The first trials for a cattle vaccine and new skin test for bovine tuberculosis (bTB) have begun in England, as part of efforts to vaccinate livestock against the disease, writes Emily Beament of the Press Association.

The first field trials have been launched on a cattle farm in Hertfordshire, with further herds in England and Wales to join the scheme in the coming months, The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) said.

It is part of a shift in strategy by the government which aims to phase out intensive culling of badgers, a protected species which can transmit the disease to livestock, and to roll out a cattle vaccine by 2025.

Bovine TB costs taxpayers around £100 million a year, with more than 36,000 cattle slaughtered in the last year to tackle the disease.

It has also led to the controversial badger cull which has seen thousands of badgers killed in an attempt to stop the disease in many counties in England in recent years.

The trials comes after a breakthrough in developing a new 'Diva' skin test, which for the first time can differentiate between vaccinated animals and those which had bovine TB, enabling a vaccine to be deployed.

A bTB-free farm in Hertfordshire has begun the first phase of the field trials to determine the safety and accuracy of the Diva skin test, which will be tested on further herds across England and Wales.

If those trials prove successful, the study will be expanded to more farms in England and Wales where both the cattle BCG vaccine and Diva test will be tested together, to gain evidence for licensing both products in the UK.

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

“However, the start of these ground-breaking 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.”

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.

“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.”