The search for an effective vaccine to combat TB in badgers could be undermined if the Government goes ahead with proposals for widescale culls, ministers have been warned.
Animal rights groups believe the "rush to slaughter" looks likely to go ahead at the cost of the only existing vaccine study, due to start in September.
They are dismayed after the Government this week appeared to give the go-ahead to a culling policy in the worst-affected areas while making no extra provision in the hunt for a vaccine.
According to maps published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, some of the most intensive slaughtering will be in and around Cirencester in Gloucestershire. This is where earlier this week the minister responsible for animal welfare, Ben Bradshaw, confirmed that a 50km-square area would be set aside to trial a BCG vaccine for the mammals. Mr Bradshaw said the trial would start in the autumn and last for three years. But the RSPCA believes the culls, which could begin as early as May, are likely to seriously impinge on the area under study. Culling has been shown to cause perturbation in badgers - the process whereby social groups break up and move to new territory. It is the main reason, it is argued, why culling trials have resulted in a net increase in the number of cases of TB in badgers.
Colin Booty, the RSPCA's senior scientific officer, said: "The area where they are conducting the vaccine trials would be surrounded. Culling has been proved to cause badger perturbation. What affect will this have on the vaccine trial?"
Meanwhile, Professor John Bourne, chairman of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle and TB, said he was "disappointed" by the Government's reading of his report into the effects of the culling trials. "They seem to have ignored the fact that limited culling will inevitably lead to perturbation and an increase in disease incidence," he told BBC Radio.