Campaigners looking to halt proposed badger culls in the greater South West have been boosted after new research poured cold water on Government claims linking the creatures with the spread of bovine TB.
Research, which comes from the Government’s own scientists, suggests that rather than the badgers spreading the disease, cows could be carrying TB for years without detection, spreading it to other members of their herds.
It has led to calls that plans to slaughter up to 130,000 badgers in an effort to combat bovine TB are “flawed” because the tests used to identify the disease in cattle are seriously inaccurate, according to the Sunday Times.
Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, wants to kill 70 per cent of England’s estimated 190,000 badgers, in the belief that the animals spread TB to cattle. Speaking ahead of her visit to the Devon County Show this week, Ms Spelman said she anticipated pilot culls – in West Somerset and in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire – would not be de-railed by a legal challenge mounted by the Badger Trust last month.
The minister said the “incredible care” taken when preparing to give the culls the go-ahead limited the chances of being pulled up on a “technicality”.
The disease is rife in the South West and the Government estimates it could cost taxpayers £1 billion. If pilots are successful they will be rolled out in West Country hotspots. If they do not start before 2013 there would be a year’s delay to avoid disrupting the badger breeding season.
About 26,000 cows are slaughtered each year after testing positive for TB.
Ms Spelman is already facing a public backlash over the cull as well as legal action by the Badger Trust, which has won approval for a judicial review of her decision.
The warning comes in two reports from the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Northern Ireland, a leading research centre. One, already published, warns the tests used for TB often produce negative results if cattle are co-infected with liver flukes. This is because the flukes secrete hormones that suppress the immune response on which the TB test depends.