Badger Vaccination: How It All Works

This post comes from our badger vaccination volunteer, Peter Cook, who has been working since February to prepare for our annual vaccination program. If you want to understand the process better, this is the only place to look.

For me the project begins early in the year (February/March) with surveying Trust sites for badger signs, not just badger setts but badger trackways – they use the same routes time and time again using their sense of smell – latrines and ‘snuffle’ holes where they have been searching for worms. Other signs include hair left on barbed wire and paw prints left in muddy puddles. Badgers will sometimes ‘move house’ so it is essential to survey every year.

Come April/May pre-baiting begins in preparation for setting the traps (the vaccination season is limited to May to November). This is a time for using the knowledge gained from the survey process to gauge where to place the traps; we try not to place too many traps directly on the sett. However, we do make sure that they’re not too far away from the sett in the early part of the year so any cubs trapped do not have too far to travel to get home. Sometimes we have to relocate bait points or even add a few more depending on results. Trail cams are useful to check on progress. We use peanuts placed in terracotta trays as bait. They are covered with a small concrete block to stop non-target species such as deer and squirrels taking the bait. Providing all goes to plan and the peanuts are being taken consistently the traps are put in place after about a week; the base of the wire traps being covered in soil or leaf litter to avoid the badger sensing the wire under their paws. The trap door is fixed open and the bait is then gradually moved to the rear of the trap over the course of about a week; this gradual process aims to ensure that the badgers are relatively at ease when caught within the trap. Once the bait is being taken consistently from the rear of the trap we prepare to trap and vaccinate.

5 badgers caught on trail cam
5 badgers caught on trail cam

The afternoon before the first trapping session the trap is primed by running a string between the door trigger and the stone block. When the badger pulls the stone aside to get the peanuts the string is pulled tight which releases the trap door. This procedure is carried out as late as possible in the day to avoid non-target species interference – muntjac deer have been caught in traps elsewhere. The following morning we arrive at site at dawn (this can be VERY early in mid-summer!) because the regulations say we have to release all badgers no later than three hours after sunrise. After checking to see how many badgers have been caught the vaccine is prepared for each badger in a syringe. The vaccinator, wearing a mask and gloves, works through the trap to avoid any contact with the badger, first vaccinating, then  clipping a patch of fur and finally marking the fur with a stock marker. The stock marker is used to recognise any re-captures the following day and the fur clip is for longer term recognition; two sites may be selected fairly close together but activity separated by a number of weeks, so if badgers are moving between the two the stock marker will have worn off but the fur clip will remain. Assuming the badger shows no ill effects from the vaccine it is released. The same process takes place the following morning – for welfare reasons we only trap on two consecutive nights. Every step is recorded and a report sent to the Government agency responsible for the programme, AHVLA; they also audit the process each year.

This year we captured 5 badgers on a trail cam video clip (image above); at the same location we caught two cubs in one trap for the first time (image below) and finally caught 6 badgers on the first night and 4 re-captures the following night – based on the evidence we believe we caught the majority of the badgers at this sett. On another site we only caught one badger but camera evidence suggests this was an old boar living on his own so again a success. A minor failure was catching a single cub on both nights (same one!) but no adults on a third site – better luck and applying more skill next year will produce better returns. We spend many hours on each site, more on the difficult ones, but it is just as satisfying to catch and protect a single badger on a difficult site as it is to catch 6 on an easier site.

2 cubs in the same trap
2 cubs in the same trap

Providing that the sites are not too far apart (to ensure we can meet the three hour rule) we have managed to carry out this process on two sites at the same time, our current limitations are that the overall process is time consuming and we have limited personnel and equipment available.

A couple of highlights and lowlights of the whole thing:

Lowlights:

  • Ploughing through dense undergrowth in the rain and wind in the late winter, carrying the heavy traps any distance

Highlights:

  • Getting within 20m of a roe deer
  • Seeing tawny owls flying through the woodland
  • Finding a hornets nest
  • Early morning vaccination days seeing fox cubs following mum home
  • A barn owl quartering a field
  • And then of course there’s the badgers – getting up close to them and knowing you are doing something positive to help stop bovine TB.

Badger vaccination is not the ultimate solution to bovine TB but at present is the only pro-active method that will help contain this terrible disease. Warwickshire Wildlife Trust is hoping to help in the roll out of Government policy to create a vaccination barrier between the high and low prevalence areas of bovine TB but in the meantime we need your support in both manpower and donations.

Peter

If you would like to donate to the badger vaccination campaign there are now two ways to do so: you can either make a direct contribution or you can adopt a badger. There are adult and child adoption packs, all of which have the story of the badger you’ve adopted (in three installments), a certificate of adoption, a pin badge, and a poster. Children’s adoption packs also include a cuddly toy.

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