There is "great confidence" that Somerset's controversial badger cull will eradicate bovine tuberculosis from the area, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has said.
The Government has faced criticism for marksmen failing to shoot the required 70% of the badgers in the "pilot" cull area, even following a three-week extension.
But ministers have argued the killing was safe and humane, and that the 65% rate achieved is a good basis for three more years of culling.
Now Mr Paterson has indicated farmers in the area could be "rid" of bovine tuberculosis (TB), which is causing misery for agriculture across the region.
The Secretary of State told MPs yesterday: "I was in Somerset last week talking to those conducting the cull, and they were doing so with great professionalism, skill and restraint, in the face of some opposition, and they were delighted with the results, were convinced there had been a significant reduction in the number of diseased badgers and were looking with great confidence to that part of Somerset being rid of the disease."
Mr Paterson also reminded MPs that badgers can move around – weeks after suggesting the animals had "moved the goalposts" and made a cull more difficult to implement.
The minister made the remark when challenged by Labour's Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) as to why badgers were being killed on farms which did not have cattle.
Mr Paterson said: "You must understand badgers move around. When they are super excretors and they move on to cattle farms, sadly they are very effective transmitters of this disease. That is why we are addressing this disease not just in cattle but also in the wildlife."
Ms McCarthy had asked: "Recent figures from Natural England show only 60% of the farms in the West Somerset cull zone contained cattle and only 43% of the farms in West Gloucestershire.
"Why is the Government culling badgers on farms without cattle?"
The disease, said to be spread by badgers and cattle, led to the slaughter of 28,000 animals last year – more than 20,000 in the South West – at a cost of £100 million to the taxpayer.
The two "pilot" culls – in Somerset and Gloucestershire – will determine the prospects of expanding to up to 40 culls from next year.
A roll-out could mean culling in neighbouring Devon and even into Cornwall – both considered bovine TB hotspots.
Mr Paterson also hit out at Labour for opposing the cull after he was accused of being a "complete stranger to evidence-based policy, but a master of moving the goalposts".
"I wish we could go back to the bipartisan approach of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when we got this disease beaten," he said, adding: "We got it down to 0.01%."