One Tory MP has warned Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, that "a holocaust of badgers" would be politically impossible because of the outcry it would cause.
Mr Hogg, under fire over the beef crisis, will be holding meetings with Ministry of Agriculture experts and study fresh evidence of the rise in TB before the end of the month. The ministry has been killing badgers in the West Country for more than 20 years in an effort to control tuberculosis in cattle but has come nowhere near eradicating the disease.
Latest unpublished figures show that 316 cattle herds came down with TB last year in West England, with most of those attributed to badgers passing on the disease. There were 133 herd breakdowns in the rest of the country, none attributed to badgers. The rise has been especially marked in Hereford and Worcester, which previously had little of the disease.
Mr Hogg told the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture this week: "I am totally convinced we have a major reservoir of entrenched TB in badgers that is causing many, not all, the problems in cattle."
But Edward Leigh, Tory MP for Gainsborough and Horncastle said: "It is politically impossible for you to order a holocaust of badgers. We will get 1,000 letters a week."
The National Farmers' Union wants Mr Hogg to crack down on badgers but has little confidence he will do so. "With BSE, he needs this like he needs a hole in the head," said council member Hugh Oliver-Bellasis, who wrote the union's latest report on TB and badgers.
He believes the badger population is out of balance because it copes well with modern farming, and urges that those areas with the highest badger population densities should have a 10 per cent cull. "It is a problem which is causing farmers real hardship, not just through TB but the damage to crops they and their digging cause."
The ministry used to gas badgers in their sets, but that practice was phased out. Today they are eliminated by luring them into traps baited with peanuts, then shooting them.
About 1,500 are culled each year - far fewer than are killed on the roads. Some animal rights activists have taken to releasing the trapped badgers from their cages in the night, before the men from the ministry come with their pistols.
Under the current control policy, all badgers found on a cattle farm where there has been a tuberculosis outbreak are trapped and killed - provided the ministry experts believe the badgers are to blame. But many farms are also involved in an trial of another control method. In this, badgers on farms next to one where cattle TB breaks out are also trapped - then given a blood test for TB. The test takes about two hours. If they are free of the disease, they are released, but if they are found to have TB, then every badger in the set they come from is trapped and killed. Work on developing an badger vaccine which can be administered in the wild is continuing.
Mr Hogg told the committee there were difficulties in extending the cull. "I could well see a case for saying before you went down a more rigorous cull policy you wish to take further scientific evidence," he said.
TEN CURIOUS FACTS
1 Badgers live in groups of around 6 adults in underground setts
2 Until this century, it was believed that badgers' left legs were longer than their right, so that they could run along furrows of fields
3 The annual mortality rate is 30 per cent
4 47,000 badgers are killed on the roads each year
5 Prior to the protection of badger setts in 1992, a government report suggested 10,000 setts a year were being dug up
6 Some hand-reared badgers enjoy swimming
7 25 tonnes (50 cars) can be dug out to make one sett
8 1 badger can eat 200 worms in a night
9 Some badgers are ginger
10 In the summer heat, some badgers come out and sun themselves
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