The looming pilot cull of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset could face being voted down by MPs next week after opponents were granted the first Commons debate on the issue.
Campaigners have called for the cull, which could start any day this week, to be suspended until after the debate.
A cross party delegation of MPs, supported by campaigners – including Queen guitarist Brian May – opposed to culling hundreds of badgers, won time for the debate in the main Commons chamber next Thursday.
Ministers had approved the cull of up to 100,000 animals in an attempt to curb the growing problem of tuberculosis in cattle. In 2011, 26,000 cattle were slaughtered and bovine TB measures cost taxpayers £90m.
Farmers say the cull is necessary to tackle rising rates of TB in cattle, as the wild animals can spread the disease to livestock, costing the industry and taxpayers millions of pounds a year.
Under the terms of the licences that have been issued for two pilot culls in the West Country, free-roaming badgers will be shot.
But the plan has provoked the largest animal rights protest since fox hunting was banned in the 1990s, and more than 155,000 people have signed a government e-petition. The success of the petition enabled MPs to win parliamentary time for the debate on October 25.
Angela Smith MP, chair of the all-party group on wildlife, said: “I am delighted because public opinion on the proposed cull is clearly against it. It is only right, in the interests of democracy, that Parliament should be able to make a decision.”
“If we win the debate in the Commons, it will be incumbent on the Government to respond. If they ignore parliamentary opinion they will stand accused of arrogance in the face of Parliament, public opinion and science.”
Jeff Hayden, of the Badger Trust, said: “Government policy must reflect the wishes of the people and that is expressed through Parliament. Now the possibility of the cull has become real and near, more people are starting to understand the facts. We are now confident that an even bigger majority of people oppose the Government’s cull.”
The trust’s solicitors have written to Natural England, which issues culling licences, stating: “In light of the Government’s own evidence that starting a cull only to stop it shortly afterwards would make matters worse in terms of spreading the disease, please confirm that Natural England will not set a start date until the debate has taken place.”
Labour MP Alison McGovern led the calls for a fresh debate. Ms McGovern said: “I’m very pleased that Parliament will have the opportunity to fully debate the Government's proposed badger cull.
“Ministers have consistently failed to bring this contentious issue to the floor of the House, despite the huge levels of public interest that all MPs will have seen in their postbags.
“People across Britain, both in rural and urban areas, care deeply about the welfare of dairy herds, but they are also very concerned that the case has not been made to justify a cull of badgers. The scientific justification is far from clear-cut, there are real questions about the efficacy of culling; and also genuine concerns over whether a cull can be conducted safely.
“Ministers will need to provide convincing answers to the public’s concerns in next Thursday’s debate.”
The Lib Dem Agriculture Minister, David Heath, MP for Somerton and Frome, said: “This is such an important issue for both the farming industry and wildlife campaigners that I’m not surprised there’s a lot of demand for a parliamentary debate.
“It’s an opportunity to put right a lot of the misleading information I’ve seen recently from opponents of the cull.”