A group of professors from leading universities and zoological institutions across the UK have urged the Government to reconsider controversial plans for a badger cull to tackle TB in cattle.
But the plea may fall on deaf ears today, as the pilot culls in West Somerset and Gloucestershire are likely to get under way in a bid to stop badgers transferring TB to cattle.
More than 30 of the UK’s leading animal disease experts, including the president of the Zoological Society of London, Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, and professors from Oxbridge and Imperial College London, have written a letter which argues culling badgers could increase the problem.
The letter states: “As scientists with expertise in managing wildlife and wildlife diseases, we believe the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it.”
It comes as farming leaders line up for a legal battle with the RSPCA over a “hypocritical” warning that a valued quality mark could be removed from food producers who support or allow the badger cull.
The NFU said its lawyers were combing through the details of a document sent by the animal welfare charity to producers around the pilot area in Somerset who belong to its Freedom Food scheme.
The wholly-owned subsidiary of the RSPCA is a benchmark of high welfare standards and in a letter to members says: “Based on the current science, welfare concerns and a realistic assessment of what is practical, a widespread cull of badgers is totally unacceptable to the RSPCA.”
Freedom Food says that it believes it is “unacceptable to use lethal methods of wild animal control as routine practice.
“As such Freedom Food would regard it as unacceptable for any of its members to voluntarily take part in a badger cull for the above reasons. To do so would also bring the scheme into disrepute and be a clear breach of the membership agreement, resulting in suspension.”
NFU Director of Policy Martin Haworth said the organisation took “this threat to its members very seriously” and the letter was being examined by its legal team.
Freedom Food’s move adds to the clouds gathering over the pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire, where threats have been alleged to have been made to farmers by animal rights campaigners. Those campaigners will be buoyed by the comments made by the scientists at the weekend, who added that they believe that culling badgers “is very unlikely to contribute to TB eradication” and they “urge the Government to reconsider its strategy”.
They said: “Unfortunately, the imminent pilot culls are too small and too short term to measure the impacts of licensed culling on cattle TB before a wider roll-out of the approach.
“The necessarily stringent licensing conditions mean that many TB-affected areas of England will remain ineligible for such culling.”
On Friday Somerton and Frome MP David Heath, minister of state for agriculture and food, said the badger cull would be a “contribution towards bearing down on the disease”.