Huge numbers of badgers are set to be exterminated in a national cull next year, the Government indicated yesterday.
Tens of thousands of animals face being shot as part of an all-out drive to tackle the country's worst-ever bovine TB epidemic, which last year saw more than 26,000 cattle destroyed.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson gave the strongest indication yet yesterday that the two pilot trials planned for West Somerset and Gloucestershire would only be a prelude to a full-scale, anti-badger offensive.
He told West Country farmers in Tiverton, Devon, that he had received more death threats over the badger culling issues than he had while Northern Ireland Minister.
But he left his audience in no doubt of the Coalition's intention to grasp an issue which was allowed to fester during 13 years of Labour rule.
The pilot culls were to have taken place last autumn but were suspended at the eleventh hour after surveys revealed the presence of twice as many animals as previously thought – proof say farmers, that the badger population is now out of control. But, said Mr Paterson, they are on course to start in June.
"We simply have to prove this method of culling works and we simply have to roll it out across the country the following year," he said.
Mr Paterson rejected a suggestion the badger problem could be resolved by repealing the Badger Act, which afford the animals legal protection and which farmers say has allowed their numbers to grow to an uncontrollable two million plus.
"Quite honestly we have enough problems getting our current proposals through," he said.
"But if we can prove this cull works we shall have a system that is manageable."
Police forces across the country are already voicing misgivings about their ability to provide enough manpower to protect those involved in the culling and to prevent disruption by pro-badger groups.
But, said Mr Paterson: "It is not sensible to let any population become over-preponderant and these animals do die a horrible death. We manage virtually every other species and I do not think any particular one should be exempt."
Mr Paterson said Labour had been guilty of "grotesque incompetence" in allowing TB to rampage out of control without the least effort being made to curb the spread of the disease.
He said he sympathised with livestock and dairy farmers who were being put under even more onerous anti-TB restrictions, many of which emanated from Europe, leaving the Government with no option but to impose them.
"But in any other part of the world where you have a significant cattle industry and you have a problem with TB in wildlife you bear down on both," he said. "It would be lovely to press a button marked "vaccination". But in fact we do not have a vaccination we could use. We have one that is 50 to 60 per cent effective."
Defra has now agreed to a 10-year research programme to develop a vaccine which will be fully tested and effective, and Mr Paterson rejected claims from the pro-badger lobby that the Government was ignoring science in going ahead with culling.
"We are being realistic. If we don't, we are heading for a bill of £1 billion."