In the UK there has been a sharp rise in the incidence of bovine tuberculosis since the early 1990s and the badger has been identified as an important wildlife reservoir for this infection. Infected badgers can excrete Mycobacterium bovis, putting other badgers and cattle at risk of becoming infected. Vaccination has been proposed as an approach to reducing the excretion of M. bovis by tuberculous badgers. In order to evaluate the efficacy of a badger vaccine it will be necessary to accurately determine the number of badgers excreting M. bovis without removing them for post-mortem evaluation. The existing live tests for tuberculosis in the badger (culture, indirect ELISA, Western blot) have not been assessed for their ability to detect badgers excreting M. bovis. Over the past 18 years, badgers from 31 social groups have been trapped and sampled in a study area of the Cotswold escarpment. We have examined the serological responses of 128 badgers trapped between 1985 and 1998 from social groups where M. bovis infection was endemic. These responses were compared with culture from faeces, urine, tracheal aspirates and bite wound swabs taken from these animals while alive. ELISA was found to be more sensitive than Western blot in detecting badgers excreting M. bovis. The majority of culture-positive badgers excreted M. bovis intermittently over the period of study. As a result, there was only a 27.5% chance of sampling a badger for culture when it was excreting M. bovis. In contrast, a positive ELISA result correctly predicted 68.2% of badgers with a history of excreting M. bovis. In the absence of alternative live tests for the badger, the Brock Test indirect ELISA appears to be more valuable than culture for measuring the effect of vaccination on reducing the number of badgers at risk of transmitting tuberculosis.