Farmers' court threat over badger culling

Farmers last night threatened legal action if the Government decides not to allow a cull of badgers to tackle tuberculosis in cattle.

The president of the National Farmers Union, Peter Kendall, said reports that Environment Secretary Hilary Benn was not going to authorise a cull would be "nothing short of a disaster" if true.

Mr Kendall said a failure to cull badgers, which can infect cattle with tuberculosis (TB), would have a devastating impact on farmers and rural communities in areas ravaged by the disease.

But suggestions that a cull of the protected species would not be given the go-ahead were welcomed by conservation groups, who said the reported decision was based on sound science.

Amid spiralling rates of infection and 28,000 cattle slaughtered last year, the Government has been under pressure to give the go-ahead for a cull in badgers, which act as a "reservoir" transmitting the disease.

At the Royal Show in Warwickshire yesterday, Mr Benn refused to comment ahead of his announcement expected on Monday.

But he acknowledged the scale of the problem and the strength of feeling and "depth of despair" felt by those most affected.

Mr Benn said: "Bovine TB is and remains a big problem and in the end we can only deal with it by working together. I want to find an effective way of dealing with it. I take this responsibility very seriously," he said.

The Tories accused the Government of failing to bring the disease, which has cost the taxpayer some 500m in the last decade, under control.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Jim Paice said: "After years of dithering, tens of thousands of animals lost and countless farm businesses driven to the wall, there is still no prospect of the Government bringing this terrible disease under control."

NFU chief Mr Kendall said: "Last year saw 28,000 cattle culled with TB, and already in the first quarter of 2008 another 13,500 cattle have been lost.

"A negative decision on badger culling would condemn not only tens of thousands more cattle to death, also thousands of badgers in areas currently free of TB.

"It would be nothing short of a disaster."

Mr Kendall said the NFU would seek immediate legal advice on any decision that went against them, while talks with the Government on the sharing of costs for animal diseases would become "untenable".

Industry commentator and farmer Ian Potter, from Ashbourne in Derbyshire, warned of demonstrations and the possibility of farmers taking the law into their own hands to deal with badgers.

Mr Potter, a livestock farmer who has lost 150 cattle to TB over the last eight years, said that as far as farmers were concerned the only effective way to deal with TB was a cull.

But conservation groups such as the Badger Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB welcomed suggestions there would be no slaughter.

A 10-year study by the Independent Scientific Group on Bovine TB concluded last year that a cull of badgers could not "meaningfully contribute" to controlling the disease.

The RSPCA called on the Government, farmers and animal welfare groups to work together to build a long-term strategy to tackle bovine TB.

Back to the top of the page