Dairy farmers in the west Midlands fear for their livelihoods as tuberculosis spreads through their herds `like ripples on a pond'. Badgers carry the disease and are blamed by farmers for the losses. But, as Stephen Goodwin reports, conservationists and animal rights groups continue to argue that killing badgers is not the answer.

Ed Barker calls the 50-foot stretch of paw-trampled mounds and tunnel entrances "Badger City". The great sett lies beneath a strip of old hawthorns and hollies on the course of an ancient trackway. Ordinarily it wouldn't be a problem. Mr Barker counts himself as a friend of nature and used to take pleasure in the sight of a badger trundling along the hedge bottom.

But farmers have always been edgy about city folk and at Shawcroft Farm on the Staffordshire edge of the Peak District, Mr Barker has certainly lost his affection for the inhabitants of Badger City.

Last July, 20 of his cows tested positive for bovine TB and had to be slaughtered. The official clampdown that inevitably followed has cost him all this year's profit - about pounds 30,000. Mr Barker is odd-jobbing on building sites to make ends meet. Meanwhile the badgers that he blames for the whole sorry mess are prospering, spreading from "the city" to overspill setts under the protection of a government moratorium on culling infected badgers.

"Twenty years or so ago I decided to leave the area around the main sett alone for conservation," the tenant farmer explained. "I suppose it's one of those things that have come back to haunt me." He had wanted to increase his herd to 120 cows and had hired a dairyman to cope with the extra work. But movement restrictions imposed on farms hit by TB mean he cannot even replace the slaughtered cows.

Ground-nesting birds have also suffered in the explosion of badger numbers, according to Mr Barker. He believes there could be up to 50 badgers in the main sett alone. "I now have no lapwings, curlews or wild pheasants because there are so many badgers searching for food and taking all the eggs in the spring."

Until this year, bovine TB was largely confined to the south-west of England. Hundreds of farms have been affected. But though the link between the disease in badgers and cows is generally accepted, scientists remain uncertain about the means of transmission and limited culling by Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) teams has failed to contain its spread. Farmers believe cows catch TB by eating grass where a badger has urinated.

With the disease creeping north, authority was granted to kill badgers in the newly hit areas. But on 20 May, before any badgers had been killed, the Government honoured an election promise to animal lovers and imposed a moratorium on new culls. Maff trapping teams were driving to Mr Barker's farm as the announcement was made and had to be called off by mobile phone.

At the time, just six herds had tested TB positive in Staffordshire, Shropshire, Derbyshire and Cheshire. Today the figure is 49 blighted herds and rising, with Staffordshire the hardest hit. "It isn't just us the politicians are playing silly buggers with, it's the badgers as well," said one farmer. Because TB had been allowed to spread, ultimately more badgers would have to be killed, he argued.

Farmers and conservationists anxiously await the outcome of an independent scientific review on TB in cattle and badgers ordered a year ago by the Tory government. Professor John Krebs has handed his report to the Agriculture Minister, Jack Cunningham, but its publication has been delayed. "Before Christmas", is Maff's latest forecast. There is a suspicion the review made uncomfortable reading for ministers whose stock has already fallen with the animal welfare lobby over foxhunting.

The National Farmers' Union wants an end to moratorium in the west Midlands. A survey by the People's Trust of Endangered Species showed an 86 per cent increase in the badger population in the region over the past 10 years. In culls, badgers are cage-trapped, then shot. However sow badgers with cubs must be released and the cull is confined to the TB-infected farm, even though the sett may be on a neighbour's land. Both limitations should be lifted, says the NFU.

Conservationists counter that since 20 years of culling badgers - some 25,000 have been killed in the South-west - has failed to eradicate TB there is no justification for continuing with the tactic. Dr Elaine King of the National Federation of Badger Groups said the NFU's call was irresponsible. "It is also disgraceful to blame badgers for preying on ground nesting birds when it is well known recent farming practices have caused the decline of many species."

Dr Simon Lyster, director general of the Wildlife Trusts, said the present situation was "unsatisfactory" for both farmers and badgers and a concerted effort was needed to find a solution. It might lie in changes to animal husbandry since the disease appeared to pass to some herds but not others, he suggested.

"What we don't want to see happen is just for the sake of political expediency ministers say `let's go and kill a few more badgers'," Dr Lyster said. "That is what has happened in the past and it just doesn't work."