The Government was forced to fend off fresh accusations of incompetence today 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 over the subject, 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, came after 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 killing 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 – although Whitehall sources confirmed last night that talks had intensified last week over whether to press ahead.
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.
One of the largest mobilisations of radical animal rights activists was expected in cull zones, where former hunt saboteurs had pledged to disrupt shooting parties, which would have operated at night, in open countryside. Potential clashes of activists and armed marksmen posed major public safety risks, police warned.
The delay was welcomed by animal rights campaigners who called for the plans to be entirely scrapped in favour of a vaccination programme for cattle and badgers.
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 must 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 Whitehall source said: “The worst you can do is a half-arsed job where you don’t kill enough badgers to make any difference. That’s no good to anyone.”
Peter Kendall, the NFU president, said dairy farmers would be “devastated” by the delay, but insisted it was necessary.
“We have always said that this is has to be a science-led policy to reduce disease and we have to be confident of achieving the numbers needed for disease reduction,” he said. “As we rapidly approach winter the odds of achieving that number decrease.”
Jan Rowe, a Gloucestershire dairy farmer and non-executive director of Gloscon, a company set up to administer the cull said that farmers were “hugely disappointed” by the last minute change.
“A phenomenal amount of work had been done and we were all ready to go,” he said. “We had a target number of badgers in mind which we could have dealt with quite comfortably. All along we had reassurance that our numbers were fine and then suddenly Natural England virtually doubled them for the Gloucestershire area.”
Animal welfare groups denounced the planned culls as inhumane and unscientific.
Gavin Grant, the RSPCA’s chief executive, welcomed the delay as “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 to cull badgers.”