PLANS by Defra to phase out badger culling in favour of vaccination should not be rushed, says farm leaders.

Field trials of cattle vaccine and plans to vaccinate more badgers are the focus of the government’s response to an independent review in 2018 of its 25-year TB strategy, as well as improved testing to intercept the disease earlier.

Defra intends to start using badger vaccination in areas where the four-year cull cycle has ended, alongside ongoing surveillance of the disease in badgers in that area.

Research by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) has paved the way for field trials of cattle vaccine, which the government wants to see available on farms within five years.

Defra said it could become a “powerful tool” in the battle against the disease, following the trials to ensure it is safe and has the intended result.

But National Farmers Union Deputy President Stuart Roberts said bovineTB continues to devastate family farming businesses across large parts of the country. "Last year nearly 33,000 cattle were slaughtered in England because of this terrible disease.

"In order to control and eradicate bTB it’s important to see that the report acknowledges the need to retain intensive culling in a targeted way where the epidemiological evidence requires it. The NFU has always been absolutely clear that any move away from an intensive culling policy – whether that’s in five years, 10 years or longer- should not be rushed and sufficient science and evidence must support any such move. In areas where TB in badgers is endemic, we must retain culling as a vital tool enabling industry to get on top of the disease quickly and reduce further transmission."

He added: "The NFU supports tackling the disease in every possible way but it is frustrating that too often culling and badger vaccination are given a false equivalence. Vaccination may have a role to play in areas where TB hasn’t taken hold, but it is important to note vaccination has never been demonstrated to reduce the disease with the same efficacy as culling, nor has it ever cured an infected badger.

“We welcome other measures to assist in eradicating this disease such as further funding and research into cattle vaccination and look forward to the results of field trials. However, we are still currently waiting for answers if an effective, practical and accessible cattle vaccine is achievable which can protect our cattle within a cost-effective framework."

Cumbria was added to the list of culling areas in September 2018.

Stephen Trotter, CEO of Cumbria Wildlife Trust said last year: "This report confirms that badgers in the Shap area definitely caught bTB from cattle. As we’ve said before, vaccination should have been the right option to take as culling can actually make the situation worse. This may seem counter-intuitive but experience has shown that culling disrupts and unsettles the social structure of badger families. This disturbance causes them to move to new areas more frequently and over longer distances – which can result in increased bTB transmission by displaced individuals. Slurry spreading is also one of the key ways that bTB is spread into the badger population."