Farmers’ leaders and the Government promised yesterday there will not be an embarrassing U-turn on the West badger cull – despite rumours sweeping Westminster.
They were sparked by new Environment Secretary Owen Paterson cancelling a series of media interviews.
Some journalists immediately assumed it was because of an imminent U-turn on the controversial plan to hold pilot schemes to cull badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire.
There was speculation that the estimated number of badgers in the cull zones was higher than had been thought.
That would increase costs, because at least 70 per cent of the badgers in each one must be slaughtered, and there were reports that National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall felt the cull might now be too expensive.
But an NFU spokesman told the Daily Press last night: “Everything is on track – nothing has changed as far as I am aware, and the policy goes ahead.
“Peter Kendall has not said anything today, he has been in meetings and definitely has not spoken to any journalist.”
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also told the Daily Press there had not been a U-turn, or any change of policy.
A spokeswoman said that culling had not started yet, because the final licences have not yet been awarded, as there are still some loose ends to tie up.
It would be the most humiliating U-turn yet for the coalition Government if the badger cull does not go ahead as planned in the West this autumn.
In the past month, Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister have told the Daily Press that the cull is essential and will happen.
And in his speech to the Conservative conference last week, Mr Paterson was cheered by party members as he defended the policy.
He said: “The main threat to our cattle industry comes from bovine TB – last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle at a cost of nearly £100million. A cost that will rise to £1billion over the next decade if this disease is left unchecked.
“Let’s be clear, bovine TB imposes a shattering financial and emotional cost on our farmers, their families and communities.
“This will only get worse if we continue the cowardly policy of inaction pursued by Labour in government.”
Mr Paterson insisted: “We must, therefore, learn from the experience of other countries. We have to use every tool at our disposal. That’s why we’re trialling a badger cull. We need healthy wildlife living alongside healthy cattle.”
The cull has attracted huge protests, with more than 150,000 signing an epetition against it, and Labour also opposed.
There are now an estimated 4,300 badgers in the West Somerset area, up from earlier calculations of 3,000.
The six-week test culls must be carried out before the end of the year, when the badgers’ breeding season begins in the winter.