A four-year programme to vaccinate Somerset badgers against bovine TB (bTB) has begun.

The project is part of a nationwide initiative by badger groups to offer vaccination opportunities to farmers and landowners.

Areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire are designated as badger killing areas, pending an Appeal Court hearing next month, and Adrian Coward, chairman of Somerset Badger Group (SBG) said: “Our members are delighted to be working alongside farmers. On behalf of the badgers and farmers we want to take advantage of the recently licensed vaccine to help constructively with the battle against bTB.

“During field trials the vaccine has been proved to be effective in at least 74% of badgers vaccinated. It is the modern, scientific way to conquer the disease and –unlike culling--does not carry the risk of causing infection to spread”.

SBG are carrying out the work in association with Secret World Wildlife Rescue of Highbridge, Somerset, supported by the Badger Trust and Network for Animals. Licensed members and volunteers place peanuts in open cage traps for several nights to familiarise the badgers with the traps before setting the catches which close the traps as badgers enter. Within hours, at first light, the trapped badgers are given a health and condition check, vaccinated, marked and released without harm. Farms will be revisited at regular intervals to increase the proportion of badgers vaccinated.

Badgers are highly territorial. Research has shown that badgers which survive a cull wander much more widely, increasing the possibility of disease spread. The phenomena is known as perturbation. Vaccination has no such disadvantage. The badgers remain in their home ranges, preventing others from moving in from neighbouring areas.

Perturbation with its worsening of disease was so marked in the £50million Randomised Badger Culling Trials that in 2003 the then government suspended localised (“reactive”) killing of badgers.

Vaccination by licensed members of badger groups began last autumn coordinated by Trust director Simon Boulter. Specially-trained leaders and volunteers established procedures in the field monitored and approved by senior Defra veterinary staff. Badgers on farms in Worcestershire, Derbyshire, Devon, Cornwall, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire have already been vaccinated by badger group members.

The Badger Trust says perturbation is likely to follow the proposed “free shooting” of badgers.