Tens of thousands of Britain's badgers face the threat of a massive, unprecedented cull.
The controversial move, which is bound to create a public outcry, would defy official recommendations from a 10-year study that the much-loved mammals should be spared, but the minister responsible believes that it cannot legally be stopped.
Farmers, landowners and vets are drawing up detailed plans for a mass extermination of badgers over a vast area of the West Country in the hope of controlling tuberculosis infections in cattle. They hope to start killing the animals this summer and plan to repeat the operation annually for the next three years.
Representatives of 14 leading agricultural and veterinary organisations met two weeks ago and agreed a strategy to start culling badgers, which has been effectively been banned for nearly a decade. And cattle farmers over a broad swathe of Devon and Cornwall are getting ready to put in a joint application to kill as many as possible to try to control the spread of tuberculosis in their herds.
The proposed cull area includes Britain's best-known badgers, on the Fishleigh Estate near Okehampton, whose antics have delighted millions on BBC2's Springwatch.
The plan flies in the face of the conclusions of the official Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB headed by Professor John Bourne, which concluded that killing badgers "cannot meaningfully contribute" to controlling the disease and might even increase its spread.
The Government has yet formally to decide whether to allow culling which has in effect been banned for the past decade, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Hilary Benn, insists that he has yet to make up his mind. But the farming and animal health minister, Lord Rooker, is giving it his tacit backing, and believes that, in any case, the Government has "no justification" to reject it.
The National Farmers' Union told The Independent on Sunday yesterday that the plans for the mass cull were being drawn up because "it is the only thing that the Government seems to be prepared to agree to. It appears to be the only game in town".
Both bovine TB and the badger population are increasing rapidly. Infections from the disease are doubling every four and a half years and the number of confirmed incidents has jumped from 125 in 1994 to about 2,000 last year. No one knows how many badgers there are but, by some estimates, their numbers have doubled to 400,000 nationwide since 1990.
Even their strongest defenders admit that badgers act as a reservoir for the disease, getting it from cattle and reinfecting them, but there is huge public opposition to culling them. An official consultation exercise early last year attracted 47,000 responses three times as many as a similar one on foxhunting with more than 95 per cent against the slaughter.
Conservationist icons are split on the issue. Prince Charles whose Highgrove farm is in a TB hotspot has pushed for culling to take place, but Sir David Attenborough strongly opposes it.
From the mid-1970s, individual farmers were given licences to kill badgers on their land to try to stop them from infecting their cattle, but this stopped in 1998 while the Government carried out official trials on whether it worked. The trials, over areas of 40 square miles, killed 12,000 badgers, but last June Professor Bourne's inquiry which was set up to assess them concluded that they often made the problem worse.
This is because diseased badgers fled the culling to infect new areas of the countryside, while uninfected ones were drawn into the killing fields to replace those slaughtered, only to pick up TB themselves.
Ministers, surprised by the report's conclusions, asked Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, to convene a panel of experts, which after meeting for a day and a half, and without talking to Professor Bourne's group, said that culling could work after all.
It picked up a paragraph in the report, which admitted that culling "might be more effective" if carried out over a larger area with boundaries such as the sea, rivers and motorways that badgers would not cross. Professor Bourne attacked Sir David's conclusions as "very superficial" and "very selective", but this is what is now being planned in Devon and Cornwall in an area bound by the sea, the A30 trunk road, and the Rivers Camel and Torridge.
The National Farmers' Union and the National Beef Association have now contacted every sizeable farm in the area and persuaded 70 per cent of the farmers to take part in what would be the first slaughter on such a scale. They would aim to kill every badger they could in a series of annual culls between this year and 2011, when they hope a vaccine would become available.
They accept that they will have to "do the dirty work" themselves and pay for the killing, as ministers are refusing to finance it.
Ministers have said that no decision will be made on the scheme until after an inquiry by a House of Commons select committee has reported early in the new year. But Lord Rooker points out that a clause in the Badgers Act, which otherwise affords them rigorous protection, says that licences to cull them to prevent the spread of disease cannot reasonably be refused. He believes any decision to stop a cull could be successfully challenged in court.
The debate: To cull or not to cull?
Farmers and badger lovers have long fought over whether the animals should be culled, and the planned slaughter will raise the debate to fever pitch. Here are some of the points made on each side:
Both bovine tuberculosis and badger numbers are increasing rapidly, putting farmers' livelihoods at stake.
There is no hope of controlling the disease while it is being harboured by badgers, who will continually reinfect cattle. Until a vaccine becomes available, culling is the only way of reducing the numbers of infected badgers.
TB is not primarily a badger problem, as 70 per cent of cases are caught from other cattle.
Culling badgers only makes things worse, as infected animals flee the killing fields and thereby infect new areas.
It is more effective to control the cattle trade and erect electric fences to keep badgers out of barns.
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