Rock star Brian May has launched a campaign to raise £1 million to underwrite five badger vaccination projects in the South West to combat bovine TB ravaging the region.
The Queen musician is the frontman for the Badger and Cattle Vaccination Initiative (BACVI), launched in Parliament yesterday to offer an alternative to badger culling, and wants to recruit an army of volunteers to help immunise the animals.
The project has already raised £200,000 through donations from Mr May and other sponsors, including cosmetics firm Lush and animal welfare groups.
The initiative will help pay for five-year vaccination schemes already up and running, or about to start, in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucester and Somerset.
The guitar hero, who said badgers spreading the disease is only a small part of the problem, told the Western Morning News he believed many farmers would back the plan as a number are “afraid to come out” in support of vaccination in the face of “hardliners” that view the policy as a “soft option”.
But the National Farmers’ Union argued vaccinating badgers would do nothing to bring the disease under control.
The initiative comes as the Government will shortly unveil an independent panel’s report on two “pilot” badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire, which have been criticised for missing their targets.
The outcome of the “pilots” is crucial to determining whether culling is abandoned or rolled out to other areas across the region, where bovine TB is most virulent.
While the coalition Government supports vaccines – it has contributed funding to pay for the vaccination in an ongoing programme in Penwith in west Cornwall – ministers argue more needs to be done.
At the launch, Mr May told MPs, activists and journalists: “One of the criticisms that has been levelled at those of us who have been trying to save badgers for the last three years is that ‘something has to be done and you are advocating nothing’.
“Well, we are advocating something very, very positive. Vaccination is, in the end, the only way of eradicating the disease.”
Questioned by the WMN, Mr May said culling was “economically unviable, not supported by the science and ethically unacceptable” – and that vaccination is therefore a “no-brainer”.
On whether farmers would back it, he said: “Some of them are afraid to come out because they do get abuse from the hard-liners who give the impression that vaccination is a soft option. But history will show vaccination is the only solution to this problem.”
But Ian Johnson, spokesman for the NFU in the South West, said: “While vaccination may seem like an attractive option and may help, it’s not a universal panacea and will not tackle the problem of bovine TB by itself.
“Vaccination does nothing for sick badgers and one-in-three have the disease in hotspot areas. Vaccination only works 50% or 60% of the time, and it can only help once you have the disease under control.”
Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives Andrew George welcomed the campaign but warned there was “tremendous nervousness” among farmers.
They would require assurances that the volunteers involved were not animal rights activists who would use the opportunity to spy on farm activities, he said.
A Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: “The injectable badger vaccine has significant practical difficulties which mean it is not a viable alternative to culling in high risk areas.
“Vaccination won’t cure infected badgers, which will continue to spread the disease.
“Furthermore, badgers have to be trapped and vaccinated each year which makes vaccination very expensive.
“We are continuing to invest in cattle vaccination, but this is still many years away from being ready for use, and we cannot afford to wait while TB devastates our beef and dairy industries.”