Controversial culling of badgers as part of efforts to tackle TB in cattle goes ahead from this weekend, in the face of protests from animal welfare campaigners.
Some 5,000 badgers are set to be killed in two pilot culls in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset, with policing costs expected to reach £4 million to cope with potential disruption from activists.
The pilot culls aim to ensure free-running badgers can be killed humanely, with marksmen observed by independent experts to check they are killing the protected animal swiftly, and post-mortem examinations carried out to assess speed of death.
Brian May is due to lead protests against the cull
The pilots will also assess whether sufficient badgers can be killed in an area to have an effect in reducing TB in cattle, following a long-term study which found that culling 70% of badgers in an area could reduce the disease in herds by 16%.
If successful, the Government plans to roll out culling more widely in hotspots for the disease, which can be transmitted from badgers to livestock and between cattle. The costs of the cull will be borne by farmers.
But experts, including scientists behind the long-term trial, have raised concerns that the policy will have "unimpressive" results in reducing TB and suggested that it does not make economic sense.
And protesters, led by rock star Brian May, have pledged to do everything possible to stop the cull, which they claim is not justified by the science and is inhumane, with badgers potentially suffering before death or dying from infection or starvation if they are non-fatally wounded.
Opponents of the cull also point to evidence that badgers move around when culling disturbs their social structures, spreading TB and increasing infection around the edges of cull area. They want a focus on vaccines against TB instead.
Campaigners say thousands of people wearing badger masks will join May and TV presenter and naturalist Bill Oddie on the streets of London tomorrow to protest against the cull and deliver a petition against the policy signed by 228,000 people to Downing Street.
The Government said the cull is necessary as part of efforts to stop spiralling numbers of outbreaks of TB in dairy and beef herds, which saw 28,000 cattle slaughtered in England last year. Without action, infection and costs would continue to soar, oficials said.
Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser for the Environment Department (Defra), said the UK has lost control of the disease since the early 1980s, in the face of a number of factors including an increase in badger numbers.
But figures also show that a major spike in TB cases in cattle occurred in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, when regular testing for TB was suspended and farmers restocked thousands of slaughtered livestock from other parts of the UK.
Prof Boyd said the UK was under pressure from Europe to get the disease under control, and that there were benefits - for example, for the live export market - to effectively tackling TB.
Campaigners say there is no strong evidence to show a badger cull would be beneficial
The UK is working on vaccines, with £50 million already spent or earmarked for research.
But officials say it could be 10 years before a cattle vaccine is available for use without EU trade restrictions.
It will also take time to develop an oral vaccine for badgers, which would be easier to administer than the current injectable vaccine that is being used as an alternative to culling in Wales and by several organisations in England.
Farming Minister David Heath said: "Nobody wants to kill badgers but the scientific evidence and experience of countries tells us that we will not get on top of Bovine TB without addressing infection in wildlife as well as cattle.
"A badger vaccine has practical difficulties and there is not yet any evidence on its effectiveness.
"If a cattle vaccine was available now, we would use it, but we know that it is around 10 years away and we cannot wait while this disease spreads across the country."
But shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said: "Incompetent Defra ministers are pressing ahead with a badger cull despite scientists warning against this untested and risky approach.
"The policing costs, paid by the taxpayer, will balloon to £4 million while bovine TB will increase in the next two years as the shooting displaces badgers. We need a science-led policy to manage cattle movements better and a vaccine to tackle TB in cattle."
Philip Mansbridge, chief executive of animal charity Care for the Wild, said: "The badger cull has no scientific, economic or animal welfare justification.
"The Government and the NFU are blindly embarking on one of the worst agricultural policies of the past 30 years, which will lead to senseless slaughter, chaos and disruption in the countryside, huge cost to the taxpayer and no meaningful reduction in the spread of bovine TB.
"It will drive a wedge between the public and the farming community and destroy the hard-earned reputation of farmers as guardians and stewards of the countryside."
A poll released today reveals that the public is divided on the issue of culling, with around a third (34%) opposing the policy, and almost as many (29%) backing it. The remainder of those questioned did not know or had no strong views on a cull.