Beef cattle in a field©John Eveson/FLPA/Rex

The Labour Party’s election pledge to stop the badger cull halfway through the pilots risks worsening the spread of bovine TB, the NFU has warned.

Shadow Defra secretary Maria Eagle announced on Wednesday (18 February) that Labour had committed to abandoning the “ineffective and inhumane” culls if the party wins power in the general election in May.

See also: Labour vows to abandon badger cull

Responding to Ms Eagle’s comments, NFU president Meurig Raymond accused Labour of using the badger cull as a “political football”.

He said attempts to eradicate the disease had to be put beyond political point scoring and populist policies “designed to win votes”.

“Whoever is in government will be required to deal with bovine TB and will need to have a robust, credible eradication strategy to do so,” added Mr Raymond.

Mr Raymond said the pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire must be allowed to run for four years to allow the maximum disease control benefits to be achieved.

And he warned that stopping the pilot badger culls midway through risked making the TB situation worse in these areas.

“To stop the culls halfway through goes against the evidence from previous research which showed that culling over four years had a positive impact on reducing TB in cattle,” said Mr Raymond.

“The culls were designed to run for four years and anecdotal evidence from both cull areas suggests they are already helping to reduce bovine TB incidence in cattle and farms are starting to go clear of the disease.”

According to the NFU, information compiled by farmers in the Somerset cull zone has indicated a reduction in the number of herds under TB restriction since culling started in 2013, from 34% to 11%.

Meanwhile, initial data compiled by farmers in the Gloucestershire cull area suggests there has been a reduction in TB in cattle since culling began.

Information from a number of farms where whole herd bovine TB tests were carried out by two veterinary practices in early to mid-2013 and again in late 2014/early 2015 has shown a fivefold reduction in the number of TB reactors, from 28 to five, the NFU said.

The sample represents more than 4,000 cattle from a total of approximately 15,000 in the Gloucestershire cull area.

Mr Raymond said Labour’s pledge to protect animals should include all animals, including the tens of thousands of cows that are compulsorily slaughtered every year in England because of TB.

He urged Labour to support the government’s TB strategy, which includes cattle controls, vaccination of badgers around endemic areas to stop further spread of the disease, and culling badgers in areas where the disease is rife.”

Meanwhile, the Conservatives accused the previous Labour government of “doing nothing” to tackle bovine TB.

A Tory party spokesman said: “Between 1997 and 2010, TB increased ninefold leaving us with the highest incidence of the disease in Europe.

“Labour have clearly learnt nothing from their time in office and are proposing to abandon our responsible approach to making England TB-free.

“We are committed to pursuing a comprehensive strategy, which includes cattle movement controls, vaccination in the Edge Area and culling badgers in the areas where the disease is rife. 

“We will do whatever it takes to tackle this disease and the threat it poses to the future of our beef and dairy industries.”