of the traps along the railway line and found 2 more badgers. We went on to the old sewage works site and to my amazement all five traps had badgers in. There is a video diary from the course available at our You Tube site www.youtube.com/user/eastsussexwras which also include footage of me setting a trap and vaccinating and releasing a badger.

The air raid shelter site was the final location and as expected only one badger was caught, but there wasn’t much activity and clearly not may badgers present there, so my trainer was pleased he had caught this one which was soon vaccinated. So in total I vaccinated 9 badgers that morning. The afternoon was spent undertaking an exam and this week we find out if we have passed and become qualified.

I would like to thank the Sussex Badger Vaccination Project for their support which is a coalition of East Sussex WRAS, the Southdowns Badger Group and International Animal Rescue.

We hope this group will expand and grow as the vaccinating of badgers becomes a reality now in Sussex. We are hoping to arrange a meeting for landowners to come along to and discuss the option of vaccination in the near future with us and member of the AHVLA. I must also thank WRAS volunteers Sue, John, Sue and Chris who come on the course too and to Kate from the coalition who was unable to attend the course but hopes to be trained next year.

Lindsey and Kathy and Kate have been managing the centre in my absence this week and they have had a lovely fox come in from Hove. A member of the public picked up the fox and took it to New Priory Vets in Brighton where his ear was operated on and stitched. He was then transferred into WRAS’s care where he stayed until the weekend before being released back where found in Hove. Tony also rushed out to a road casualty Badger at Grove Hill near Hellingly last weekend, the badger was clearly having spinal problems so was taken to St Annes vets for an assessment but sadly the pelvis and rear leg were shattered and could not be fixed.

We have continued to get a number of doves and pigeons in too.

We have been presented with a cheque for £1350.00 from Eastbourne Archery Club, you may remember they held a 24hour archery event earlier in the summer, they raised over £4,000 and divided it equally between us and the Sussex Air Ambulance and St Wilfred Hospice. It was a great event which Kathy and I attended and had a go at too. So a big thank you to all the volunteers and to those who supported the event for raising so much money!