The badger (Meles meles) is a protected species under UK and European laws but the government is expected to announce on Tuesday that it will back a widespread cull of badgers in south-west England.
The coalition has always said it was "minded" to introduce culling in England to help fight bovine TB. Bovine TB costs the UK economy about £100m per year, blighting farmers in areas such as south-west England, with tens of thousands of cattle killed.
The decision has been taken in the face of opposition from critics ranging from Sir David Attenborough to Lord Krebs, the senior scientist who wrote the first report on the badger-TB link in 1997, and who said last week that a badger cull would be a mistake. Campaign organisations remain opposed to a cull and are likely to challenge it in court.
But it will be warmly welcomed by livestock farmers, who have been pressing for a cull with the disease continuing to spread despite the official biocontrol measures of cattle testing, slaughter and movement restriction. More than 25,000 TB-infected cattle had to be slaughtered last year.
There is broad scientific consensus that badgers do form a reservoir of tuberculosis and do spread it to cattle; the argument has been over whether a cull would be effective. A group of experts brought together by Defra agreed that a cull would reduce the incidence of the disease in cattle herds by between 12 and 16 per cent. However Lord Krebs said that a policy which left "85 per cent of the problem still here" did not seem to be an effective way of dealing with the disease.
Sir David Attenborough's Warning...
A cull of badgers could worsen TB in cattle and vaccination is the only long-term solution to the problem, Sir David Attenborough has warned. The naturalist and broadcaster added his voice to the doubts of many scientists and conservationists before the government's expected confirmation on Monday of a proposed controversial cull of badgers to reduce bovine TB in cattle.
"You may think that culling is the answer and it sounds easy to start with but it can very well make things much worse," warned Attenborough. "Survivors will carry the disease into areas that have hitherto been unaffected. There's good scientific research available to show that culling badgers can make things worse and not better."
Sir David Attenborough continued "It's a no-win situation all way round. It sounds very pompous to say I have sympathy with farmers but one clearly does,"... "(T)he poor farmer has to put down animals that he cares for daily. Who am I, a townie, to tell people what to do or even to comment on what they do? All I'm saying is the latest research seems to suggest that [a cull] is likely to make things worse rather than better. Something has to be done. What has to be done is get a proper vaccine to enable us to inoculate badger populations."