CONSERVATIONISTS, farmers and landowners are today digesting a report from Ireland which raises the possibility of yet another emotive clash in the countryside: proof that badgers spread TB to cattle.
Thousands of cattle have to be destroyed every year because of TB - which, if it gets into milk, can also spread into humans. Badgers have long been suspected of being a major spreader of the disease.
In certain TB hotspots areas - mainly in the West Country but also in parts of Cumbria - Government vets have been given permission to gas badgers in their setts after there has been an outbreak of this disease in cattle.
However, a scientific study in Ireland has shown that the best way to halt the spread is by culling the badgers before the disease appears, a prospect which horrifies many members of the general public - and, to be fair, many farmers too.
Reluctantly, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) is calling on the Government to begin a programme of "proactive culling." Says the CLA's national adviser on bovine TB, Sarah Slade:
"The Irish study has proven that by proactively culling we can get on top of this disease, especially in hotspots such as the south west, west midlands and Cumbria.
" There is no longer any reason for the government to delay culling, as the scientific evidence to support it is now available. We urge the government to have the courage to take this approach on its scientific merits and not duck the issue due to concerns of how it could look in the run up to a general election."
CLA leaders in the North were more cautious. Said Douglas Chalmers, Regional Director North: "It is apparent that current Government policy has not effective in dealing with this problem, leading to heavy costs financially and emotionally. They have now been shown a way ahead which seems to work, and should at least be investigated."
However, with a general election looming there is virtually no chance of Defra launching such a widespread cull, which would certainly produce outspoken protests from animal rights campaigners.