Badger cull heads for further consultation
There will be no culling of badgers in England this year to curb cattle tuberculosis, the government has said.
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said she was "strongly minded" to allow culling, but details of the methodology will be sent out for consultation.
If that does not raise major obstacles, culling can be piloted next spring, with wider implementation in 2013.
Ministers anticipate a legal challenge, but said that "ducking the issue" was not an option.
Opponents said the government's chosen methods could make the problem worse.
The cull proposals form part of a larger package of measures including enhanced testing of cattle herds and more training of farmers on biosecurity.
Bovine TB currently costs the UK budget about £100m per year.
"We are setting out a comprehensive and balanced package of measures to tackle this terrible disease," Ms Spelman told reporters.
"If we don't change what we're doing, [bovine TB] will cost the country a £1bn over the next 10 years."
Following the Welsh Assembly elections earlier this year, the Welsh government is reviewing its culling policy.
In their sights
Previously, the government - backed by its top science officials - had concluded that culling in hotspot areas, where the TB bacterium is carried from farm to farm via badgers, could reduce the local incidence of disease by 16%.
Those figures were derived from the world's biggest scientific study into the issue, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT, also known as the Krebs Trial).
In the RBCT, badgers were trapped in cages and shot.
However, the government - and farmers - are keen to have marksmen shooting badgers as they roam at night, which is much cheaper, under licences issued by Natural England.
The effectiveness of "controlled shooting", as it is now known, has never been tested.
Under the new draft guidelines, marksmen would have to hold a top level deerstalking licence, and would also have to undergo training on the specifics of killing badgers with a single shot, and on potential public safety ramifications.
The government envisages pilot culls going ahead in two areas, providing the consultation throws up no major obstacles.
Earlier reports suggested those areas would be in Devon and Gloucestershire, but Ms Spelman said no decision had been taken.
An independent panel would be responsible for evaluating whether culling was effective and humane - "effective" meaning that more than 70% of badgers in the area could be killed over a six-week period.
Experts would monitor how accurately badgers were being shot, and carcasses would be examined to see whether the animals were likely to be dying swiftly.
The RBCT found that killing some badgers made others scatter - "perturbation", as it is known - carrying the TB bacterium to other farms and increasing disease incidence in herds on the edge of the target zones.
Some experts believe controlled shooting could be even more disruptive; but under government plans, there will be no monitoring of perturbation.
Chris Cheeseman, a badger ecologist who formerly headed the Wildlife Disease Unit, said the risk of perturbation even within the target area was very real.
"Where they get the six-week period from is a mystery to me - somebody's just picked a figure out of the air, it's far too long, you'll get badgers percolating in to fill the space left by the ones killed," he said.
"It's a recipe for perturbation."
In addition, he added, if the pilots are discontinued after one year, the exercise will have created two zones of very high perturbation - and presumably an increase in cattle TB in those areas.
"I do believe this is a science-led policy," said Professor Bob Watson, Ms Spelman's chief scientific adviser.
"The one difference between the trials and what's being proposed is controlled shooting versus trap and shoot, so the only question is whether there's a difference in perturbation.
"We don't know the answer, but there's no reason to believe it would be worse... [but] that's not evidence, it's expert judgement."
Dr Cheeseman responded: "I am puzzled as to how one of the government's chief scientific advisers can say it is a science-led policy."
Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary, highlighted government projections that farmers will spend more on the cull than they will save.
"This decision is driven by political expediency rather than sound science," she said.
The cull areas would have to be at least 150 sq km in size - and the government estimates that a few thousand badgers could be killed during the pilot phase.
If the pilots were judged successful, a maximum of 10 licences could be issued per year for four years.
Groups of farmers and landowners would have to convince Natural England, the licensing authority, that culling was necessary and that they could run it effectively.
To deal with the potential problem that some farmers might get disillusioned and withdraw early - creating perturbation - each group will have to deposit enough money into a bank account in advance to cover the entire cost of a four-year operation.
Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, said the farming community was willing to work within constraints set out by the government.
"Sometimes we have to do what is unpopular because we know it is right," he said.
"Not taking action is no longer an option, and the government has recognised that. As the most recent science shows, badger controls are absolutely necessary, together with cattle controls, to get on top of this devastating disease."
Ms Spelman said the government had consulted several times with police forces who would be responsible for public order and safety.
The locations of the pilots will not be kept secret, as local people have to be consulted before culling can begin.
Last month, a poll for the BBC suggested a majority of Britons in both town and country opposed a badger cull.
Across the country, 63% said badgers should not be killed for cattle TB, with 31% in favour of culling and the remainder undecided.
Government statistics show that the incidence of cattle TB declined slightly between 2009 and 2010, probably due to the escalation of TB testing on farms and restrictions on herd movements.
However, provisional figures indicate that incidence was slightly higher in the first two months of this year than in the corresponding period for 2010.
The European badger (Meles meles) is a protected species under European and UK law but ministers can sanction killing in certain circumstances, including to tackle disease.