SAVAGE OR NECESSARY? Emotions Arerunning Highover Plans Tocull Badgers A Plan to Cull Badgers Has Sparked a Fierce Debate among Farmers, Wildlife Groups and Scientists. but Are Raw Emotions Clouding the Argument? MARY GRIFFIN Asks Whether the Cull Will Work

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THE badger is a much-loved creature and a symbol of the Great British countryside.

Its rural homeland and nocturnal nature keeps it shrouded in secrecy from the general public and - just as the black and white panda is the face of the World Wildlife Fund - the iconic British badger is the emblem of the UK's Wildlife Trusts.

But the creature is driving farmers to despair as bovine TB, passed from cattle-to-cattle and badgers-tocattle, is causing tens of thousands of cows to be slaughtered every year.

Queen guitarist Brian launched an online which has drawn than 160,000 To tackle the problem, the government has agreed to badger culls in two test areas, allowing the animals to be caught in cages or openly shot.

Farmers whose lives and livelihoods revolve around the animals being killed by this disease, have labelled the cull a necessary last resort, but some scientists and wildlife organisations are casting doubt on whether the measure will have any positive impact - fearing it could even make matters worse.

The concerns are based on what population experts call "the perturbation effect".

Badgers tend to live in separate social groups of up to seven animals within defined territorial boundaries.

But wildlife organisations fear culling will disrupt these social groups, causing surviving badgers to range more widely than normal in search of others, and increasing the risk of transmission among the badger population.

However, supporters of the cull claim the two pilot sites - one in Gloucestershire and the other in Somerset - have been carefully selected.

Jeremy Lowe, NFU policy advisor based at Warwickshire's Stoneleigh Park, says: "The way the pilots have been set up has been deliberately to reduce those effects.

"The areas chosen have hard boundaries - motorways, dual carriageways, A-roads and rivers - which will reduce that risk."

Last year alone 34,000 cows across the UK were slaughtered as a result of bovine TB.

And some farmers say they are feeling a knock-on effect of the Protection of Badgers Act, implemented 20 years ago, which prevents the killing of badgers, with nearly six times as many cows being slaughtered now as when the act was first introduced.

Jeremy says: "The figures have gone up from about 6,000 cattle 20 years ago to 34,000 today.

"And the numbers of cattle in the country, if anything, have reduced during that time because cattle have become more productive." Jeremy has seen the effects of bovine TB first hand.

He says: "It has a massive impact on both dairy and beef farmers.

"When they have a TB breakout, they are immediately put under restrictions which limits their ability to trade.

"Although they are compensated for the animals that are slaughtered, the compensation rarely matches the value of those animals."

He adds: "Aside from the financial aspect, there's also a huge emotional burden and farmers can become very distressed.

"It's strange because obviously farmers sell their animals to go to the abattoir for slaughter but in terms of keeping animals alive, when that animal is in their care, the vast majority of farmers will do everything they can to look after the welfare of those animals and keep them safe and well.

"They could have been up at 3am calving a cow and then they'll have fed that calf and reared it to come into their dairy herd, thinking it would be part of the herd for the next five, six, seven years or longer."

A 2003 report by the Farm Crisis Network found the issue of bovine TB was taking a significant toll on farmers.

It found that "TB causes considerable stress on farmers and their families", with 20 per cent admitting they were panicked or devastated by the news of their latest outbreak and a further 50 per cent saying they were upset or worried by the news. …