Farmers are being warned to brace themselves for a public backlash over plans for a badger cull to control bovine tuberculosis in cattle.
Animal welfare activists are expected to step up their campaign against a cull in a bid to head off government proposals to target badgers in designated TB hotspot areas across south-west England and the Midlands.
Industry leaders have spent the past few weeks briefing politicians, journalists and other opinion-formers about the arguments in favour of a cull. But they warn that a backlash against is inevitable.
In a further move to sway public opinion in its favour, the NFU has launched “TB Free England” – a website giving the “facts about TB, badgers and cattle”. It has also bought advertising space on internet search engine Google.
NFU chief farm policy adviser John Royle said: “It is always a difficult job to change public opinion. But we are doing everything we can to get across the message that a badger-control policy to help stamp out bovine TB is the right decision.”
Briefing notes including a Q&A for pro-cull farmers to answer their critics have been sent to NFU branches. Union members are being urged to contact their regional offices to obtain copies of the documents.
The warning comes after questions were raised over the timing of research published this week to show that reactive badger culling – dismissed as a TB control method five years ago – can increase the risk of TB in cattle.
The study, by Imperial College London, looks at the effects of culling badgers only where a TB breakdown has occurred in cattle. But the government’s proposal is to take a proactive approach, killing all badgers in a given area.
The findings were published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters on Wednesday (13 July) – as a self-imposed deadline of 19 July left the government with just days to confirm its plans for a proactive cull.
“We know reactive culling does not work,” said Mr Royle. “The effect was so severe it was stopped before the trial had ended. And that is why the government consultation on badger culling did not consider it.”
But conservationists seized on the study to argue that culling makes TB worse. Badger Trust chairman David Williams said: “It underlines the message from top scientists that badger culling is not the way forward.”