Evidence of overwhelming public opposition to the proposed cull of badgers was withheld until the Government had decided to go ahead with the controversial plan.
The results of a consultation held last year revealed that 69 per cent of respondents were against killing up to hundreds of thousands of the mammals in a bid to eradicate tuberculosis from cattle herds in England.
Scientific experts, animal-welfare organisations and wildlife groups objected to the proposal which was announced by the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman in the House of Commons earlier this month.
The consultation, which was completed in December 2010, was eventually – and discreetly – published on a Government website on the day of the much-anticipated statement following a request under the Freedom of Information Act from the Humane Society International (HSI).
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) insisted it was "entirely normal" to publish consultation responses at the same time as policy proposals.
Under the scheme, syndicates of farmers are expected to be given the go-ahead to shoot badgers in the hope of limiting the spread of the disease, which resulted in the slaughter of 25,000 cattle last year, costing taxpayers £90m.
The policy is backed by the National Farmers Union, landowners and vets. Culling could begin as early as next spring in the West and South-west – the worst-affected parts of the country – potentially sparking clashes between animal-rights activists and teams of shooters. A legal challenge looks almost certain.
Among the nearly 60,000 responses were submissions from the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, which completed a random badger-culling trial in 2007. It challenged Defra's claim that a 16 per cent reduction in bovine TB could be achieved over nine years through farm-based culling.
The wildlife expert and television presenter Bill Oddie said either the Government did not understand the environmental issues or did not care for public opinion. "Time and again in recent years, responsible and authoritative research has concluded that a cull will not prevent cattle from contracting TB, and indeed that it could make the situation worse," he said.
Sixty-one per cent opposed culling, but said they would consider vaccination of the badger population; 8 per cent said they wanted neither of the options, while just under one-third of respondents were in favour of both vaccination and shooting.
Ms Spelman said an approved cattle and an oral badger vaccine were still "much further away than we thought". Mark Jones, director of HSI, said the policy had been formulated by ministers concerned with "pacifying a misguided minority of their rural constituents". He added: "Animal injury, suffering and death will once again become commonplace in our countryside, in the mistaken belief that it will somehow alleviate the financial burden created by a livestock disease problem initiated and spread by poor agricultural practices."
Defra said a final decision on the cull had not yet been reached and that the Government would be carrying out a second consultation later this year.
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