UK public opposed to badger cull, opinion poll suggests
A majority of Britons in both town and country oppose killing badgers to curb cattle tuberculosis, an opinion poll for the BBC suggests.
Across the UK, about two-thirds oppose the measure, with majorities against culling in every age group, every region and across both genders.
The coalition has pledged to introduce culling in England, but recently admitted it may not happen.
And separate plans in Wales are on hold following the recent election.
Badgers can carry the bacterium that causes TB and transmit the disease to cattle herds.
The poll, commissioned by the BBC News website from pollsters GfK NOP, is believed to be the first time that the UK public has been asked a simple "yes or no" on the issue.
It involved about a thousand adults representative of the UK population, polled by phone.
Across the country, 63% said badgers should not be killed for cattle TB, with 31% in favour of culling and the remainder undecided.
The proportion opposed was virtually identical in urban and rural areas.
Jack Reedy of the Badger Trust, which is leading opposition to a cull, described the result as "heartening".
But, he suggested, decisions should ultimately be made on the basis of science.
"This is an opinion expressed by a lot of people, so that's valuable," he told BBC News.
"However, we have to attend to the science, and that should not be a political argument - although a political argument has been imposed.
"If [politicians] do pay more attention, prompted by this poll result, I hope it will lead to a more balanced, sensible outcome that's fair on badgers, fair on farmers and fair on the general public as well."
But Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said bovine TB was "out of control" in some areas and had to be stopped.
"In 1998 almost 6,000 cattle were slaughtered to control the disease, and in the UK in 2010, 32,737 animals were slaughtered," he said.
"For farmers, the government's commitment to look at introducing a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control, as part of a package of measures, in areas where there is high and persistent levels of bovine TB, is the only light at the end of a very dark tunnel."
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.
Town and country
The participants in the BBC/GfK NOP poll were asked whether they lived in a rural, urban or mixed setting.
In urban areas, 57% said they opposed the cull, with 33% in favour and the remainder undecided; in rural areas, the majority was 59% to 37%.
Those living in a mixed urban/rural setting showed the strongest opposition, with 68% against killing badgers and just 26% in favour.
Bovine TB costs the UK economy about £100m per year, and has blighted farmers in areas such as southwest England.
But here, as in every other UK region, a majority of people in the BBC poll opposed culling.
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.
Last year, Agriculture Minister Jim Paice announced government proposals that would allow farmers in England to organise shooting of badgers on their lands.
Applicants would have to satisfy a number of conditions, including:
- the area must total at least 150 sq km
- there must be "high and persistent" levels of TB in cattle
- the group can show it can access at least 70% of the land in the area
- the group must commit to culling at least once per year for four years
Licensees would be allowed to trap the animals in cages and shoot them, or just shoot them as they roam - so-called "free shooting".
The previous Welsh Assembly Government proposed a different system for South Pembrokeshire, with contractors employed by the government to trap and shoot the animals.
Following May's election, the Welsh government is reviewing these plans and is likely to announce a new policy soon.
Mr Paice, meanwhile, has recently said badger culling in England may not be possible because the government may not be able to build a scientific case that could survive a legal challenge.
A particular concern is thought to be that the efficacy of free shooting has never been tested in a scientific study.
A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News that the "devastating" disease of bovine TB needed tackling.
"However, there are a range of factors we need to consider in making a decision on badger control, including public opinion, scientific evidence, animal health and the impact on farming communities," he said.
GfK NOP interviewed a sample of 999 people aged 16+ across the UK.
The fieldwork was by telephone, and carried out 3-5 June 2011.
The survey was designed to be representative of the telephone owning population of the UK. Weighting was applied to the data to bring it into line with national profiles.