A group of professors from leading universities and zoological institutions across the UK have urged the Government to reconsider controversial plans for a badger cull to tackle bovine TB.
More than 30 of the UK's leading animal disease experts, including the president of the Zoological Society of London, Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, and professors from Oxbridge and Imperial College London, have written a letter to the Observer which argues culling badgers could increase the problem of TB in cattle.
The signatories also include Professor Lord Krebs, a world expert in zoology, who originally commissioned research into whether culling badgers will stop the animals spreading cattle disease.
The letter states: "The Government's TB-control policy for England includes licensing farmers to cull badgers. As scientists with expertise in managing wildlife and wildlife diseases, we believe the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it.
"Even if such increases do not materialise, the Government predicts only limited benefits, insufficient to offset the costs for either farmers or taxpayers.
"Unfortunately, the imminent pilot culls are too small and too short term to measure the impacts of licensed culling on cattle TB before a wider roll-out of the approach.
"The necessarily stringent licensing conditions mean that many TB-affected areas of England will remain ineligible for such culling. We are concerned that badger culling risks becoming a costly distraction from nationwide TB control."
The group of scientists say they believe that culling badgers "is very unlikely to contribute to TB eradication" and they "urge the Government to reconsider its strategy".
On Friday David Heath, minister of state for agriculture and food, said the badger cull would be a "contribution towards bearing down on the disease".
Mr Heath said: "The evidence that we have, the scientific support we have, suggests that a cull of the sort that we are proposing would be a contribution towards bearing down on the disease.
"It's not the answer in itself, there are lots of other things that we have to do - we have to continually improve bio-security, we have to continually make sure that we reduce cattle-to-cattle infection - but as part of a tool box of things that we can do, this is certainly an effective part."
Mr Heath said 26,000 cattle were slaughtered last year and the pilot culls in the chosen areas of west Somerset and Gloucestershire would potentially see 500 to 800 badgers killed each year in each of those areas.
He said the culls would "almost certainly" take place before the end of the year and expressed his support for a possible future vaccination programme.
"I am very clear that if we had a vaccination programme which could work in the circumstances which we have, we would take it. But the fact is we only have a badger inoculation at the moment where badgers actually have to be caught, trapped and then released, and that has to be done every year, which I think is not practicable over a wide area," he said.