Badger cull licences proposed for TB hotspot farmers

Farmers in England will be issued licences to cull badgers in TB hotspots under proposals published by the Government today to help tackle spiralling rates of the disease in cattle.

The plans put forward for consultation would require farmers to meet the costs of culling the wild animals, which are known to carry and spread TB to livestock, on their land.

The proposals, which would allow farmers to use vaccination of badgers on its own or in combination with culling, aim to tackle the high incidence of the disease, particularly in south west England, which cost the taxpayer £63 million last year.

But the plans are likely to prove controversial, as some scientists believe culling badgers will not "meaningfully" contribute to tackling the disease in livestock.

The environment department (Defra) said culls would have to go ahead over a sufficiently large area - 150 square kilometres - to be effective and would have to meet strict criteria on animal welfare.

The previous government ruled out a cull because ministers said it was not supported by the science, and moves to bring in a programme of culling in Wales were recently quashed by the Court of Appeal.

Today agriculture minister Jim Paice said: "Bovine TB is having a devastating effect on many farm businesses and families, especially in the west and south west of England.

"Last year 25,000 cattle were slaughtered because of the disease and it cost the taxpayer over £63 million in England alone.

"We can't go on like this. It's clear the current approach has failed to stop the spread of this terrible disease. We need to take urgent action to halt its spread."

He said that no single measure would be enough to tackle the disease on its own.

But he said that the science was clear that badgers were a "significant reservoir" for TB and without action to control the disease in them, it would continue to spread.

Mr Paice said TB in livestock caused "immense trauma" among farmers.

He said: "I don't want to be out there culling badgers if it's not really necessary, but I am persuaded that all evidence shows we have to, as part of a comprehensive package of measures, face up to the need to control badgers in the worst areas."

A 10-year study into the effects of culling badgers concluded it was not a cost-effective way of tackling TB in cattle and caused disturbances to badger groups which led them to move around - further spreading the disease in the areas around the cull.

But more recent analysis of the trial culls found that widespread, repeated culling of badgers could reduce the incidence of disease in cattle herds and that benefits lasted for several years after culling ceased.

But the research by Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) found the badger culling, by trapping and shooting them, cost more than the impacts of the disease - although a cheaper option was to license farmers to carry out the cull.

Under the proposals laid out by the Government today, groups of farmers and landowners could apply for a licence to cull badgers in their area, if they met a number of conditions to ensure it was effective and humane.

The area must be at least 150 square kilometres and the farmers must have access to at least 70% of that land to cull. The cull would have to continue for at least four years and must be co-ordinated across the whole area.

Where possible, it should be surrounded by "hard" boundaries, such as rivers or coastline, to prevent badgers moving outside the cull area and increasing rates of TB in the vicinity.

The badgers would have to be trapped and shot or - a much cheaper option - shot in the wild, for example as they emerged from their setts, and there would be a closed season to prevent young cubs being orphaned while they were still in the sett unable to fend for themselves.

Defra experts said culling was being put forward as an option because it had immediate benefits, but the medium to long-term strategy for tackling the disease would revolve around increased use of vaccines.

Mr Paice said that within five or six years, it was hoped an oral vaccine for badgers and vaccines for cattle would be available.

Farmers are already able to apply for licences to trap and inject badgers with the TB vaccine, and Mr Paice said that might be an option for landowners within proposed cull areas who did not want to kill badgers on their land.

He said he would not be surprised if the proposals, which will be decided on early next year, faced legal challenge and acknowledged there could be problems from opponents over the controversial plans.

"It would be stupid to say we don't anticipate any aggravation, but we have been in close contact with the Home Office and senior police and we hope most reasonable people will say we have followed not just the letter of the law, but that we've done everything we possibly can to reduce the problem and explain the reasons behind it."