The government is refusing to comment on suggestions that its plans for a badger cull to combat bovine tuberculosis will be limited to two pilot areas.
DEFRA is said to be keen to test whether allowing farmers to shoot free-running badgers is an effective way to curb the disease.
If so, it would mean farmers outside pilot areas face a further wait while so-called “free-shooting” is tested before a badger cull is rolled out more widely.
Ministers are close to sanctioning two free-shooting pilot areas in TB hotspot areas of Devon and Gloucestershire, an industry source told Farmers Weekly. After lengthy delays, DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman is expected to outline the government’s bovine TB control strategy on Tuesday (19 July). But details of the long-awaited announcement are still not finalised and could yet be subject to last-minute changes, said the industry insider.
A DEFRA spokesman declined to say what Mrs Spelman’s announcement would contain – or whether any cull would initially be limited to pilot areas.
Farm leaders and conservationists are divided over the effectiveness of free-shooting as a method of culling badgers to combat bovine TB in cattle.
The NFU believes the shooting of free-ranging badgers, combined with cage-trapping and shooting, is the most efficient, humane and cost-effective culling method.
Doing so will significantly reduce the transmission of disease to cattle, the NFU claimed in its response to a government consultation last autumn.
“We believe that free shooting is an option that offers farmers the ability to reduce the numbers of badgers in the manner that is required for control,” it said.
But the Badger Trust said a cull would be a massively irresponsible gamble that could backfire on farmers and prove hugely unpopular with the public.
“The impact and efficacy of shooting free-running badgers – many of which will inevitably be wounded – is based not on hard proof but on supposition,” it said.
The prospect of badgers fleeing from a cull area could actually make the situation worse by spreading the disease, the trust warned.
Chairman David Williams said: “A decision to cull would be subjecting a protected native species to a sustained shoot-to-kill slaughter likely to leave many wounded. It would be a massive unscientific gamble.”
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