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MPS TO CONDUCT NEW BADGER CULL INQUIRY

A powerful committee of MPs is to hold a new inquiry into Government plans for a possible cull of badgers to control bovine TB - as the scientific row continues over whether the policy will work.

The cross-party Commons rural affairs committee has announced it will stage a detailed investigation into the controversial plan that could see thousands of badgers across the Westcountry culled in an attempt to halt the crippling spread of TB among the region's cattle herds.

The committee, which has not supported culling in the past, will examine both the rationale for a possible cull and the Government's proposed methods for conducting it, which to the alarm of both farmers and welfare groups, have focused on snaring.

Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw will be called to answer questions next month as will NFU chiefs and scientists running the Government's badger culling trials. The decision to stage a new inquiry comes amid further scientific controversy about the justification for the cull proposals.

Last month the head of the Government's badger culling trials Professor John Bourne told the WMN that the plans were likely to increase the spread of bovine TB. Professor Bourne said that although badgers were "clearly involved" in the spread of the disease the Government would be better off reducing the risk of it spreading between cattle.

Last night it emerged that a panel of independent scientists advising the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the issue also had grave reservations about the proposals.

In a letter to the department, Professor John Shepherd, of Defra's Scientific Advisory Council, said that culling badgers was "unlikely to be an effective control measure" unless the Government also imposed stringent new controls to prevent the spread of disease from cattle to cattle.

Professor Shepherd said the Government's trials suggested the benefits of culling would be "rather small" and questioned whether the policy would be "cost-effective"

In a finding that will worry ministers who are already anxious about the public response to a major cull of one of Britain's best-loved species, he said culling would have to be conducted across vast areas of "at least 300 square kilometres, preferably more". His comments were seized on by animal welfare campaigners who have long complained that a cull would be counter-productive.

Chairman of the Badger Trust David Williams said: "Continuing claims by the National Farmers' Union that badgers are the primary source of bovine TB are clearly unfounded. The NFU has lost the badger culling argument and must now show some political maturity and intelligent leadership in this debate."

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the NFU in the South West, said farmers were already subject to a series of controls designed to slow cattle to cattle transmission of the disease, with more to come next month when a controversial new testing regime is due to be imposed. Mr Johnson said ministers could no longer afford to ignore the spread of the disease by badgers. He added: "Cattle measures on their own will not solve this problem. You can't stop a disease by only looking at one source of infection."