The pilot could finally end the badger cull, which has been running since 2013 (Image: PA)

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Trials are underway of a skin test and cattle vaccine which could finally end the controversial badger cull, Britain's top vets announced today.

A pilot has begun on a farm in Hertfordshire which wildlife campaigners hope will save tens of thousands of badgers every year.

In a world first, field trials for a cattle jab and skin test for bovine tuberculosis have been given the green light, the Animal and Plant Health Agency revealed.

The skin test represents a major breakthrough by enabling vets to identify cows that have been vaccinated and those that are infected with the disease.

Scientists hope the two-pronged attack could spell the end of the cull, with aims for a vaccine scheme by 2025.

More than 36,000 cows were killed in England and Wales last year in measures to prevent the spread of bTB
(Image: Getty Images)

The chief veterinary officers of England, Wales and Scotland said in a joint statement: “Bovine tuberculosis represents one of the most difficult animal disease challenges we face today.

“However, the start of these groundbreaking field trials will be welcome news for many farmers who have been greatly impacted by this disease and represents an important step forward in our efforts to deploy a working cattle vaccine by 2025.

“If successful, the world-leading project could lead to the first ever deployment of a cattle bTB vaccine and DIVA skin test and will be instrumental in turning the tide against this terrible disease which impacts many countries around the world.”

Experts blame badgers for spreading bTB around the countryside.

Queen guitarist Brian May has opposed badger culls
(Image: Adam Gerrard/Daily Mirror)

Some 140,830 badgers have been culled since 2013 in a bid to curb infections, including 38,642 last year.

But more than 36,000 cows in England and Wales were slaughtered last year to tackle the disease, in measures costing taxpayers £100million.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that the UK faces today, causing considerable trauma for farmers and costing taxpayers over £100 million every year.

“The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease but no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely.

Environment Secretary George Eustice
(Image: Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

“That is why we are now building on this progress by accelerating other elements of our strategy, including cattle vaccination and improved testing so that we can eradicate this insidious disease and start to phase out badger culling as soon as possible.”

Badger Trust acting chief executive Dawn Varley said: “Whilst we welcome the pilot, and talk of a hoped rollout by 2025, in reality this news comes too little and too late for the badgers already lost to years of misguided culling.

“With 140,000 badgers killed since 2013, and with culling set to continue to 2025 on current plans, we estimate another 140,000 badgers are still to be shot.

“We've been calling for serious investment in a cattle vaccine for over 10 years, as bTB is a cattle disease, spread by cattle to cattle, and primarily through cattle movements from farm to farm, and so its only by addressing the disease in cattle that the battle will be won.

More than 140,000 have been culled in the past eight years
(Image: Annelisa Davison/Gardenwatch)

“Investment in beating bTB has always focused disproportionately on badgers, and it's an outrage that the Government is only now switching its attention to the right animal.

“If Covid has taught us anything, it's that with the right will and investment vaccine development, testing, approval and rollout can be devilishly fast.”

Born Free Foundation policy adviser Dominic Dyer said: “As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government have realised that the most effective way of stopping the spread of an infectious disease in humans is by rigorous testing, track and tracing of disease carriers, movement controls and vaccination; this also applies to animal diseases such as bovine TB in cattle.

“Just like Covid-19 in humans, bovine TB in cattle can be effectively controlled by better TB testing, movement and biosecurity controls and vaccination of both cattle and badgers.

“The field trials of BCG cattle vaccine and a test to differentiate between cattle that have been vaccinated and those that carry TB, is hugely important in bringing an end to the slaughtering of tens of thousands of badgers which could push this protected species to the verge of local extinction.”