The controversial pilot cull of badgers in the South West could begin as early as this weekend, but officials and organisers are remaining tight-lipped about plans.
The Government has given permission for the six-week test cull in the bovine tuberculosis hotspot area around Tewkesbury in west Gloucestershire. A licence has also been granted in West Somerset, though that is not likely to start yet.
The culls have to be over by the New Year, when the badger breeding season begins.
The cull to tackle bovine TB will be a “contribution towards bearing down on the disease”, said Farms Minister David Heath, Lib Dem MP for Somerton and Frome in Somerset. “Nothing would please me more than to move to a vaccination programme to eradicate this disease,” he said, but acknowledged it was “still a few years away yet”.
He maintained the cull was “nothing to do with any political considerations” and was about dealing effectively with a devastating disease.
He added: “If I wanted to be popular I would not be talking about killing little black and white creatures that everybody loves. This is simply a response to a devastating disease, doing so in the most effective way in terms of the science and the evidence that we have.”
The pilot culls in the two chosen areas would potentially see between 500 and 800 badgers killed, he said.
Mr Heath’s comments came after Lord Krebs, who ran the last badger-cull trial, questioned the scientific support for it. He told the BBC: “People certainly have cherry-picked results to try to get the argument that they want. I’m not very impressed by the current policy.”
Wildlife campaigners and opponents believe culls do not have a significant effect on tackling the disease in livestock.
Responding, Mr Heath said: “The scientific support we have suggests that a cull of the sort that we are proposing would be a contribution towards bearing down on the disease.
“It’s not the answer in itself. There are lots of other things that we have to do. We have to continually improve bio-security, we have to continually make sure that we reduce cattle-to-cattle infection, but as part of a toolbox of things that we can do, this is certainly an effective part.”
Mr Heath said the pilot culls would take place “probably very soon indeed”. He added: “This is an absolutely devastating disease with 26,000 cattle slaughtered last year. The fact is that while nobody wants to see a single badger killed, there isn’t a single country in this world that’s actually borne down effectively on bovine TB without doing something about the reservoir in the wild population.”