LONG-AWAITED government plans for a badger cull to combat bovine tuberculosis are the best farmers battling against the disease could have expected.

A statutory nine-week consultation is now all that stands between livestock producers and a badger cull expected to start next summer in two undisclosed pilot areas of south-west England.

The pilot cull will test whether shooting is an effective, humane and safe of killing badgers, said DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman. If successful, the cull will be rolled out more widely across other TB hotspot areas.

The announcement – made to MPs in the House of Commons on Tuesday (19 July) – ends a 15-year wait that has seen hundreds of thousands of cattle slaughtered at a cost of £500m to the taxpayer in the past decade alone.

First though, the consultation. It is necessary because the decision to allow the shooting of badgers represents a change to the government’s TB control policy originally proposed last autumn.

Careful to avoid pre-empting the consultation, Mrs Spelman stopped short of saying a cull would definitely happen. But by declaring she is “strongly minded” to allow culling, she gave the clearest indication yet that it will.

Arguments over the scientific rights and wrongs of culling will continue. Opponents claim that the controlled shooting of badgers can actually spread bovine TB as social groups of the animals flee from culling zones.

Mrs Spelman disagrees. She is supported by Defra’s chief scientist Bob Watson, whose “expert opinion” is that perturbation can be avoided by choosing culling areas with hard boundaries –  such as motorways, rivers and coastlines.

Conservationists may yet launch a legal challenge against the cull. But the government believes this final consultation will show that all bases have been covered and a cull can now go ahead.

It is a belt and braces approach backed by farm leaders. The closed season means culling couldn not have taken place until next year anyway. And given how long farmers have waited already, a few more months will make little difference.

An edited version of this article appeared in Farmers Weekly on 22 July 2011.