The Government was forced to fend off fresh accusations of incompetence yesterday after it delayed the controversial badger cull in England, blaming the Olympics, bad weather and a miscount of the animals for the retreat.
After days of conflicting signals, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, was forced to tell Parliament that the slaughter could not go ahead until next summer.
The change of heart, which was finally agreed after talks chaired by David Cameron, followed a turbulent spell for the Government, culminating in the resignation of Andrew Mitchell as chief whip. It was particularly uncomfortable for Mr Paterson as he is a vociferous advocate of culling badgers to curb the spread of tuberculosis in cattle in the South-West of England and South Wales.
He told MPs the final decision had been taken after receiving a letter from the National Union of Farmers (NFU) recommending a delay.
Downing Street denied suggestions the announcement had been put off to avoid aggravating last week's "omnishambles" headlines over Mr Mitchell and confusion on energy policy.
Mr Paterson said that new, higher estimates of the number of badgers in the pilot cull areas of Gloucestershire and Somerset meant farmers would not be able to kill enough badgers to be effective. He added: "The exceptionally bad weather this summer has put a number of pressures on our farmers and caused significant problems.
"Protracted legal proceedings and the request of the police to delay the start until after the Olympics and Paralympics, have also meant we have moved beyond the optimal time for delivering an effective cull."
Mr Paterson insisted there was no change to the policy and the cull was still the "right thing to do". But Mary Creagh, the shadow Environment Secretary, ridiculed the delay as "another U-turn" and lambasted ministers for their "incompetent and shambolic" handling of the issue.
The NFU requested the delay after Natural England almost doubled its estimate of the number of badgers in cull areas, stretching the resources of farmers who have to pay for and carry out the cull themselves.
To meet the Government's own scientific standards, 70 per cent of badgers in an area must be culled.
One of the largest mobilisations of radical animal rights activists was expected in cull zones.
The core reason for the current failure of the Government's badger cull policy is simple: the insistence that the farmers would have to pay for it themselves. It meant farmers chose a much cheaper, but much less reliable way of killing the animals than that used in the nine-year-long badger cull trial(paid for by the Government) which used cage-trapping and shooting.
Cage-trapping costs £2,500 per hectare. The farmers opted for a method costing one-tenth of that – "free shooting" (relabelled by Defra as "controlled shooting"), where marksmen lie in wait outside badger setts and try to blast the animals as they come out. It is the dangers and the complexities of setting that up that has both focused criticism on the scheme and brought about the delays that led to its postponement.
Gavin Grant of the RSPCA called the delay "good news for badgers, cows, dairy farmers and animal lovers alike". He said: "Hopefully it marks the beginning of the end for these unscientific, foolish and cruel plans."