They may be one of our most ancient creatures, but today could prove crucial for the future of Britain's badgers. Wildlife and animal welfare groups are issuing an urgent call to arms in a last-minute attempt to save up to 100,000 of the mammals from being culled.
Britain's largest indigenous carnivore faces virtual elimination across huge swaths of the South-west and Central England if the Government accedes to farmers' demands to implement a mass slaughter policy to prevent the devastating spread of tuberculosis in cattle herds.
Campaigners against the cull fear the Animal Welfare minister, Ben Bradshaw, is poised to ignore "overwhelming scientific evidence" and widespread public opposition to the slaughter policy. If he does, the first badgers could be snared or gassed in the summer, leading to the eventual loss of up to a quarter of the British population.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other leading groups are urging badger lovers to e-mail the Government today to demand Mr Bradshaw does not make the mammal the "scapegoat" for decades of failure to deal with the rise of TB.
Passions have been aroused with warnings that if the Government does not grasp the nettle, farmers could take the law into their own hands to protect livestock. A 12-week consultation process held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which ends today, has already elicited more responses than the fox-hunting ban.
"Badgers are being made the scapegoats for a rise in TB in cattle," said Dr Arthur Lindley, head of science at the RSPCA. "Killing badgers is never going to be the simple solution to this complex problem. Any decision should be based on clear and comprehensive science," he said.
But the National Farmers' Union (NFU) has refused to accept the findings of a £34m culling trial which found that far from reducing the overall incidence of TB in cattle, killing badgers actually led to a rise in the disease on the edge of the culled areas.
The Badger Trust, the Mammal Society, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust all now oppose the cull.
Professor John Bourne, who led the eight-year field trial in to the effects of culling, took the highly unusual step of publicly warning the Government it was in danger of ignoring the only reliable evidence on the subject. He said culling would "inevitably lead to... an increase in disease incidence". His fears were echoed by the chair of the Government's own Science Advisory Council, Professor John Shepherd.
Trevor Lawson, of the Badger Trust, said anti-badger attitudes within Defra were deeply entrenched. "The problem with the Defra vets is that they only ever think of killing things... No one with a shred of credibility thinks this is the way forward," he said.
Last year, 30,000 cattle were slaughtered, mainly in Devon and Cornwall, after they reacted to TB tests. Hundreds of other herds were placed under movement restrictions. Bovine TB cost the taxpayer £100m in compensation.
The NFU deputy president, Meurig Raymond, said of the badger lobby: "They have been very determined to put their point across and there appears to be this emotional argument with very little consideration, if not no consideration, for the human cost."
But opponents of the cull claim the disease is spread mainly as a result of the 14 million cattle movements in the UK each year - a figure disputed by the NFU.Reuse content