Leading article: Badger-culling: not such a black-and-white issue

Badger-culling is a highly emotive issue, no matter which side of the fence you find yourself. On the one hand are the dairy farmers of England and Wales who see their livelihoods threatened by the rampant spread of TB within their herds. On the other is an apparently innocuous and genial creature whose undoubted popularity owes much to the fictional Mr Badger, the gruff character in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows.

The Government seems poised to allow the culling of badgers in southern England for the very good reason that they are implicated in the spread of the cattle disease. Last year alone, some 25,000 cattle were slaughtered to control TB in England, and the number of TB incidents rose by 7.5 per cent on the previous year – a rise some attribute to badgers.

While there is little doubt that badgers spread TB among cattle, there is every reason to be concerned about the manner of the cull that the Government seems to be on the brink of licensing. Instead of trapping the badgers in cages and shooting them, "free shooting" is what the Government seems to favour, whereby farmers pick off badgers on sight, a culling method that is about 10 times cheaper than trapping the animals in cages.

The problem with free shooting, however, is that it has never been tested as part of the previous badger-culling trials, which were based on cage-trapping. There is also the risk of sending wounded animals back down their setts to die a slow death.

In the absence of an oral vaccine to prevent badgers spreading TB, there does seem to be a case for controlled culling in the worst-affected areas. But what the Government must not shy away from is its commitment to follow the scientific advice it has commissioned. This advice does not extend to the sanctioning of free shooting as the preferred culling method.