Speculation was intensifying last night that the planned badger cull might be postponed by up to a year.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said yesterday the speculation was "without foundation" and insisted the Government was still committed to culling badgers to stop bovine tuberculosis, which badgers can carry, spreading in cattle. Yet rumours persisted in Westminster and Whitehall of a possible rescheduling of the operation to shoot thousands of badgers in pilot areas in Gloucestershire and Somerset, which is proving deeply unpopular with the public and increasingly contentious within the scientific community.
It is thought that farmers in the two pilot areas, who are organising the cull at their own expense with teams of marksmen, may be having difficulty meeting the terms of the two culling licences provisionally issued by the Government's wildlife watchdog, Natural England.
Farmers must pay a bond as insurance in case they pull out mid-cull and the Government has to step in to finish the job. Estimates indicate there are far more badgers in the pilot areas than was thought, and the shooters are to be paid a bounty for every badger they kill – making the operation much more costly.