The Government was on a collision course with animal rights groups and environmentalists last night after taking the first steps towards a nationwide cull of badgers.
The RSPCA said it was "appalled" by ministers' announcement of a 12-week consultation on culling, aimed at halting the spread of bovine TB.
The move has been backed by farmers' leaders and Tory MPs, but has outraged animal rights and countryside campaigners who claim that a cull would fly in the face of mounting evidence that killing badgers could increase the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was also accused of "selling out" to farming interests to prevent the spread of TB.
The gassing, snaring or shooting of badgers could start from as early as May next year, following the animal welfare minister Ben Bradshaw's announcement of the 12-week consultation period. Acknowledging that the "main wildlife reservoir for the disease in Britain is badgers", Mr Bradshaw said he had concluded that the problem had reached "crisis" proportions.
Admitting that there was still considerable "scientific uncertainty" over how to proceed, he said: "Experience from around the world shows that strict cattle controls are essential if TB is to be contained and eradicated. But it also shows that it is unlikely to be successful unless, in addition, action is taken to deal with the disease in wildlife."
But the RSPCA, which strongly supported plans to introduce tougher testing and more reliable tests, said culling had no scientific basis and was " totally unacceptable" to the public. Arthur Lindley, the society's director of science, said: "This consultation may open a pathway to cull badgers rather than looking at sound scientific evidence of the spread of bovine TB in cattle.
"Earlier results of the same trial found cattle infection rates increased in areas where local badger-culling took place on and around infected farms."
Exactly what role the mammals play in the spread of the disease, which is rising at 18 per cent a year and costing an annual £90.5m to the British taxpayer, is bitterly disputed. And plans to instigate a mass cull are likely to hit huge public opposition. Recent research showed that up to 90 per cent of the public are opposed to an eradication policy.
While the majority of farmers in affected areas insist that the badger is to blame for the rapid rise, opponents say it is the beef and dairy herds themselves that harbour the disease, spread by the 14 million annual cattle movements carried out in the UK.
The number of cattle compulsorily slaughtered because of TB has risen from 599 in 1986 to 22,570 in 2004. If left unchecked, some fear that it could prove more damaging to the industry than foot-and-mouth disease. Britain's badger population is estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 and rising courtesy of a succession of mild winters and changing farming methods.
New measures announced by Defra yesterday include:
* Public consultation on the principle and method of badger culling in areas of high TB incidence in cattle;
* Pre-movement testing to reduce the spread of TB through the movement of cattle;
* A new compensation scheme to end overpayments made to farmers in compensation for the destruction of affected cattle.
The National Farmers' Union welcomed the announcement and said it was time to make "tough decisions". The NFU president, Tim Bennett, said: "At last, the Government has acknowledged the need for action to tackle the reservoir of tuberculosis from the badger population in infected areas. It is completely pointless to address the problem of cattle-to-cattle infection if the disease remains in the surrounding wildlife."
A Tory spokesman, James Plaice, told the Commons that a badger cull would have cross-party support and that "unnecessary" delay should be avoided.
The disputed evidence centres on the so-called Krebs trial, which has been continuing since 1998 in 30 "hotspot" areas in England, each measuring 100sq km. This has compared the effectiveness of large-scale, proactive culling to that of limited, reactive intervention. It has found that, while the more widespread culling reduced the number of outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis by 19 per cent, it raised the number of outbreaks by 29 per cent in outlying areas.
The announcement follows the publication on Wednesday of the interim findings of the culling trials. One option which was set out could see the cull being carried out in the whole of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, as well as Devon and Cornwall.
The Welsh Assembly said that it had no immediate plans to cull badgers.
A precarious life in the wild
* There are about 42,000 groups of badgers in Britain.
* Although widespread in Britain, they are mostly found in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
* Mortality is high, with around two-thirds of adults dying each year. Road traffic accidents are a major cause of death. The maximum life expectancy of a badger is about 14 years.
* The largely nocturnal creatures rest in an extensive system of underground tunnels and nesting chambers, known as setts.
* Badgers are a sociable lot , living in groups of between four and 12 adults.
Trevor Lawson, The Badger Trust: 'The vets in Defra only think in terms of culling'
The Badger Trust organises National Badger Day when members take part in sponsored swims, organise concerts and events to raise money in support of the black and white mammal. The suggestion that this much-loved stalwart of the British countryside is responsible for TB in cattle is regarded with suspicion. The notion that badgers should be subject to mass culls is greeted with outright horror and dismay. The real culprit behind the inexorable rise in affected cattle is, says the Trust's Trevor Lawson, down primarily to farmers and their herds. And when it comes to taking on the agricultural lobby, the Government faces a well-organised opponent that is often resistant to change.
"The danger is that the Government may rely on badger culling not because it works but because it buys the co-operation of farmers in implementing cattle controls. It is in cattle that the major problem lies," he says. Mr Lawson fears that the Government and the farming industry has failed to learn the lessons of the foot-and-mouth epidemic which devastated the British countryside. The first problem is in the continuing number of cattle movements - 14 million a year - which causes the TB virus to spread around the country to previously unaffected areas. This has seen the disease spread from its original West Country hotspot to parts of Wales and the North as the trade continues unabashed. "The other problem is that vets in Defra only think of disease control in terms of culling. But the eradication of TB is not feasible - you cannot cull from coast to coast," he says. One more hopeful solution is in the introduction of blood tests, already commonplace overseas, which are much more accurate. Only one-third of infected cattle is picked up by skin tests. He also believes cattle under 15 months, which make up the vast majority of movements, should be covered by the tests. "The best policy for badgers is to leave well alone and allow them to form stable social groups and to develop natural immunity," he says.
Andrew Goodman, Farmer: 'There will always be a reservoir of disease'
Andrew Goodman is in no doubt over the threat posed by TB in cattle. " Unless something dramatic is done," he said, "there will always be a reservoir of disease, so the culling needs to be carried out in a large enough area to have an impact."
He adds: "In a few years the badgers will come back." For Mr Goodman, who farms 700 acres in Worcestershire, has nothing against badgers. He doesn't want them to have TB - it's a "slow and lingering death" he says. But he does know the agony of TB in his herd.
His nightmare began back in 2001 when he experienced his first TB " breakdown". Since then he has been forced to test his 170-strong dairy herd and 370 beef cattle every 60 days. In that time 70 animals have had to be destroyed.
He has lost his contract with Waitrose for Aberdeen Angus beef, and this year alone he fell 140,000 litres short of his milk quota because of disruption to his herd. "At 18p a litre - you work it out," he said.
Mr Goodman, 40, says his farm, spread over two sites, is "surrounded by badger setts". "They have increased in numbers in recent years ... You only need to speak to the Defra vets - they know what the trouble is. The problem is public opinion. But if you do it in the right way, the badgers will come back."
He concludes: "We have got a farm and we produce milk and food for people to eat. We want to do it in as good a way as possible."