Badger culls planned for worst affected areas.
TWO pilot badger culling projects are to be carried out in England next year, Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman has announced.
The culls, likely to be in the South or South West as they have the biggest problems with badger-transmitted bovine TB, will take six weeks.
Mrs Spelman said they would be closely managed and monitored to examine how safe, effective and humane a method it is. She will appoint an independent panel of experts to oversee and evaluate the pilots and report to ministers before deciding where culling should be adopted as a widespread policy.
She said: "Bovine TB is a chronic and insidious disease which is having a devastating impact on farmers and rural communities. Unless further action is taken now it will continue to get worse.
"There is great strength of feeling on this issue and no one wants to see badgers culled. But no country in the world where wildlife carries TB has successfully controlled the disease in cattle without tackling its presence in wildlife as well.
"We already have a robust set of cattle controls in place, and we plan to strengthen them further, but the scientific evidence shows that unless we tackle bovine TB in badgers we will never eradicate it in cattle.
"Ultimately we want to be able to vaccinate both cattle and badgers and plan to invest a further pounds 20m over the next five years on the development of usable badger and cattle vaccines. However these are still years away, and we cannot say with any certainty if, or when, they will be ready."
The Government has already spent pounds 35m on developing badger and cattle vaccines since 1994.
Almost 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England last year alone because of bovine TB. The problem is forecast to cost taxpayers more than pounds 1bn in the next decade.
There are already a raft of measures in place to fight the disease, including routine testing and surveillance of all cattle based on risk, pre-movement testing of cattle from high-risk areas, movement restrictions on suspect herds and the slaughter of all animals that have tested positive for bovine TB. Farming groups yesterday welcomed Mrs Spelman's announcement as a positive step forwards in the fight against the disease.
Hamish McBean, chairman of the Hexham-based National Beef Association (NBA), said: "While it is with regret that some badgers will be removed, populations have exploded in many parts of the UK and it is impossible for the cattle industry to get a grip of TB without looking at the wildlife element too.
"Farmers want to see badgers on their farm and the NBA believes these control measures will ensure those badgers are healthy, which will also ensure a healthy and thriving cattle population too."
The Tenant Farmers' Association (TFA) backed that view.
National chairman Jeremy Walker said: "The Secretary of State has had many competing factors to consider in making her decision, not least those raised by groups with legitimate concerns about the animal welfare considerations involved. It is a sad fact that TB is now endemic both in cattle and badgers over a large part of England and Wales.
"Control measures to date have focused solely on cattle and it is right that such measures should now be extended to the badger population.
"The TFA wants to reach a situation where we have healthy cattle and healthy badgers coexisting. "
TRIAL SCHEME Experts will oversea the culls in pilot areas before deciding on a more widespread policy